4 min read

When Knowledge Becomes Action

In typical fashion, I’m starting this newsletter about five months after I planned to start it. Thanks for signing up — I’m glad you’re here.

My motivation for writing is simple: I don’t want to live in a stupid world.

I want to live in a world that builds knowledge wisely; that learns from experience; that experiments playfully and disseminates knowledge widely — a world that adapts to changing goals and circumstances.

This newsletter is about the barriers to building that kind of world — you know, the two or three small barriers — and how we might overcome them.

There are three essential activities that go on in any system that adapts based on knowledge:

  1. Knowledge creation
  2. Knowledge transfer
  3. Taking action

Each of these activities involve many decisions. And these activities all depend on each other.

Someone, somewhere, at some point in time, has to create knowledge in the first place. This knowledge may be preliminary, uncertain, fuzzy — in most cases, it is guaranteed to be all three. In the fields that I work in, we call knowledge creation “research,” but there’s a wide variety of activities that create knowledge. One of the older forms of knowledge creation is simple observation. I was at a place, at a time, and I saw X. The military uses reconnaissance — they need to know troop movements and fortifications and weather conditions. Observations can be systematized, as with the Babylonians meticulously tracking the movements of the planets, stars, moon, and sun. Or they can be ad hoc, like the many agricultural observations which enabled farmers around the world to plant crops at the right time and harvest them, or plant them in the right fields. Performing scientific research — on whether one instructional technique is superior to another, or on whether a policy has been cost-effective, or on how many fish there are left in the fishery — is just another form of knowledge creation. In principle, all experience might alter our prior understanding of a situation. But in practice, many experiences don’t result in significant enough changes to our knowledge to make a difference. Of course, just what is “significant” or “meaningful” remains up for debate.

There are many decisions that go into knowledge creation. These decisions ultimately shape both the knowledge that is created and how it is disseminated. You want to run an experiment. What will the control be? How will you measure outcomes? Who are you going to recruit? How large do you need your sample to be? You want to do an observational study. How will you acquire the data? What statistical techniques will you use? How will you account for various confounds?

Knowledge transfer involves communicating knowledge from someone who possesses that knowledge to someone who doesn’t. There are cases where knowledge transfer isn’t strictly necessary. Suppose you are an officer leading your soldiers on an attack and you personally witness something and make a decision based on what you witnessed. You don’t have to tell anyone what you saw — you can just decide and command. But in most of the cases, knowledge has to flow, from one person to another person, or from one community to another community, or from one format (e.g., a text representation) to another format (e.g., a visual representation). As knowledge flows in this way, it often changes its character. The simplest example of this comes from the “telephone” game, where a message is whispered from person to person. The first message transforms into a mixed-up, confused mess by the last message. People don’t hear the words precisely and fill in the gaps and there are simple misinterpretations. But in more realistic settings, other forces (beyond transcription error) are often at work. Two communities – a specialist community and a lay community for instance – may have different understandings of the same words or phrases. People opposed to disseminating the knowledge or who disagree that it is knowledge may work to sabotage or undermine the message.

Just like with knowledge creation, a huge number of decisions go into knowledge transfer. How do you frame the message so that the audience understands? How much do you simplify to facilitate understanding? What format is the transfer taking place under — is it a one-way communication, an open dialogue, a presentation, a newspaper article? What will happen from there? What other considerations should influence what the message is (e.g., fear that someone might use the knowledge for harm, as with military secrets or military technology; fear of starting a bank run or other economic collapse, etc.)? How does the message serve to further (or impede) the knowledge creation process?

Finally, there is taking action. If no one takes any action based on new knowledge or new information, then there wasn’t much of a point to creating the knowledge in the first place. The effort and capital exerted to create that knowledge went to waste. Climate change is a good example. We have “known” for several decades that human activity is causing the climate to change in deleterious ways, but the actions taken by those powerful enough to take them (namely, governments and companies) have not been commensurate with the scale of the problem, and, in many cases, have been performative, rather than substantive. That is, changes occur because you can get good press or tax reductions from them, but not because they’re fundamentally making a difference. At a social level, we have invested in knowledge creation, but dysfunctional “taking action” systems result in outcomes that are, practically speaking, the same as not knowing at all. You can see the same lag nearly everywhere you look – in medicine, in education, in policy-making, in organizational behavior.

Taking action also involves a considerable amount of problem solving and decision making. In the modern world, nearly all decisions depend upon knowledge of some sort — observations, reconnaissance, an understanding of the mechanisms involved, experimental and observational studies, etc. — but correct decisions are not determined by the existing knowledge. Beyond “correct” or ideal solutions lie questions about feasibility — logistical and political. There are tradeoffs to consider. And every action is taken under the backdrop of uncertainty. Most of the meaningful knowledge we create has at least some uncertainty associated with it. And of course, just like with knowledge transfer, taking action itself can be an act of knowledge creation – sometimes the most critical act of knowledge creation.

Functional systems/societies find ways of creating meaningful knowledge, communicating that knowledge effectively, and taking thoughtful actions based on that knowledge. In dysfunctional societies/systems, at least one of these three systems is faulty — and in the cases that I’m aware of, all of the systems are faulty.

Every email you get from this newsletter is going to explore some little bit of this larger problem so that we all might avoid folly a little bit better.

Next week, bring your wrench because we begin to plumb how misinformation circulates through our societies.

And if you want to support this newsletter, the absolute best thing you can do is to forward it to someone who would like it.

You can read my previous articles here.