What do you know? Depending on how you completed the word is your first clue. Your second is how conscious you were in the process.
Learning and Intuition
How and what we learn depends enormously on what we already know. This is true on an individual level and true on an aggregate level. If you ever wondered how your gut knows anything, you’ll appreciate the power of learning at a deep and unconscious level to control our actions. Identical twins separated at birth who grow up in contrasting environments and circumstances do not have the same opportunities and yet what they know is strikingly similar. Facts are ideas that have been widely accepted, until additional information offer greater clarity and details emerge that bring to light a new understanding. New discoveries once they become known, rapidly assimilate and generalize knowledge within a culture. Today, the speed of communications makes the knowledge spread quickly around the globe. The information that travels great distances can be trivial or complex. The transmission neither explains how knowledge evolves or how new information displaces established facts in one time, and gives way to a completely different understanding at a later time.
For example, today we accept that the earth revolves around the sun. The western calendar and its coincident reliability with the seasons was established in 1752 and owes a great deal to Copernicus and his corrected calculations that challenged conventional wisdom that earth was the center of all other heavenly objects’ orbits. He set out to understand why Mars appeared to move differently, at times its direction appears to be eastward and other times westward. William Duggan relates the approach Copernicus used as an example of Strategic Intuition. A new form of mathematics extended calculations in trigonometry and made it possible for Copernicus to play around with commonly accepted truths. I don’t know what problem he was trying to solve precisely. Duggan tells the story in this way. He assembled different pieces of the puzzle. First, he takes a different premise, an old idea originated by Aristarchus (310-230 BCE) who suggested the sun, rather than the earth as the organizing center of other heavenly bodies rotation. Copernicus then set out to “correct” and thus reconstruct the enormous data Ptolemy collected (100-170 CE) with precision about heavenly bodies in orbit. The calculation’s precision didn’t seem to be the cause of the problem , but Ptolemy’s premise of what lay at the center, which Copernicus could now recalculate using newer mathematics. The result, Ptolemy’s initial blunder but careful observations become reliable enough to be used as tables for navigation until the 1990s when GPS largely supplanted them.
What Copernicus thought he knew, upon closer examination and further research and experimentation he was able to reconstruct a more cohesive and consistent explanation for the oddities of the rotation of Mars relative to the rest of the directional orbits. In doing so he also made an old idea far more credible. I’m sure you can think of many instances in history where progress transforms one set of ideas into another.
What you think you know
Recently Harvard Business Review, carried an interesting post by Art Markman. He describes the illusion of explanatory depth, a term used by psychologists to describe gaps in our knowledge. It’s not infrequent to find ourselves picking up new things or making new connections based on context without ever thinking them through. We sort of understand, we get the gist and go on. Failing to stop and fully comprehend this new association creates a gap or a very weak connection to our existing knowledge network. Then again, not everything we do requires us to understand, does it? Skepticism marked the arrival of the first automobiles as a viable form of alternative transportation. Only those with a full understanding of mechanics, knowledge of how the car’s different parts worked together, would be able to drive them. Preposterous today, but when they first appeared and they broke down the car was worthless, unless you knew how to fix it yourself.
Today, a calculator can compute equations with greater accuracy and speed than most individuals; but people still need to know how to build the equation to get a meaningful result. What we know and how we make use of it continues to be the single challenge to change.
Markman suggests that it’s the rich expansion of associations or deepening knowledge that makes innovation possible. Successful innovators fully test out what they know they know, or fully understand a problem, and in so doing find themselves on the path to new thinking. If it sounds like a process Copernicus followed than you are grasping the gist of my own thoughts.
This week the New York Times magazine dedicated its magazine to innovation and set out to clarify that ideas alone don’t result in innovation, but the full realization or execution of the idea. Consider the idea of a lightbulb. It required many other ideas to be worked out before the bulb itself could prove useful. Returning to Copernicus, his innovation was in the recombining of the ideas and then publishing his work in 1524. Interesting to note that Columbus had made his discovery of the Americas with the help of a device called a quadrant, and uses the triangulation calculations put to wider use, later by Copernicus.
Consciousness of our knowledge
Daniel Kahneman’s work first came to my attention as a graduate student in 1982 when I read Judgment under Uncertainty, his 1974 article published in Science magazine. His latest book Thinking Fast and slow, splendidly connects the vast amount of research undertaken in the intervening 30 years to explain how consciousness or attention does and doesn’t help us. I strongly urge you to read his book, or at least listen to his lecture Thinking that we Know, presented at the New York Academy of Sciences in May of 2012, that the New York Times so graciously posted.
The process in which we fill in of blanks such as the title of this post obviously depends on the style and complexity of the presented information and of course our prior knowledge. How did you complete the word? I bet you did it without effort, exertion or consciousness. My guess is that you chose the word experience over experiments. After all it’s a very common phrase.
Google turns up 51,000,000 results while the phrase Learning from experiments turns up 41,000,000 and text analysis capability offers a corrective suggestions with the phrase Learning from experience. The patterns of both phrases are widely recognized, parts of common usage and yet do we really know the difference between the two? I leave it to the curious minded to explore further the similarities and differences. More importantly, I’ve drawn your attention to the distinction and with it your knowledge map has begun to change.
The knowledge map of an expert allows them to recognize patterns that others rarely if ever notice. The reason is repetition, which certainly provides fluency but also expands their associations with near but not exact patterns and thus gives them an advantage or edge over casual participants.They not only know more but they recognize the patterns in their domain area faster. Practice and repeated exposure to similar situations improves knowledge and in so doing also stops our ability to see something else that may be in the frame. This is the confirmation bias that Kahneman explains and that Copernicus, Columbus and any innovator must overcome. Focus is clearly important and valuable but it can also stop us from accepting or noticing unrelated patterns just as important bu for different reasons and thus associated with other phrases or problems or knowledge maps.
Whether you wish to be strategic or merely improve your ability to address the problems that confront you, I urge you to explore more fully your assumptions and conduct experiments that test your understanding of what you know.
I invite you to share back what you discover, after all it’s what sharing does–Knowledge grows with opportunity,as more of us ask new questions to gain understanding, the discovery process begins all over again.