World Building and the Illusion of Explanatory Depth

N.K. Jemisin can help us all be better humans

A friend recently pointed me to a podcast episode where the extraordinary science-fiction writer N.K. Jemisin teaches Ezra Klein to build a world. It’s a truly delightful episode; Ezra Klein says that it “may be the most fun I’ve ever had on a podcast.” World building seemed pretty neat, so I went deeper.

The process of world building, as I’m coming to understand, is a Thing in speculative science fiction. And, I’ve also learned that N.K. Jemisin teaches how to build worlds through an interactive workshop. During that workshop, Jemisin challenges our basic understandings of how our real-life world works, so that we can better understand how a fantasy world might work. Here’s a quote:

Character is informed by culture, and culture is informed by environment. In a lot of cases, to understand the character I need to understand literally everything about their world.

So knowing how our world works is key to understanding how a fantasy world might work. Indeed, Jemisin opens the workshop (see below for the video) with a question about how the seasons work; and, the audience member gets it wrong. [Admission: turns out, I had it wrong, too! It has nothing to do with the distance to the sun, and everything to do with the Earth’s tilt. Bonus round: why is the Earth tilted? Bonus bonus round: is it tilted? Or do we just perceive it as tilted? Why or why not? You get the drift…]

As I listened to Jemisin, I kept on reflecting on her opening challenge that we, as individuals, don’t really understand our world very well. Why do people behave the way that they do? For example, why does war exist? This is not a philosophical question; it’s an epistemological one. Seriously, what explains the existence of war in our world? Often, we effectively accept—or even perpetuate—terrible things in our world as basic “facts of life,” whereas they might not be if we critically examined their causes.

Which turned me back to another concept I’ve been thinking about recently: the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (IOED). Originally coined in 2002 by Leonid Rozenblit & Frank Keil, the IOED stems from the fact that “[m]ost people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.” What’s particularly interesting about the IOED is that, it turns out, “people are more overconfident about knowing explanations than they are about knowing other things.”

The IOED can have pernicious effects. For example, today’s political environment may be due in part to the IOED:

This sense of overconfidence can fuel political polarization. In one study, Philip Fernbach and colleagues found that people think they know much more about complex policy positions than they actually do. But, when asked to generate explanations for how these policies work—describing, for instance, the details of instituting a national flat tax or transitioning to a single-payer healthcare system, people recognized the gaps in their knowledge. Moreover, trying to generate explanations also caused them to express less extreme opinions about these issues, presumably because they realized their opinions were rooted in overconfidence.

In other words, once people were forced to explain policy positions, they became less overconfident and less extreme. When we need to explain things, we end up understanding them better and, critically, that we can understand others better as well.

Circling back to Jemisin’s workshop, then, the process of world building may have less to do with creating a new world, as with developing a better understanding our own world (and our own agency within it), and finding ways to improve it. I’m so grateful for her helping give us a method to challenge ourselves to do so. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

Video source: Jason Parham, For N. K. Jemisin, World-Building Is a Lesson in Oppression, Wired, Nov. 12, 2019