The Illusion of Kowledge

One of my all time heroes, Steven Hawking, once said, “The enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” I’ve always found that statement to be both profound and fascinating. It makes perfect sense, though. Ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge. That absence can easily be filled with information, through research, study, experience, application or a host of other means. Now, not all information is sound. Just because one study came to a particular conclusion, doesn’t mean that conclusion is necessarily true. There are many factors that affect the information we take in, so we must be vigilant about screening the sources and understanding the value of the information we take in.

If a person is not so vigilant concerning his/her sources of information, s/he can fall victim to illusory knowledge. Being confident in the truth of false information can be catastrophic. This is often how studies get tainted in the first place. When the person conducting the study is already convinced of the outcome, s/he will unconsciously do things to ensure that result, thus tainting the entire study. It’s not a matter of ethics, it’s a matter of human nature. People see what they want to see. When they have a preexisting idea of what the results of their study or experiment will be, it is human nature to push the results in that direction.

Illusory knowledge can affect people on a more personal level. Knowledge passed down from generation to generation is often thought to be ancient wisdom. In some cases this is not true. For many years it was passed down in my family, and probably many others, that hydrogen peroxide is an antiseptic that kills germs. I was told as a child that the “fizzing” that occurs when the peroxide is applied to a cut is the solution “eating away” at the germs and bacteria. As an adult I’ve found that to be untrue. The hydrogen peroxide chemically reacts with human blood, destroying it. Applying the peroxide to cuts does nothing to kill germs, but it does kill blood cells. (Interesting to know if you ever need to get a blood stain out of something. Working in a kitchen for several years, this knowledge came in handy for me.)

How can illusory knowledge affect people in other ways? Well, the myth about hydrogen peroxide was passed down through generations of my family. If people are convinced of the accuracy of their false truths, they pass that false information down to their children. Once the children are convinced of its accuracy, they too, will pass it on. It’s a whirlwind of false truth and inaccuracy being passed on from generation to generation.

Why should we care if someone else is convinced of a lie? Whether we like it or not, humans are pack animals. We are part of a larger community in which these people who are convinced of lies have powerful positions–positions that often times affect our lives. My life, the lives of my children, my grandchildren and all of the people I love mean a lot to me. To think that our futures are in the hands of people who are delusional, who are convinced of lies, is frightening, at best. In my opinion, everyone should be concerned about putting their lives in the hands of people who pledge their lives and allegiance to  an imaginary friend with absolutely no evidence that such a being even exists.


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