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Acknowledging Knowledge’s Different Roots

Scientific method – the process of establishing ‘proof’ by attaining the same results in multiple controlled experiments which came to prominence during the Scientific Revolution – has brought us many things. Countless critical gains have been made, but in the process of assuming that a rational process of deduction is always the best way of ‘knowing’ something, we may have undermined some of our most critical human instincts and understandings. But what is the alternative?


If last week’s Twitter response to this notion was any indication, I might ruffle a few feathers with this blog. Contextually, I’m coming from a few days working on a project on a First Nations’ reservation in Northern Alberta.

Beaver Lake, Alberta

Beaver Lake, Alberta

This is a community with relatively little in the way of formal education, but a vast amount of a different kind of knowledge, passed down through generations, emerging from a close connection to the land they have lived on and with for so long. Sometimes described as wisdom, it’s something we’ve often lost – and actively discredited – in the modern Western world, particularly within our formal institutions.

The Twitter debate began with my observation that much of what the scientific community has been recommending in regards to climate change in recent years (or perhaps decades), was deeply embedded in the cultural practices of many First Nations communities, hundreds and thousands of years ago. The basic principle of ‘respect Mother Earth’ – and more specifically ‘make decisions with the impact they will have on the next seven generations in mind’ – has underpinned many of these communities’ practices since long before colonialism. They didn’t know about carbon footprints, embedded emissions or even climate change itself, but they knew that it wasn’t a good idea to pillage nature and natural resources. When Europeans arrived, they were warned by their hosts about overhunting buffalo, damming rivers, clear-cutting trees; all without the scientific knowledge we have today that tells us all these things are problematic.

Science eventually came to the same conclusions that the Cree, Haida, Ojibway and others had millennia previously. Unfortunately, during the time it took science to figure out what Indigenous peoples already knew, we basically destroyed the planet.

I’m not saying science doesn’t come up with the right answers, only that there is always a considerable lag between when people start to study a phenomena (whether climate change or organisational change) and when it figures out what many have already known long before hand.

Art and health

What about the impact of art and creativity on peoples’ health and wellbeing,  Artists have for ages seen and promoted a positive relationship between the two, yet only in recent years has the evidence base reached a place where schools, government funds, or health strategies have begun to recognise it, party politics aside. Even still, it is mostly marginalised as a ‘luxury’ or a ‘frill’, in comparison to the ‘important’ subjects or disciplines of maths, science, business. Arts practitioners will know all too well the impacts this has had across societies, but without the evidence of that impact, it can feel like a lost cause.

Learning about learning

…Or notions of learning? Chinese proverbs dating back a fair ways told us ‘Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand’. Yet schools and universities in the Western world have been absolutely wed to the notion of the lecture as central to all formal education. Again, as the evidence base has gradually developed, and shown that lecturing is generally one of the poorest methods of facilitating learning, our institutions are very slowly beginning to play catch-up, but still thousands of years after the Chinese philosophers had this one figured out. (This article fails to get into differences of learning styles, but highlights the shortcomings of the sacred institution of lecturing quite well).

In the office

At a much more mundane level, I think of an old job. When I started, I quickly realised that, at only a few quick skims of a database, we provided almost no support to organisations that weren’t large, London-based, national organisations; a tiny percentage of those we could have been helping. I raised this, and was told I needed to ‘demonstrate the need’; I said ‘scan the database for two minutes’. This wouldn’t suffice.

I spent the following month categorising every organisation in a 1,600 entry database, by their size, their location and their reach. Eventually this told me, depending on classification, at least 85% of those we supported came from a pool of less than 2% of potential beneficiaries… which is what I’d said a month earlier. By the time this was written into an acceptable report, we’d lost 2 months of my work, in pursuit of an ‘evidence-base’ which added little or nothing to my initial observation.

There was nothing especially remarkable about my observation, except my belief that it was trustworthy in its own right (a position I’m sure most of us have found ourselves in at one time or another). When you consider my salary and overhead costs, this meant several thousand pounds was spent to ‘know’ what I already knew.


So whether artists, First Nations communities or ancient Chinese philosophers, the knowledge held by all three was widely available to the scientific methodologists since long before the near-universal western adoption of the scientific method during the Scientific Revolution. Yet, in each case, scientific rationalism dismissed or actively discredited each of the above as ‘superstitious’, ‘unsubstantiated’, or ‘without methodological rigour’… until they eventually drew the same conclusions themselves!

The problem was, in the respective mean times, people created potentially irreversible climate change, health and wellbeing were collectively sacrificed, and learning has been a rote drill, instilling a hatred of education in countless millions for several centuries.

What are we missing right now?

I’ve mentioned a few examples where science has (eventually) caught up with earlier forms of knowledge. What current questions do previous kinds of ‘knowing’ provide answers to that science still completely ignores or discredits? Quantum physics has begun to identify a level of connectivity between all forms of life (with wide-ranging implications), that has previously only been captured by notions of ‘oneness’ found in many religions and spiritualities (without getting into that kettle of worms!). Much of what the world of post-Enlightenment rationalism has previously determined to be true or false, has gradually been seen to be otherwise. Yet, while science is clearly adaptive (it’s fundamental strength), we cling to its current state of progress at any given time, as if it represents an absolute, rather than a step towards greater understanding. The same experiment, carried-out a hundred years apart, will invariably reveal different things, as technology – but more importantly perception – change during that time.

Acknowledging different kinds of knowledge

If you were asked how you knew the world was round, and how you knew your mother loved you, you would probably approach each question very differently. I’m sure you’d agree, the lack of scientific rigour in your second answer would in no way diminish your knowledge of your mother’s love; it would probably still be something you know more than you know that the world is round (as this is still an abstraction in most of our minds, very few of us having seen the Earth in its entirety, firsthand!).

These are extreme examples, but they have to be, as there are so few places where our culture still accepts the merits of knowledge grounded in experience, feeling and intuition.

How about if I asked how you know how safe or unsafe you are in your neighbourhood? Would you produce a list of ward rankings on violent or petty crime? If so, would it be in relation to your city? Your country? The rest of the world? Other places you’d lived? Or would you explain how you feel when you walk down the street at night?

This isn’t a binary choice…

As I said at the start, this is not to discredit the innumerable gains that the principles of the scientific method have offered the world – these are well-known and documented – but instead to highlight the things this method has missed (or ignored) – even when the answers have been right under its nose. The costs of doing so have also been vast.

While we obviously don’t want to throw away the scientific rationalism that has created so many critical breakthroughs in so many fields, we also don’t want to continue to doom ourselves to repeat its omissions, late acknowledgments and incomplete narratives on the world we live in.

When do we trust non-scientific knowledge?

I don’t know where exactly we draw a line, but I do know that it has currently ended-up much too far in one direction, undermining some of our most significant knowledge in the process.

So maybe we start with our own attitudes; we acknowledge that there is fundamental knowledge that we all hold, that may, at times, be greater than the scientific knowledge we have available to us at the moment. Once we have made this acknowledgement, hopefully it will open the door to discussions around more specifics as they arise. At this point, our kneejerk response is to collectively discredit anything that has not undergone a very particular process of examination. By acknowledging that some of our most important knowledge has undergone no such process, maybe we can begin to relearn the potential of intuition, instinct, experience and feeling to help us make better decisions, address issues in a more timely way, and appreciate the ideas of people and cultures less-wed to the scientific method?

*Question: does this piece fit the ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ theme of our work, or should this have gone elsewhere? I’m aware that the direct implications for organisations are pretty abstract, but thought it was worth discussing here, nonetheless… any ideas on what these ideas mean for voluntary, community and non-profit organisations?

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Posted in leadership + management and learning and measurement and trust and Uncategorized.


8 Replies

  1. All sorts of issues with this piece, one of them being that you are very guilty of selection bias. What about all the thigngs different cultures ‘knew’ that turned out not to be true – in some cases to be totally wrong, or very damaging? What about cases where the scientific method has given surprising, or counter-intuitive results?

    Secondly, I’d like to respond to your example from the workplace above. At first, you had an opinion. You don’t mention a numerical estimate, even though what you discovered could be described by the words you used. But what about the times people have thought they’ve seen these patterns, only for proper analysis to show they were imagining things?

    Check out ‘The Tiger That Isn’t’ for explanations of why humans are so good at spotting patterns (that sometimes turn out not to be actual patterns) and ‘The Unnatural Nature of Science’ for analysis of the benefit of testing ideas – whether rooted in history or not – by the scientific method.

  2. Thank you for a fascinating article (discovered via a tweeted link).

    I fear we’re victims of the way our brains are designed: the problem with attitudes is that we can and do readily espouse attitudes that don’t reflect what we do. And when we look at behaviour (from which the actual drivers of actions can, in my opinion, more reliably be discerned) we open a can of worms that mean science becomes a moderating mechanism for our true selves (albeit one that’s slow to catch on).

    I suppose my point is that, amidst the constructive instincts of which we’re capable are a whole host of more destructive instincts that we embody too. Whilst it would be nice to select some and lose others, the evolutionary process that creates them isn’t morally discerning.

    However, where I agree with you whole-heartedly, is in the mistaken belief that a scientific approach can always evaluate and predict (which is how it is used implicitly). If science (from psychology and behavioural economics) tells us anything, it’s that such predictions aren’t possible (because contexts shift). At some point – and that point is often much sooner and with far less ‘evidence’ than organisations like to believe – a decision must be made.

    For my part, I would prefer to distinguish this expression of accumulated understanding from ‘attitudes’, not least because attitudes have a horrible tendency to be a by-product of the way in which they are extracted: they’re frequently a lot less solid than they feel when they’re expressed. I realise this is potentially a semantic point, so apologies if I sound like a pedant!

    Giving greater credence to the collective experience encapsulated in the unconscious mind and experienced as nothing more tangible than a feeling (call it intuition if you will) is then all that remains.

  3. Nice. Agree on most. Few points:

    Not enough on the relationship between £££, action and knowledge. Society is driven by £s and this is why there needs to be a demonstration of value for £ before decisions are made. Do I agree that this is right? Pfffft.

    I wanted more more on how and why science ‘won’ as linked into western supremacy in the world etc.

    And, some acknowledgement of science recognising it’s own limits: scientists never having an answer (I.e. Knowing) but building and adding to a body of evidence over time.

    I like the link to q physics, but wanted more on how this has changed our understanding of knowledge/belief as mutable and somewhat impossible goals.

    And finally, your 1st Nations versus scientific rationalism compare is good (Wade Davis-esq): all about world views, if their view had won we wouldn’t have ended up on the moon but there might not be such a pressing need to leave the earth.

  4. Hi there. Thanks for taking the time to comment…

    Re: selective bias – I make no suggestion that I’m covering the full range of potential examples. As I mention, there is extensive documentation already of the stuff scientific method has done right – I don’t challenge those victories, I simply highlight some areas where it hasn’t proven as useful.

    Yes – many traditional types of knowing have produced terrible results – again, no argument. But science has also been guilty of this, so if we accept screwing things up sometimes as a human reality, then, I think we can start to see where different approaches have got things right – even if not all the time…

    Re: office example. Yes – again, people can be flawed… but can also be right… and to always start fr/ the assumption that people’s opinions, intuition and belief ARE wrong, is bad for individual morale, working relationships, and, as demonstrated in this example, for actually getting things done.

    I will check out the other links, but want to reiterate that I’m by no means, ‘anti-scientific method’ – I just feel we’ve developed a fundamentalist relationship with it as gatekeeper of all knowledge, that creates a cultural blind-spot to other approaches that may have worked as well, or better, in particular situations…

  5. Agreed – particularly on the ‘accumulated understanding’ point.

    I realise that it throws up major questions, in terms of mitigating against some of our less-desirable qualities… I guess I’d just say, rather than absolutely removing intuition and accumulated understanding from the equation, because it will invariably be wrong part of the time, can we temper it, check it, examine it, but still leave room for it to breath?

    I guess I see the absolute reliance on scientific method, as a bit of a ‘baby with the bathwater’ phenomena – because we get things wrong part of the time when we use intuition, we should never use it again, to be on the safe side…

    I try to practice some combination of rationalist and intuitive decision-making in my work… I haven’t ever put it under the microscope before, but will be more conscious to do so in the future, to be aware of my own biases, and where some of my instincts may be coming from…

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. Hey Ian –

    Thanks for the thoughts! I consciously avoided the money and power dynamics initially, as I felt they were peripheral to the core issue, but several people have mentioned this, and a re-draft (or 2nd part) will look more at the ways these factors interact…

    As to ‘why science won’… maybe we can write that one together? Feel like there’s a pretty deep can of worms there…

    I think you’re right about science acknowledging its own limits – at its best. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, there is a tendency to see the current state of knowledge in an absolute light, even thought most scientific knowledge has been through countless iterations, and often ended-up making very different assertions than its earlier incarnations believed to be true… but maybe that’s a human flaw? …But if so, is it fair to separate the human implementation of an approach, from the approach itself, if people are the ones who will invariably have to carry it out? […down the rabbit hole we go…]

    The ‘moon’ bit is spot on… might have to quote you on that one some day 😉

  7. David Gray Jun 10th 2011

    A great thought piece Liam.
    I thought, regarding myself as a scientist, I should just add a comment about this sometimes mis-understood philosophy. Mathematicians are able to prove things – at least that is what they say they can do – whereas scientists merely test hypotheses. Each test can improve certainty of understanding but frequently opens up new questions.
    I think poor scientific literacy (education) and political interference can lead to ‘bad science’, the mis-use of its findings and the mis-direction of its enquiries.
    I like to think that we are all scientists…

  8. Hi David – Thanks for the comment. I agree with everything you say here, and I maybe need to add a couple qualifiers on the reliance on scientific method, rather than scientific method itself. As you say, science is ongoing, yet, when we rely on it too heavily, we have to create fixed end-points to gain any understanding of it. In doing so, we come to see the current form of scientific discovery as the absolute truth… you could say this is a human error, rather than a scientific one, but I guess I see little point in separating the two, as humans testing hypothesis will inherently make errors along the way, which makes them a part of the process, whether we like it or not… Then there’s the time lag that ongoing reiterative experimentation requires… and that life doesn’t always give us such luxuries, so what is the best response in such situations?
    Like I said, I agree with your points, just picking at them a bit 😉
    Hope you’re well!

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