Recognising what we know

There is a very funny scene in an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Penny asks Sheldon and Leonard trivia questions about famous American rock bands. Needless to say they are clueless. Not even Sheldon’s eidetic memory could rescue him. Penny’s infamous smirk was never funnier.

So now, do you know what this is?

equation

Don’t worry. A thousand people chosen at random from the population probably wouldn’t know either.

Most folk would be able to tell you that it was ‘some science shit’ and a few of them might know it was an equation for something.

Just one or two would recognise the mathematical notation for the third law of thermodynamics that states all processes cease as temperature approaches absolute zero.

But if more than two out of 1,000 people knew this you would suspect that the sampling was far from random. Perhaps it took place in the coffee break of a theoretical physics congress attended by Dr Coopers.

Now, of course, if you did sample 1,000 delegates from said congress, not all of them would recognise the equation. But I digress from my main point, which is this…

Each of us can only know a tiny fraction of what is known.

Even the eidetic can only remember what they have seen or heard. And for those of us who forget all the time, then our fraction can be small indeed.

The curious thing is that rather than get to know a little about a lot, people specialise. Either by choice or just as a default from our experiences we focus. After a while we all know quite a lot about something.

There are people who know more than seems possible about the cutting tolerances of a lathe or the rules that govern a financial balance sheet. There will be someone who can recite by heart the poems of Keats and someone else who can quote the test batting averages of all players in the current Indian cricket squad and then proceed to tell you why many of them should never have been selected.

This accumulation of specific knowledge is very useful. It gives us great depth in technical and practical matters. How else would an accounting firm provide services or repairs be made to a faulty MRI scanner? Not to mention brewing a decent coffee.

We need people who know the details.

What has struck me of late is just how specialised we have become and how little this means we know when presented with material outside our expertise. Just like Sheldon and Leonard, we are easily at a loss.

And yet we also take for grated what we know.

Because I have been in the guts of ecological science in research, teaching and my consulting practice for far too long, I take scientific knowledge for granted. For example, I can easily see the link between grazing management and soil carbon — graze too hard and soil carbon declines — and the net environmental benefits of changes to grazing practices that stop or even reverse that soil carbon decline.

What I can’t do is assume that a specialist in financial assurance will see or believe that such a link exists. She needs evidence. And as the language and logic flow falls outside her expertise she will need some persuading.

This is usually not a problem because ecology and accounting speak happening in the same room is about as rare as a female financial specialist. Except that they are about to collide.

The next decades will require that food production doubles or a lot of people will go hungry. Hungry people are not easily or righty ignored and the only way to feed them will be to invest in more efficient food production, distribution and storage systems.

It will be a time for specialisms to be recognised and respected. Times approach when the lion will lie down with the lamb… and come to some agreement.

This will only happen if expertise and depth of knowledge is respected. If we have to spend all the time convincing each other we actually know stuff then the solution will slip away.

So be grateful that someone among the 1,000 knows the formula for the third law of thermodynamics and don’t dismiss her for being odd.

It will be smarter to listen to she has to say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s