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Illusion Series: Illusions of Knowing The World

by Don Berg
(Port Townsend, WA, USA)

In this second part of the series I bring you a TED Talk by Jonathan Drori in which he shows how some of our very basic ideas about how the world works are actually wrong. We all develop, or may even be born with, what has been called "folk theories" of how the world works. We have, or would create if asked but hadn't thought about it before, folk versions of any field of inquiry. The reason we need science is because our lives and society have become so complex that our folk theories are not adequate to the task of effectively managing our current realities.

URL: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jonathan_drori_on_what_we_think_we_know.html

A recent example of how inadequate one theory was to manage our complex reality was brought up by Harvard Professor Jon Hanson in his Chair Lecture on Situationism. In the lecture he plays a video of Alan Greenspan admitting before a congressional investigation into the economic crisis of 2008 that his concepts about the economy failed to anticipate its actual behavior. Hanson points out that the folk theory of dispositionism, that every person has a certain disposition and will act consistently (rationally) according to that disposition, which is often at the heart of many many economic theories has been soundly contradicted by many years of research results. The alternative is situationism and Professor Hanson is one of the founders of the Situationist Blog as a way of publicly exploring those scientific results and their implications for society. (Hanson geared his lecture to be accessible to his kids and the non-academics who were in the audience, so it is a pretty good introduction to situationism. The video is of poor quality and the intro is very long, but the main content is good.)

Another fairly accessible resource that talks about how our familiar ideas about how people behave are contradicted by research results and should lead to different ways of organizing society is a book called Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. One of the examples Thaler and Sunstein use is how the physical layout of school cafeteria food choices has surprisingly significant effects on the choices that students will make. Given traditional ideas about economic psychology (the rational actor model) the very idea that a seemingly trivial factor such as the layout of the choices could change people's behavior is not only bizarre, but problematic. The whole book is an attempt to face the problem along with it's moral and practical implications.

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