The illusion of knowledge

I was writing a simple app to present a surf forecast for my local spot some time ago. I started by showing the swell size, wind speed and direction, and everything I could find in MSW API that makes sense to me in predicting if the surf is good or not. Then, after looking through all the basics, it came to the tides. Simple enough, I thought, there must be some equation that takes time, latitude and longitude and spits out the current tide for a given location. The gravitation forces of the moon cause tides, and this is predictable. I was stunned when it came out that there is no simple way to calculate the tide, and we created the tide tables based on the observation in the particular spot rather than a simple calculation of the moon position. Something that I was sure is straightforward, and I would talk about with confidence if asked, out of a sudden, became very blurry. It turned out the tide depends on plenty of different conditions, including the moon, sun, big objects on the earth's surface such as mountains, the weather and many more. It is almost impossible to predict the tide in particular locations without actually measuring it over a while.

One day, staying in the tide analogy while surfing during high tide, I saw the moon on the horizon on the opposite side of the ocean. Again, before that, I was sure the moon pulls the water, so it would be low tide when it is on the side of the ocean and low when on the other side. Wrong again, we have four tides a high is when the moon is in line with the earth 0 and 180 degrees and a low when it is 90 and 270 degrees. That was somewhat mindblowing to me and made me think how often I take some knowledge for granted and, without even examining it, spread pseudoscience as it was the one ultimate truth.

Because we don't know what we don't know, often we run into a trap of an illusion of knowledge. We often are so convinced that what we think is correct that we might ignore the evidence that proves us wrong. Even though having an impression that we are brilliant can be pleasant, it can cause some severe damage at the same time. I believe it is essential to act based on our best judgement but be always prepared to face that we might be wrong.

While thinking about this topic, it reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, when we get some basic knowledge or skills, we tend to overestimate our abilities, and once we overcome the first confidence peak, we start to doubt our abilities. Only after we begin to understand the actual complexity of the field do we step into the expert path, and the confidence starts to align with what we know or can do. I can see this pattern in every aspect of my life, starting from my professional programming career, surfing, and stating an opinion about a random topic. Having heard something or catch few waves makes us think that we understand the subject very well and behave as we were experts, judging other people and giving tons of advice to the beginners who didn't manage to climb the first peak yet.

It is hard to behave correctly in facing this dilemma. On one side, we don't always want to doubt ourselves and act as we don't know, and on the other hand, we don't want to spread a pseudoscience and behave as we are experts even though we are far from that. I firmly believe that we should act with confidence based on what we know but always seek to judge our abilities and knowledge objectively. We can do it by comparing our capabilities to people that we know have mastered the field. There is nothing that helps me understand better where I'm at than rolling with a black belt in jiujitsu that plays with me like a doll, staying in a surf lineup with guys that catch amazing waves that I wouldn't even think of trying to catch or getting an excellent eye-opening review of my code. So act with confidence and always be ready to be wrong and corrected.



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