Curse of Knowledge

Regarding my previous post on the lack of accessibility of critical thinking information, even Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has this problem. Despite being hailed as supremely understandable for general audiences (both the book and the series), I found that it also posed too many challenges in its basic linguistic accessibility to be useful in my classes.

Before you point out that I gave up without actually trying it out in my class, I do have evidence that my assessment of its accessibility was proven right. After I decided not to use Cosmos in my teaching, another teacher at my school did actually use several “easy” passages from the book. Students were utterly confused by it. Some even bought copies in their native language, and despite reading it together with some of the highest-level students in their grade, they were unable to understand it.

You might be thinking that I am projecting my own students’ ability on others and you are right to some extent. But, I must point out that there’s a reason why atheists and skeptics tend to be better educated than average. Most of the arguments for critical thinking are exclusively presented at an advanced level. There’s a cognitive bias called “curse of knowledge” in which we assume that others have the same background knowledge we do. Assuming that Sagan is going to be suitable for general audiences is falling into this bias. To many, he’s just not. He is certainly accessible in terms of not needing a background in astrophysics to understand, but there is still a prerequisite of prior knowledge.

When skeptics and atheists ignore this, they are missing a huge audience. It’s the echo chamber that many in the movements talk about. We spend a lot of time interacting with people and data that are on our level, it is easy to forget that the majority are elsewhere. Most people don’t have the basic background knowledge that skeptics take for granted, and it can take years to build up.

The language issue is even larger. Though the skeptical movement is not exclusive to English, it seems to be predominantly in English. Even international skeptics groups often use English sources. (Not to mention English’s vast over-representation in scientific publications.)

There is estimated to be over a billion non-native English speakers in the world. By presenting things in the way that we do, we fall to the curse of knowledge bias and create barriers of inaccessibility to literally hundreds of millions of people who might otherwise benefit from a more skeptical mindset. By keeping the dialogue at a high intellectual level, we might actually be shooting ourselves in the foot.

However, I must address a counterargument to my position, the issue of oversimplification. In making things accessible, simplification must occur. This presents a problem with truly complex topics (which, as it turn out, almost every topic is). To be understandable, ideas need to be explained in more basic terms but in doing so, there is a risk that they could be simplified to the point of being incorrect. Which case is worse: A person misunderstands something because it was too complicated, or a person misunderstands something because it was oversimplified?

To some extent, we need oversimplification anyway. Everyone can’t know everything about every topic. But, topics can’t actually be simplified without losing their nuance. By definition, that’s what simplification does. There’s a huge problem in the skeptic movement with a lack of understanding about nuance. But a big part of this problem relates to the fundamental problem about certain information being too difficult for most people to understand.

I hear skeptics say “we need better education in critical thinking” all the time. When I try to do that for my students, I find myself on an island, surrounded by water that I can’t drink. I wind up needing to either re-create all the materials that are out there to be basically understandable, or create them from scratch. We need to rethink the concept of general audiences and start prioritizing them in our work.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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