Knowledge & Progress


The construction of neat narratives might be a necessary feature of modern life, particularly that of corporate slaves. I would say that is probably a result of the tyranny of rationality and science in modern management. There is always a need to rationalise success, or failure for that matter despite the fact that market forces reign so strongly over the fates of business units, divisions or entire companies. And ultimately, most of these rationalisation are tinged with hindsight bias of the uttermost naive kind. Nassim Taleb puts it another way about the misconception behind derivation of knowledge:

So, in the corpus, knowledge is presented as derived in the following manner: basic research yields scientific knowledge, which in turn generates technologies, which in turn lead to practical applications, which in turn lead to economic growth and other seemingly interesting matters. The payoff from the “investment” in basic research will be partly directed to more investments in basic research, and the citizens will prosper and enjoy the benefits of such knowledge-derived wealth with Volvo cars, ski vacations, Mediterranean diets, and long summer hikes in beautifully maintained public parks. – Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

And it all started in school when we are taught to weave neat narratives to describe life, experiences, make arguments, and communicate. Clear communication is important but often, that can also stand in the way of clear thinking or obscure the ability to grasp the complexity of things. But how then do we teach kids? I described what we do right now as teaching closer approximations of the truth to kids as they grow up. So we begin with descriptors about the world that are sufficient to the layman but not perfectly accurate and then we force people to unlearn those to pick up increasingly accurate picture of the universe. That, is essentially, stylising facts or concepts to help people learn – which isn’t wrong. The only challenge is when the stylised version of things becomes regarded as truth.

There is an alternative route and I have a proposal. Teach knowledge-discovery rather than knowledge. Teach questioning rather than answer-giving. We all know how pesky the questions of children can be; and perhaps thats why we don’t encourage their ‘whys’. But those are great opportunities to teach knowledge discovery; curiosity and the nature of their hunger to learn is why kids often ask ‘why’ – but they need to realise that answering these questions is often more than about just checking in with an adult. We don’t show them the process of knowledge-discovery enough. Instead we try to feed them with endless knowledge, things we declare they should know. Stop.

How about schools? What are some practical changes possible? Take the introduction of Science in Primary school for example. I recall in Primary 3, the first thing I was taught is the 5 sense. Senses was how we perceive the world but then the focus went on to the various parties of the body that ‘staff’ these senses and then we move on to the topic of living things and so on. How about we ask questions instead, ‘how do we experience the world?’ or ‘how do we know about the world?’. These questions will mean different things for a person at different stages of development but just as well – they are prompters to introduce means by which we acquire knowledge. And we can then use that to talk about how we use our eyes, nose, ear, tongue, skin to discover the world at the most primary level. The key syllabus objectives should not read ‘knowing what are the 5 senses’, it should be ‘being imbued with a sense of wonder about ourselves and our world’.

If our children are not ready for the future; how will our companies, industries or even the nation be future-ready?