The Illusion of Knowledge

The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

— Daniel Boorstin

To really appreciate the profundity of this quote you have to think back to Galileo (1564 – 1642) and his epic battle with the Roman Catholic church over the nature of our solar system. Although Copernicus (1473 – 1543) had developed the heliocentric theory a hundred years earlier, the “prevailing wisdom” maintained that the earth was at rest at the center of the universe while the sun and the planets revolved around it.

But Galileo had a telescope — and became convinced that Copernicus was right. He championed the sun-centric “theory” at great personal risk. He was declared a heretic, forced to recant, and spent the last years of his life under house arrest. The church did not lift its ban on the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism until 1758.

Although the true nature of the earth’s place in the solar system was know by they early 1500’s it wasn’t until 250 years later that the illusion of knowledge gave way to reality.

I can’t help but wonder how many other bits of illusory knowledge are blocking true understanding. For example, everyone seems fixated on bailing out the failing banks to restore our troubled economy. But could that be an illusion? What do we really need? We need functioning banks that provide credit to the business world. Does that have to be BofA and Wells Fargo? What if we created a new bank with the trillions of dollars we are promising to these banks?

As an aside, I have read several of Daniel Boorstin’s books and can’t recommend them highly enough. They are thick, heavy tomes that must be digested slowly, but offer rich explorations of our search to understand our world. The Discovers and The Creators are at the top of my list.

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  1. I have been unable to find a citation for this Boorstein quote. It is repeated lots of times on the web, but nobody is giving its source. Do you know it?

    Prof. E. Greene, University of Southern California

  2. Ernest

    The quote comes from the opening paragraph of Chapter 11 of The Discoverers

    I have the Kindle version of The Discoverers which shows it on page 86, or Kindle location 1749.

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