Try standing at the edge of knowledge for a while. You’ll like it.

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Alternate titles for this post:

“It turns out, it is a little like a priesthood.”

“Join us. Join us. Join us. Braaainzzzzz”

“Imma gonna let you finish, but first I think you need to get your Wellies wet.”

[Modified repost]

In a library, there is a spatial relationship between knowledge and books or journals, and there is a sense of completeness about it. I’m thinking in particular of the Tozzer library, one I spent a fair amount of time in. I would go to the basement of the library and the entire ancient world (this is an anthropology library) was arrayed in a set of shelves to the left. There were big topics like “theory” and “origin of agriculture” and there were geographical areas, by continent and country. Virtually every single monograph or collection of essays not part of a serial were to be found on these shelves, sub-ordered by author or editor’s last name. So, you could look for a particular author in each region and subtopic and find every book that person wrote without knowing in advance what books existed, or you could get all of the basic information about a particular region or major archaeological problem by going to the right location on the shelves. The card catalog was for wimps.

The “Learned Society” section (pronounced “Learn Ed Society”), two floors up, contained series and periodicals (even the periodicals not linked to an actual “Learned Society”). Here the topics and regions were divided differently because periodicals may be more or less topically or regionally specialized. But it was still easy to use the geography of paper on shelves to explore. If I wanted to find a few cites to crazy European racist physical anthropology, I’d saunter half way down the room and browse through 1930s issues of the journals “Man” or “Homo.” If I wanted to find out the latest paleoclimate information, I’d go to “Quaternary Studies” on the “Just received, not indexed or filed” rack. And so on.

It was all there. The body of knowledge that is Anthropology was contained within the walls, floors, and ceiling and there was virtually no established knowledge not present in this spatially organized corpus. (Yes, that is a tautology, but an appropriate one.)

I spent a lot of time in that library, but I also spent time in the lounge on the fifth floor of the building next door hanging around with a bunch of reproductive ecologists led by Peter Ellison (author of On Fertile Ground: A Natural History of Human Reproduction), and hearing about their research (and teaching it in tutorials with them). Whatever was written down on paper in the Tozzer Library about lactation or fertility was being re-written by these researchers, who were collecting blood and spit and various data in several regions around the world and testing/rejecting hypotheses and building better and better models of how and why a woman first ovulates, how and why a woman lactates, what causes either of these to not happen, and so on. At any given moment they had a set of reasonably well founded conceptions to stand on as they peered beyond the confines of a fictive ‘library’ of knowledge, observing, making sense of, and occasionally capturing new stuff for inclusion into the library. Or should I say the formerly unknown.

The geography, the spatial relationships of things in their laboratory and field sites, was different than in the library. It was like they were standing at far end of a room full of books and periodicals, with no walls separating the room from the outside, standing on the edge of an unfinished floor and observing poorly resolved things floating around before them that might or might not be useful data or other constructs. Shapeless forms of possible knowledge floating in the dark and cold unknown. Every now and then the scientist is able (using some tool or another) to grab on to one of these poorly defined forms in an attempt to wrestle it into a place where it could be understood. Sometimes, the thing they would grab would be reformed into books and articles to add to the shelves in their proper place. Sometimes (often) putting the new item on the shelf required tossing what was already there out into the vague abyss at the edge of the room, sometimes the thing they grabbed would wriggle free and escape before sense was made of it. Sometimes it would be thrown back because it was crap.

When I was not in the lounge or in the library I was in the field, either doing archaeology or working with living people in the rain forest, in Zaire (now Congo) or, sometimes, in the US. Every day, I was standing on the edge of this unfinished flooring, all the books behind me on their shelves, and all this stuff happening in front of me, standing there with my various colleagues like bears at the edge of an Alaskan stream trying to catch salmon (facts) as they sped by, or like the Hmong fisher people down the street from my house trying to gather random anadromous fish into some form they can use on the edge of the wide raging rapids that is the Mississippi at this point. Or like hapless fly fishermen wading into a …. oh never mind, you get the point.

Somebody would say something. Some people would do something. Somebody would dig something up. Some measurement would show a relationship between two things …. and a “known thing” would begin to form. I remember noticing a strange line of quartz rocks that ran along the ground through the base camp. At other times I noticed similar lines of rocks. A year later I noticed after I assembled some of my data that there were always extra quartz rocks at and down stream from places were foraging trails crossed streams. After collecting more data I noticed that certain kinds of quartz artifact-bearing archaeological sites were found in certain locations. Then, it all came together: The parent rock was a granite-like material with major faults running in a certain direction that had all been filled (about a billion years ago) with quartz. So, as the landscape slowly eroded down, lines of extra hard quartz caused narrow restrictions on the otherwise marsh-flanked streams, which made for ideal human crossing points. These crossing points were also loci for acquisition of the quartz to use for making stone tools, and above the crossing points on one side or the other of the stream were ideal places to camp. (The stream system, by the way, was officially “rectilinear” in form because of these faults and quartz veins.) Thus, there was a clear relationship between the region’s geography, geology, and human spatial behavior that was manifest in a certain distribution of archaeological sites as well as another interesting thing: A totally laissez faire attitude on the part of the people who lived there as to where one could find quartz rocks (which they rarely used but were quite aware of). “Oh, you can always find that kind of rock, down there by the stream” spoken in the specific way one speaks when referring to “any down there” in relation to “any stream” from where I am sitting in “any camp.” Like in any kitchen the silverware tends to be in a certain drawer, and in any grocery store the eggs tend to be near the milk, and so on.

So a set of seemingly unconnected and maybe not even important shapes, floating around beyond the edge of the unfinished floor, were drawn together to form a cogent, interesting if esoteric observation of science, and was ultimately manifest as a paragraph or two in my thesis. On the shelf behind me.

Doing science means working the edge of that flooring. If you really want to understand, at a deep level, the stuff on the shelves, you need to understand how observation made it into the established form as it becomes part of the body of knowledge (and I quickly add, by “body of knowledge” I do not mean “facts” but rather the broader range of facts, ideas, models, theories, methods, methodology, etc.). One need not work at the edge of the flooring to ‘get’ what is in the books, but it helps. Ask any teacher who has taught a subject for a while, then has the opportunity to work on the edge of the flooring, in a lab or field site somewhere, and then returns to teaching, if there is a difference between having done it and not having done it.

But there is actually a slightly different point I want to make here. We have been speaking about expertise, and trust, and so on. As part of this conversation, some are arguing that it is way better to engage in the factual argument and the logic behind a certain position in science than to just trust someone else who, as an expert, may have a valid opinion. I agree, of course. That is better. But I think that what a lot of people are NOT getting is that many non-scientists who THINK they are engaging in the direct assessment of facts and the personal engagement with the relevant rational thinking in a certain area may not really be doing so. They may know a lot about a topic, and that is good, and it is better to know a lot than to take someone’s word for it. But there is very often a great deal that goes into the making of the facts and the construction of the theories that people are not personally directly engaged in and individuals may in fact know very much less about a certain topic than they think they do.

I will give you an example. On a recent TV special on human evolution, a great deal was made of the presence of a nicely made hand ax (a stone tool commonly linked to the Acheulean Culture, which is in turn commonly linked to Homo erectus) in a European site. This was interesting because it was pretty AND made of a stone thought to be rare in the area, and made rather nicely. The curation of cool looking objects is a very human thing, and the hominids that lived in this area were not exactly humans, so the presence of this object makes us think maybe they were human-like.

To an Africanist such as myself, this is important and interesting, but not impressive. In Africa, for perhaps a few hundred thousand years prior to the date of that European sites, pretty hand axes made of raw materials from far away are known from a number of locations and during time periods when the hominids could not have been modern humans. This curation of pretty stuff (or, alternatively, really effective stuff that happened to be pretty to our modern standards) is important but the European site is just one of many data points like this. The producers of that special did not know that, apparently.

So the common knowledge one would gain from watching this special is inadequate for one to consider oneself an expert. So, perhaps the person should read a book or two rather than just watching TV.

The average American who has an interest in this area will have read a dozen or so books about archaeology or human evolution (or the evolution of the human mind, or whatever) most of which would also not have the African data points identified. Of all the popular books on this period of archeology that I’ve read, I can think of only a couple that mention the African data in this regard. The African data is well known (to experts) and well published, and there are dozens of references to relevant facts about the African Acheulean and its hand axes, but they are all in the “expert literature” and virtually absent form the “popular literature.”

Another quick example: There is not a single characterization of the archaeology of a given region in Jared Diamond’s popular book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” that is not questionable in its detail. Diamond is not an archaeologist and it shows. His overall point is probably valid, but if you want to have a nuts and bolts discussion on his key thesis, reading his book (and five or ten other popular books about world archeology) is only going to get you part way there.

In the post linked to above I compared a hypothetical person with multiple PhD’s and a good reputation and active research profession in a given area with an other person with no training or experience in the same area but who read part of a popular book on that topic. I suggested that all else being equal and with no further information, if both individuals claimed to have a groundbreaking new idea in that area, the former’s idea can be estimated to be more likely valid than the latter. When I originally wrote that in 2009, several commenters disagreed. The disagreements ranged from people who did not quite get the starkness of the contrast I was making to those who thought that democratic voting on what is true vs. not is more important than actually knowing stuff. One reason someone might not get the starkness of the contrast is because they don’t know what it is like to stand on the edge of the unfinished floor in the virtual library of science. One reason that someone might think that several uninformed opinions can lead to more knowledge than doing the hard work of science is perhaps because they have never stood on the edge of the unfinished floor and thus can’t appreciate the value of knowledge discovered and considered over “knowledge” that randomly flies out of one’s backside.

People need to engage in science by doing it. And, frankly, having done so increases one’s qualifications to understand science itself. Doing science in one area does not qualify someone to understand the body of knowledge in a totally different area, but it does allow one to understand what is involved in knowledge generation in ways that simply engaging in the end product does not allow.

What we need (among other things) is more opportunity for people to engage in the activity of science.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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One thought on “Try standing at the edge of knowledge for a while. You’ll like it.

  1. Iron Dome program. So already on Day 2 of the conflict Israel has spent 5.2 Million dollars using Iron Dome. Wonder how much more they will be willing to use it.

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