Tuesday, April 4, 2017


I am a deep believer in the value of education, the importance of truth, respect for expertise. So why do I find myself in a position of being deeply skeptical of educational institutions, experts and proclamations of Truth? Occam's Razor and Cassius would suggest that the fault is not in the stars but in myself. Finding that an unappealing hypothesis, I move on to alternatives.

Certainly it is easy to foster skepticism simply by reading the papers and seeing what is going on in Universities during their end state spiral of idiocy owing to complete inculcation of postmodernism, intersectionality, sacralizing of victimhood, multiculturalism, relativism, etc. It is easy to be concerned about Truth when government is large and misdirection, ignorance, and lies larger still. It is easy to discount experts when they are so often either wrong or demonstrably self-interested.

While a good life should include a dose of skepticism, the assaults on epistemology are so continuous it is easy to veer into caustic cynicism. An undesirable outcome.

I wonder if, rather than simply bad human nature and ignorance, if there isn't something else going on.

We live in a complex world that is becoming more complex. It is not just our technological surrounds which are becoming more complex. So are our social networks, our friendships, our governance, our economy. All this complexity is the underpinning for ever greater productivity and prosperity, desirable goals.

I am guessing part of what is happening is that this increasing complexity is also driving greater epistemic error-making.

The more knowledge domains there are (a function of complexity), the more interactions and interdependencies there are, the greater the probability that a problem will extend across domains of knowledge.

Pick any problem: health, education; infrastructure; trade; they all encompass multiple domains of knowledge. Say the problem is rising traffic congestion arising from increased urban development and density. You don't want to abandon development and densification but you also don't want to endure congestion. What experts do you call?

Long enough ago it was simply the civil engineers. They would widen the road or add additional roads. Once we reached a certain level of density, we then would call in traffic engineers to study flows and peaks and light sequencing and dampeners, etc. They were the experts. But now, that isn't sufficient expertise.

Technology, and particularly communication technology is, through Moore's Law, driving such a rapid pace of change, that no one domain of knowledge is sufficient. You need forecasting expertise to forecast future development, future densification. You need sensor and technology expertise to anticipate what are the likely technological and sensing requirements for a construction that will last 20-50 years. You need network effects expertise to anticipate how constant feedback mechanisms (such as Waze) dynamically optimize traffic flows given exogenous events (police presence, accidents, etc.). You need Security expertise. You need, you need, you need.

No one person, expert though they might be in one domain of knowledge, can encompass the full range of knowledge necessary to solve the problem.

Despite that being true, each expert sees the stated problem only through the lens of their knowledge domain and remains confident that they have the wherewithal to provide a correct answer. They fail to recognize the full dependency on the other domains and indeed, fail to recognize just how quickly those domains are changing.

The upshot is that experts make confident statements of fact based on their narrow sliver of domain knowledge which are either suboptimal or flat out wrong.

My hypothesis is that the speed of change (demographic, communication, social, technological, economic, etc.) has been increasing while at the same time ALSO becoming more complex. That speed and complexity combination in turn makes it ever more critical that multiple domains of knowledge work collaboratively at the most local level possible to derive the optimal solutions. Because we are coming out of a period (post WWII) of statist centralization (big government, centralized decision-making), we have a perfect storm.

We have centralized decision-making when we need more decentralized decision-making. We have a long cultural history of deference to expertise at a period of time when expertise has become so fragmented that it cannot address known complex problems through a single knowledge domain. We have a reflex inclination to identify simple (but wrong) solutions to complex problems.

From this speculative track of thinking, the conclusion might be that we are at a point of cultural evolution. Selection pressure is away from habits of the past. Success in the future depends not on "fixing" expertise but, rather, fixing how we see problems and how we work towards solving them.

Seeing problems holistically and requiring multiple collaborative domains of expertise and seeing problems as having multiple participants, stakeholders and larger populations of those who might be affected. Seeing problems as having multiple, interdependent and dynamic (evolving) root causes. The solution then becomes establishing an ethos of shared expertise in problem solving and collective collaboration as a structure through which expertise can be leveraged to achieve desirable outcomes.

There is no singular, simple solution, there is no central authority to own the problem, there is no expert with the answer. There are citizens who have an immense capability to work collaboratively, locally and effectively to recognize, define and achieve their shared goals in ways that are an evolution from the old norms.


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