How We Know What We Know

Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s management philosophy is a system of management composed of four interdependent areas: knowledge about variation, understanding psychology, systems thinking and the theory of knowledge. The theory of knowledge is the least understood, and the least adopted in the various other management improvement theories (lean manufacturing, six sigma, theory of constraints…). A recent op-ed in the New York Times touches on the ideas behind how we learn: Learning How to Think

The actor was introduced as “Dr. Myron L. Fox” (no such real person existed) and was described as an eminent authority on the application of mathematics to human behavior. He then delivered a lecture on “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” — except that by design it had no point and was completely devoid of substance. However, it was warmly delivered and full of jokes and interesting neologisms.

Afterward, those in attendance were given questionnaires and asked to rate “Dr. Fox.” They were mostly impressed. “Excellent presentation, enjoyed listening,” wrote one. Another protested: “Too intellectual a presentation.”

So if you want to rate know if your consultants or trainers were entertaining maybe a survey is a good idea. Of course, if you want to know if people learned something useful that they can apply and make your business more effective a survey may not work so well.

The marketplace of ideas for now doesn’t clear out bad pundits and bad ideas partly because there’s no accountability. We trumpet our successes and ignore failures – or else attempt to explain that the failure doesn’t count because the situation changed or that we were basically right but the timing was off.

I think this sounds good, but wouldn’t work. In general, the way people build up beliefs, is full of all sorts of systemic problems. Like above, they tend to think someone entertaining is more educational than someone not entertaining. They may be more entertaining, but taking the ideas of those who are entertaining and rejecting the ideas of people who are not is not a great strategy to build up a great system of knowledge. To more effectively adopt good ideas and reject bad ideas, understanding the theory of knowledge (how we know what we know) and then apply that knowledge to how you learn is a better strategy. Learning to recognize confirmation bias and take steps to avoid it is one positive step. Learning to recognize when you accept ideas from those you like without critical judgment and reject ideas from those you find annoying and then learning to evaluate the ideas on the merits is another positive step you can take.

Hoping the accountability will clean out bad punditry is not likely to succeed in my opinion. Look at who is seen as successful (given awards, pictured on the covers of magazines…). The correlation to those you want to learn from is not high in my opinion. And my guess is a system to select the best pundits would turn in to the same type of people (even if you say it is suppose to be based on facts).

One reason many people won’t take the time to learn about the theory of knowledge and modify how they learn and make decisions is that it is old. Many people don’t want to learn ideas from 30 years ago. The web didn’t even exist then, how could anything from back then have any relevance? Well, that is a way to learn, but it isn’t very effective. Plenty of knowledge from a long time ago would be very valuable today if people would learn about it and apply it to their lives today.

Another reason is people like simple ideas. Well, if simple ideas work that is nice. But sometimes you need more complex ideas to improve your ability to think. As Einstein is quoted as saying: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” wikiquote shows a sourced version that is: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” I think understanding how we “know” what we know is just somewhat complex. And to gain the benefit that comes from understanding the common pitfalls of how humans “know” (including often knowing things that are not so) you need to accept that that understanding requires a fair amount of thought.

Read some related posts for more on this topic, one post can’t even scratch the surface on this topic: The Illusion of UnderstandingDangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of DataManagement is PredictionWrite Down Your Predictions – You Will Learn MoreManagement Advice FailuresTheory of Knowledge post from 2005Operational Definitions and Data Collection

7 thoughts on “How We Know What We Know

  1. Dan Markovitz

    I’m struck by the simplicity of the concepts behind lean. Really, when you think about it, the system isn’t terribly complicated. Yes, there are a few tools (not terribly difficult to learn), but the overall message is quite elegant. Respect for people. Eliminate waste. Create value.

    Simple isn’t always easy, of course, but it’s far better than the unneeded complexity of all those long-winded, turgid management books.

    Reply
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