Thursday, July 5, 2007

An assault on knowledge

A while back, I read a book by Bryan Appleyard (the then Science columnist for the Sunday Times in London). It was called "Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man". It described the relentless assault of science on our souls.

I read it at a time when most of my work involved using scientific principles to understand why people made the decisions they did. I had a belief that these techniques (while not perfect), could help us understand behavior. Science and scientific thinking also occupied a large chunk of my 'knowledge', and how I viewed the world. Bryan's book was the first assault on that.

I'm not going to restate the book's various arguments here, I'd just encourage people to read it - it has the added advantage of having been beautifully written. As a nod to the arguments and the prose, the last few paragraphs do nicely:

"I am born and I shall die and, in between, these visions are what they most obviously are: mine. This is the only time span I have and the only one in which my virtue and purpose may be found. I choose not to be written into some history of the future or beguiled by the technological demands of the as-yet-unborn. This is not selfishness, it is the ultimate unselfishness because it means I know what myself is - an expression and creation of my culture, a culture that has come close to sacrificing itself on the altar of one small aspect of itself. But I owe myself to all that culture and it must clearly be defended with my life because it is my life.

Such an avowal means the end of the rule of science because it denies the infinite open-endedness and willingness to change that science needs for its continued invasion of our souls. It also means an insistence that my soul be put back where it belongs - in my body - rather than in the remote realm to which, 400 years ago, science consigned it. This realization alone may not make that soul immortal, nor will it promise me an afterlife or salvation. So you may say it leaves me exactly where I was before - mortal, suffering and as lost as ever. I will reply that there is one vital difference: I shall not be, at the last, alone."

Bryan Appleyard grew up 'in the shadow of science" - an engineer father, a decedent of physicists. So he has seen both sides.

I'm about two thirds of the way through The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It's an assault on our notion of what's predictable. Because most of what we do (especially in business) is try and predict the future, it's an assault on pretty much everything we hold dear.

There is a long and interesting history of the philosophy of science and scientific knowledge in both these books that I would feel like an impostor to try and comment on as I have no real background in epistemology.

But I believe they represent two modern examples of the growing (and overdue) assault on our concept of knowledge. Appleyard's more spiritual argument and Taleb's more practical one (although Taleb's has a spirituality all his own).

Both these books have profound consequences for how businesses deal with knowledge. A strong dependence on measurement is only useful if you are measuring the things you know are measurable. While a strong dependence on intuition and gut is only useful if you aren't ignoring the things you can measure. And in either case, you can't be too reliant on your expectations of the future if these are based on the narrative you use to describe your past.

There's a Serenity Prayer for measurement in here somewhere...

...give me the grace to accept the things I cannot measure, the courage to measure the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

It's the wisdom we commonly lack.

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