Monday, December 31, 2007

Monkey Mondays: Happy New Year Monkey!

The Knowledge Paradox

When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.
—Andrew S. Grove, Co-founder of Intel

In other words, “it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.” It is a paradox such that as our collective knowledge increases, such does our expertise, our creativity and innovative ability will tend to plateau or decrease. It is the classic “thinking inside a box,” and the walls thicken with our experience over time.

An essay appearing in the 1989 Journal of Political Economy called this the “curse of knowledge.” Experts in their respective disciplines learn through their daily activities the jargon of their subjects and perform their routine tasks in the ways in which they have always been done. While it is efficient and possesses a concept of utility, it can stifle innovation by taking the path much-taken.

People see the world how they want to see it, since the world revolves around each individual person, through the filters with which they perceive the rest of the world. I’ve written about this before in a few posts. This is why this curse is so pervasive: It can be difficult for people to imagine what the world is like outside their own universe and their own paradigm. As an aside, this is why it can be so difficult to find really, really good trainers and teachers.

Imagine your remote control at home: Anything from your television or stereo remote control to your $1000 remote control. It probably has many more buttons than a reasonable person would need, but they all exist on that remote control because an engineer somewhere in the research, development, or production process determined a use for that button; as described by Chip Heath in a book him and his brother Dan co-wrote in their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Mr. Heath says of this: People who design products are experts cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us.

How can a person fix this?

Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in a team of outsiders, “zero-gravity thinkers” in order to add creativity and innovation to the development mix in her book Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It. I would ask my very, very basic questions,” making mention of the initial frustration, however transient it may be, with this approach, “it always turned out that we could come up with some terrific ideas. She finishes her wisdom with: “Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field…Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.

When in doubt, seek the perspective of others to forge your own wisdom in this often-chaotic world! However, in the end know that the decision is your own, and the responsibility of that decision is your own to bear, so weigh each perspective with the value with which it is truly worth!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Not-So-Conventional Wisdom

Following World War II America went through a period in which the government, or the public sector, was growing poorer in relation to the private sector which was becoming wealthier. This is the outline offered by Harvard economist John Galbraith in his book The Affluent Society. It is also the origin of the term “conventional wisdom.”

We’ve all heard it: Conventional wisdom, rules of thumb, and urban legends. What is the problem with such “wisdom?” Not only is it “easy” wisdom but it also tends not to be true, just accepted by enough people in order for it to seem true. It acts as an obstacle to the truth, to new ideas, and is only fueled by the inertia of so many people believing in such bad information. This inertia is fueled by convenience, emotion, and assumption.

Common sense, on the other hand, is largely practical: Less of the abstract and more of the “collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen,” according to Albert Einstein. In the same train of thought such practicality can have its limits when it comes to the progression of society: Similarly, common sense has been invoked in opposition to many scientific and technological advancements. Such misuse of the notion of common sense is fallacious, being a form of the argumentum ad populum (appeal to the masses) fallacy.

So, we return to our original premise: If so many people believe in it, it must be true, right? Logic dictates otherwise with a concept known as Argumentum ad populum. Translated from Latin it is “appeal to the people;” placed into a more concise context “if many believe so,” or “if many find it acceptable, then it is (acceptable or so).”

Alright, let’s test it.

It has been reported in the mainstream media that more than 1/3 of Americans believe there was a government conspiracy surrounding the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. As of 1 July 2007 the population was about 301 million individuals in the United States; 36 percent of 301 million people equals about 108.3 million people. More than 100 million people believe that the U.S. government was complicit—either actively or through negligence—in the horrible attacks of 9/11. Certainly more than 100 million people, statistically, can’t be wrong! Right?

I can’t help but look at the world from the perspective of an economist, believing in some bits of logic. Sociology teaches us that while the person might be intelligent, rational, and calculated, putting many of them together and their behaviors tend to move towards the irrational. Additionally, just because the many believe something…it doesn’t mean that it’s true.

How about looking at it this way: Have you ever voted in an election? Did the person whom you voted for win or lose? Doesn’t matter, because the majority of individuals voted for the person who got into the office; that means that he or she was good in their elected position by virtue of most people voting for them! Politicians are good by virtue of how many people voted for them…right? How about at any certain time when most people think that a particular company whose stock is a good place to invest? History and your favorite Internet finance site can tell you how this is a failed notion.

So, in the end the masses aren’t necessarily correct, conventional wisdom isn’t necessarily wisdom and tends to be more convenient than possessing any utility and your own experiences should be all that draws you towards a more thorough wisdom about the world.