Thursday, April 02, 2015

Thinking about rules for knowledge seeking

Whatever your religion, most people on earth follow a different one. Throughout the ages, most people thought the earth was flat and the sun and stars were in orbit over a stationary world. "Seeing is believing", but we know that there are optical illusions; lawyers know that eye-witness testimony is often wrong. Such facts should help one to understand that what one believes to be true now might not be true.
  • Perhaps the first rule in thinking should be to realize one may be wrong. Even the strongest belief should be held with a grain of salt.
There are thousands of languages spoken in the world, and no one has ever learned more than a handful of them. There are millions of places to see in the world, and no one has ever seen them all. There are billions of people living today, and no one can meet more than a tiny fraction of them. There are millions of books available to read, with more published each year, and no one can master more than a tiny fraction of them. Such facts should help one to understand that one can not know everything there is to know. Indeed, one should not try to form an opinion on everything.
  • Perhaps the second rule in thinking should be to focus on a limited number things to know and understand.
Not all knowledge is equally important to a person; the value of specific pieces of knowledge varies from person to person. Some knowledge such as how to protect the health and safety of children should be valued by everyone. Knowledge needed to do one's job well and advance in one's career will depend on that job and that career, but is likely to be important. Knowledge about the price of beans in Nepal is likely to be important only to people who eat beans and live in Nepal.
  • Set priorities. and seek to learn about those things that are important to you and that you have a good chance of learning.
It costs time and effort (and sometimes money to obtain information and turn it into knowledge.
  • Seek the knowledge that is worth the seeking; don't waste time, effort and money seeking knowledge that isn't worth the cost to you. Do you really have to form an informed opinion about every sporting contest, every crime, every person celebrating her 15 minutes of fame?
  • Sometimes your knowledge is good enough for your practical purposes; don't spend more time, effort and money getting knowledge that won't change your opinion and/or won't change your decision.
  • Realize, according to the first rule that your priorities are likely to miss some things you should know and have you learn things you will never need nor use.
Society has evolved means to come to relatively accurate conclusions about matters of fact over thousands of years. The sciences are an excellent case in point, and while some of the sciences produce assertions that are more credible than others, scientific consensus is pretty trustworthy. Trial by jury, under a rule of law, with well trained advocates representing each side is also a reasonably effective means of reaching a reasonably credible solution to certain kinds of mysteries. Some professionsl (such as medicine and law) require members to have high levels of knowledge, guaranteed by training and licensing. We race horses to discover which runs faster; teams compete to find out which is better at its sport. Organized religions also have means to discover which assertions are more credible; thus religious scholars seek to identify errors that may have crept into early texts, or to reason the logical implications in changing circumstances to the articles of their faith. Perhaps then:
  • Look to credible sources for information to inform your knowledge;
  • If a credible source is in the process of seeking knowledge on an issue, perhaps you should suspend judgment on that issue until the work of the source is completed. (I have increasingly wondered why people jump to judgement about crimes covered in the media instead of waiting for a jury to do its duty.)
Some sources of information are not so credible. Ask if the people pushing the information benefit if you believe it; used car salesmen, television pitch men, and politicians running for office are not the only ones who may be pushing bad information. News media are seeking eyes -- they are not necessarily in the truth business. For example, the newest, most unexpected scientific result you hear about may never be replicated and may sink into oblivion.
  • Avoid relying on sources for information that lack credibility.
  • If you do get information from a source you don't trust, it may be worth the effort to check out the source and look for confirmation of the information.
The value you ascribe to different kinds of knowledge should change over your lifetime. It may be important to know how to take multiple choice tests well when you are a student, but in adult life you are seldom if ever asked to take multiple choice tests. Starting out in a job you normally are asked to master relatively simple duties, but if you advance to management the duties change and new knowledge is required. The knowledge of how to get some one to marry you is different than the knowledge needed to have a successful marriage; parenting brings whole new realms of knowledge needs that also change with time.
  • Don't be a perpetual sophomore! Look for the knowledge you will need, before you need it. "Just in time" knowledge acquisition strategies are pretty dangerous.
You never really know what you will really need to know. Moreover, it is often useful to be seen by those around you as well informed. Today an educated person is expected to have general knowledge. In an increasingly globalized world, what happens on other continents affects your life. History, Economics, Geography, Political Science, Philosophy, Psychology and other subjects are worth knowing.
  • Read non-fiction and learn about the world in general.
Shakespeare's Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Richard III don't seek historical accuracy, but they they can teach deeper knowledge about how people can be and why they do what they do. How do you know these plays are worth your attention? Well they have been in pretty continuous production for half a millennium, they have challenged the best actors of generation after generation, and they are obviously key sources of our literary culture:
  • Attend to great fiction and learn how different people are and what can motivate them.
After 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars dragged on for more than a decade and cost trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives (and uncounted lives in other countries. Citizens will pay for the wars for decades, and surviving disabled soldiers for the rest of their lives. The wars destabilized a whole region of the world. Citizens of the United States, and indeed of all countries, could have influenced their governments and through their governments these events, but only if they had followed those events in the news.
  • Spend some of your learning resources following the news on the most credible sources you can find.
Knowledge depreciates. Once it was important to know about horses and buggies, but later it became important to know about automobiles and the horse and buggy know how lost value.  As computer chips became more powerful, and less expensive for a given level of ability, smart phones were added to tablets, which were added to laptops, which were added to desk top computers; the knowledge of computers and software multiplied exponentially, and some of the old knowledge lost its value completely.
  • Renew your knowledge as needed, and don't bother to keep up knowledge that has lost its value.
The arguments above suggest that people should think about meta-knowledge -- knowledge about knowledge. Choose more rather than less credible sources of information; focus your knowledge acquisition where it will do the most good -- that is get you the most benefit in your life for the time, effort and money you devote to learning (and forgetting).
  • Plan your learning and forgetting so as to husband your learning resources and to optimize the benefits you obtain from what you learn.
Bill Clinton plays the saxophone and Barack Obama knows basketball (as apparently does everyone in Indiana). Some people love garden flowers and know a lot about them, others prefer nature and know about wildlife. Knowing things can be fun, and you need some fun in your life.
  • Learn things for the fun of knowing them. No one ever died regretting that they enjoyed life too much.

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