Some communities make decisions about what is knowledge and what is not. You’re probably a member of some of those communities. Maybe you make up your own mind about what is knowledge and what is not entirely on your own? Maybe you’re not fully aware of how much you are influenced by the communities you identify with?
Think about what you experienced during your formal education. In order to receive recognition (a grade, a credit, a certificate), you needed to demonstrate that you were able to create evidence that you accepted the knowledge you were told. You didn’t always need to agree that the knowledge that you had to repeat was the truth. You just needed to exhibit behaviour that led the gatekeeper to believe that you accepted the knowledge.
Sometimes, I felt as though the tests I was given were really about determining if I accepted their perspectives as truth. Upon further reflection, I thought maybe it was a test of being able to suspend disbelief and construct an argument as though you were a true believer. Did you understand their perspective well enough that you could not only replicate it, but generate new arguments as though you believed it?
For instance, in one set of courses, I needed to repeat the knowledge that the demand curve was a straight, downward slopping, line. I knew it wasn’t true because I tried plotting my own demand curve for hamburgers and it wasn’t straight. It sloped down. But it wasn’t a straight line. How could it be that aggregate demand would just magically regress to a straight line? That didn’t make any sense. So it probably wasn’t true. However, in exam after exam, for several years, I affirmed that the demand curve was a straight line along with other fairy tails about Monetarism and the evilness of public officials in trying to represent the interests of their constituents. If I wanted credit for the courses, I needed to affirm what was passing for knowledge at the time.
I’m not saying that they were lying for some bad purpose. Maybe they teach that the demand curve is a straight line because it makes the math easy enough to pass most students without weeding out those who rely on computers to solve equations, but who knows? Maybe, as the meme goes, if schools taught students differential equations in Grade 1 like they do in <insert fantasy jurisdiction here> we wouldn’t need to use basic systems of linear equations?
Maybe you’ve had similar experiences?
Don’t we do this in industry all the time? How many ideas do we breathe life into with our words? With what we present at conferences, write in sales collateral, blog, tweet, slack and publish in books? Do those with the loudest voice determine what is knowledge? Surely, just because a vendor of technology or a systems integrator says something is true, that doesn’t make it so? Does it?
Sometimes the power to make decisions about what is knowledge and what is not knowledge for a community is concentrated in the throats of just a few people.
The founder of a startup can declare what is knowledge for the communities they lead. The entire startup really just exists to resolve a knowledge gap – a huge mystery that the startup is trying to solve. Once solved, the startup might become a business. The grain of sand that remains stuck in my shell is whether or not it’s some market (a community of people with the same knowledge) that declares what is knowledge and what is not, or if it’s the entrepreneur that is creating the new knowledge. I’d like to believe that it’s a dialogue. My experience is at variance with what I want to believe.
The editors of an academic journal, and the community of reviewers around them, can determine what is knowledge and what is not. Each branch of science has its own community, with its own rules, language, processes, norms, awards and memes. They have their own mechanisms for changing or resisting change. Some of those branches do wither away. And some become absolutely enormous. I was introduced to Kuhn as a part of a warning. Don’t end up like the social geographers. Pay attention to the pieces of the puzzle that don’t make any sense. Persist in looking at the stack of inconvenient, dissonant evidence, and never stop asking questions about them.
Whenever you’re touring a scientific community, seek out the ones on the shitlist. They could be onto something that’s scaring the hell out of the optimizers.
There are at least two forms of bias that reinforce each other, lurking down there in the shadows of your mind. First, we really like to have our beliefs reinforced at us. And second, we really like to belong. There are communities where belief is the price of admission. It’s just that sometimes that price is completely invisible to us. It’s way more fun when the price of admission is obvious.
Some communities are fun because they just reinforce biases. There’s generally a rule that you don’t break character. You might understand that professional wrestling, or Monetarism, isn’t really real, but you don’t say that. You treat it as though it’s real. And it’s fun in that way that you don’t break the jerk. And it’s very fun to speculate on what would have happened if Macho Man Randy Savage wasn’t nearly so Macho nor Savage, or, if the UK really is better off because of its switch to Monetarism. Suspending disbelief and having your biases reinforced is fun.
Some communities are just a blast to belong because they continuously open up new vistas to think about. They feature a form of positive conflict, where the discussions are passionate and people feel like it is safe to change their own minds. Where you might even hear the sentence uttered, “Hey, I was holding on another assumption about market re-segmentation and price discovery, but now that I hear your perspective, I’m thinking differently about it. If it’s true 95% of the time that what you say is how it is, then what would it mean for hiring a mass marketer?” I absolutely love hearing that in hallways. I’ve not once ever encountered such a piece of text on the Internet. Communities in which people are safe to learn are just fantastic, aren’t they?
Both forms of community are just great. When you discover them, hug them, and you don’t let go.
Some communities don’t enjoy being tested. There are some beliefs that are sacred to them. And each community has its own weird dogmas. Sometimes they’re big. Sometimes they’re small and really quite cute. It’s hard to tell if everyone is in on the joke sometimes. If the knowledge can really be tested or if testing the knowledge really does get you expelled, then is it a community worth belonging to? Sometimes it is. Sometimes people learn not to contribute because they’re taught not to contribute. I can see where the stability in message and the repetition in belief can be comforting and create a sense of security. It’s almost like watching a re-run of Friends or the Big Bang Theory in a way. These communities replay the same basic plot with the same basic memes in the same basic way. And they like it that way. I find communities that decide to defend static knowledge above all else to be boring and tedious. I understand why people get value from them.
Who Decides what is knowledge and what is not?
I’ll dare to argue that the best person to decide what is knowledge and what is not knowledge is you. And this is rooted on a ridiculously naive assumption that people, in general, are good at sorting information and have the liberty of selecting which communities will make their own lives better, and which communities will make their own lives worse.
Even if people are not good at it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they should not have the liberty to decide which communities to participate in. The instinct to protect the vulnerable from harm is often at odds with the instinct to enable people to reach their maximum potential. Therein lies my bias. It’s better to invest in resources in helping people out with learning how to use their liberty than it is to shelter them from dangerous ideas.
Maybe this was the whole concept of the Enlightenment and that brief two week period when Lutherism seemed to be about the liberation of minds from priests. I’m not one to judge. I just have an optimism that people are all still trying to figure out how to use their liberty. It didn’t come with an owners manual because would have defeated the purpose. This is all enmeshed in a broader set of ideals about individualism and the way Western Europe broke out. In other words, in testing dogma, I’m repeating it.
If people are not good at it, it follows that they could get better. They have options. We all do.
Whether it’s some conspiracy theory cult, Macho Man Randy Savage fanfic, a startup founders weird personality cult, or Monetarism, they all feel good to some group of people. And they believe what they believe in the context of what they believe in. It’s true to them.
There are at least three potential reactions I’ve heard to that proposition.
The first is that it’s dangerous. A large herd of people, prone to believe whatever their leadership tells them is true or not true, can be weaponized and used for bad.
The second is that it’s great. Large communities of people, prone to believe whatever their leadership tells them is true or not true, can be a force for tremendous good and change.
The third is meh. I don’t really pay much attention to what other people believe, I just try to live my own life.
They’re all bang on!
In all three cases, the best person to decide what is knowledge and what is not is you. And that includes which communities you want to pretend and LARP (Live Action Role Play) in. And which communities that you’re saying yourself, “Hey, I’ve never belonged to a cult before, but I think I’m going to go to an island in Fiji for a defined period of time, time box it, get all dehydrated and malnourished, and just go experience some absolutely wild shit!”
And all the communities in between.
You’re welcome to take away anything from this post.
What I’ve tried to argue is that there is an interaction between you, knowledge, and community. If you’re aware of those interaction effects, you’re going to have to a great time and you’re going to learn so much more. So, it is to your own advantage to be aware of those interaction effects. Have fun!