On nurturing the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative

Last week I read a piece on Shane Parrish’s excellent Farnam Street blog“We nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative” — highlighting commentary on that topic from author Kathryn Schultz (Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error).

I tweeted the link and it struck a chord with a number of people in my network. Why?

I sometimes wonder whether it’s just a provocative title that catches the eye of people. But in this case I suspect that it’s more than that. That is certainly the case for me.

Schultz captures (elegantly) something that works, I think, at both micro- and macro- levels.

Let me explain. Good scientists know that they are part of a long line of approximating and “are constructing models rather than revealing reality,” she writes. And that at some point in the future, they will be proven wrong.

This is a tough idea to put into real practice, however. Schultz notes that throughout history we all fall to the misconception that now — at this moment in time — we are at the top of human know-how. We live in a fantasy world which says stuff will be built upon our stuff. It is much more difficult to accept the idea (in practice) that our stuff might just have to be trashed first before new stuff emerges. Trashed because it’s wrong.

Yet these two competing thoughts — on the one hand being committed to a concept or idea, while on the other allowing for it to be totally wrong-headed — can be held simultaneously. See Here’s to ‘acting as if’ which references Marlene Fiol’s piece of the same title and deals with the challenge of ’embracing being wrong.’ She calls out the field of organizational learning researchers on this point of  intellectual hubris.

At micro levels I see this in my world of organizational studies. “Best practices” is an example. There is no such thing. Good practices, yes. And maybe “constructing models” that in some conditions approximate a specific reality – and they prove useful under those conditions. But do we really consider the possibility that what we think of as organizational best practices actually rest on a foundation of crap?

This dilemma scales across domains and to larger issues, as Schultz notes. Today’s New York Times (Sunday Review) carried a piece by Dan Slater — Darwin Was Wrong About Dating — outlining how a new cohort of scientists are challenging the idea that immutable, physical differences (rooted in evolution) create gender differences in sexual behavior. They way in which the argument is playing out has uniquely academic and scientific overtones. But the same pattern plays across many domains when you look for it. Politics? Nate Silver. Baseball? Billy Beane.

And in a very real sense this argument is playing out about “knowledge” itself. David Weinberger hits this idea head on in his book Too Big to Know. Perhaps the greatest value brought to us by digital technology and the internet (my reading of Weinberger) is to make more visible the rich, ugly, confusing, complex debate that occurs as we come to create something that “we know.” Well, what we know for the time being. Until we trash it.

But at least we are becoming more open about the process. And that is truly exciting.

photo credit: sanjibm via photopin cc

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