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Acknowledging Knowledge’s Different Roots

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

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?

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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.

‘Proof’

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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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

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