More Advice than We Can Handle

Human knowledge is growing by leaps and bounds. Since the advent of the scientific method, innovation has expanded, and there’s no reason to think it won’t keep going. This brings us to a new challenge in living in this changing world: what do we do with all this knowledge?

Advice to a Young Artist - by Honoré Daumier c1865-68In trying to take charge of our lives, we  use scientific knowledge. Maybe we don’t even realize that we’re making an intellectual jump.

Science tries to describe the world we live in, but we’re using that information to try to build a unitary model of the world, one that makes sense.

We’re assuming that there is “one true way” that can be found and understood. The underlying thought seems to be “if I act in accordance with science, then I am somehow more efficient, better able to compete, and thus a “success.” And as far as it goes, that is not only true, but a truism. Science is how we defined “efficient” and “compete” and “success.”

Proscriptive or Descriptive

Let’s grab an older example of the same leap. When Adam Smith, the founder of economics, analyzed and described human economic behavior (The Wealth of Nations, 1776), we (as humans) made a choice what to do with the new information. Smith, a moral philosopher, was being descriptive. He was explaining what humans do.

But as time went on, businessmen worked to cleave to Smith’s principles. We somehow stopped using the information to understand, and began adhering to its principles as the “right” way to act. We made the jump from accepting the work as descriptive to using it proscriptively.

Adam Smith wasn’t telling us to be cutthroat jerks in business. We’ve been doing that since the first people traded with strangers.

The West’s relationship with the work of Charles Darwin follows the same pattern. We took it too far. We went beyond the descriptive science of “oh, that’s how genetic selection works” to actions based on our understanding of that science. That is, we started using the knowledge proscriptively.

Theories of cultural evolution were used to bolster already existing colonial regimes; understandings of genetics were used to support eugenics programs. “Science” was used to bolster decisions that were thought of as hardheaded in a competitive world, but were sometimes more hardhearted than anything else.

We can (and do) look back on these decisions and say that it was “bad science.” It would be closer to the truth to say that this was a bad use of scientific knowledge.

Science, at its root, is an incredibly effective way of understanding some aspects of the world and generating certain types of knowledge. It promotes objectivity, rational thinking, and collaboration. Science is good stuff.

On the other hand, science is a human tool, and no tool is the right one to solve every problem. Science is not the philosopher’s stone, nor the universal solvent. Science is not alchemy. It won’t fix all our problems; that’s our job.

How Do We Decide?

Test Tubes
Where to look for answers?

Making such a leap – from using science as a method of understanding the world to using scientific knowledge for gaining a competitive advantage – is based on certain assumptions about what people are, and aren’t.

In order to effectively use scientific knowledge to guide our actions, we allow it to make certain decisions for us. Those assumptions depend on the field of study. Economists might see people as rational maximizers. Biologists might see us as competitive DNA delivery systems. Astrophysicists, as a group, see us as a small part of the universe. Anthropologists see humans as cultural creatures.

We are all these things, all at once, and more. Science, at its best, gives us systematically verified knowledge. But it doesn’t tell us what to do with all this knowledge. We  have to figure that out for ourselves.

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4 thoughts on “More Advice than We Can Handle”

  1. Thank you for your comment. And I appreciate your posting, particularity the subject matter as I am writing an MA thesis on creativity and neuroeconomics. I think you may be the one and only person I have encountered who shows an interest in the unexpected combination of economics, identity and creativity – you, me and Carsten Hermann-Pillath! I will be heading this direction in future postings, and will certainly follow yours to see where you go.

    1. And thank you for your comment.

      I wasn’t familiar with Carsten Hermann-Pillath until now. Thanks!

      I’m reading a book called “Ancestors” right now. It traces 900 years of one family through historical records. I don’t know about your family, but 900 years ago, I doubt mine was keeping careful genealogical records!

      Some of these documents have survived – in many cases the data has outlived the paper, as people have carefully copied them over and over and passed them down.

  2. I think many scientists would agree that while a scientific approach of experimentation and effect analysis can be useful in considering options and making decisions, there are a great many situations where science isn’t the solution. One often sees organizations looking for a science or technology solution when the more effective approach is probably to focus on developing policy or shaping habits.

    1. Many scientists are smart people.

      However, I suspect that when funding is thrown at a project, unemployed scientists will fail to argue that they should not be on the project.

      I’m not criticizing, just pointing out that scientific objectivity (whether experimental astrophysics, or archaeology, or psychology) is usually restricted to the lab’s results, not always its administration.

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