Friday, February 11, 2011

Of Course It's All Wrong

In his post yesterday Everything I Know is STILL Wrong, Mark Kaufman shared his most recent discoveries in his adventures transforming diabetes into a blessing. Mark stated:
I have just taken in truckloads of new information, some of which has clarified some things for me, much of which conflicts with what I have already learned and most of which differs from practitioner to practitioner.
As I read this it occurred to me, "Well, of course. Everything we know is wrong or will be wrong soon enough."

Then it occurred to me that the equating of learning with acquiring knowledge is so pervasive and so deeply engrained that it may not occur to some people that knowing stuff is a really bad idea. So, for those of you who didn't know that knowing is a bad idea, I thought it might be useful to explain why.

What Do You Mean By That?
The knowing to which I refer is that which involves acquiring, cataloging and storing information: observing (through one or more senses), recording (memorizing formally or casually), and then recalling. To be clear the process of remembering what you see, hear, taste, feel and/or smell and then recalling it later is not bad in and of itself. However, it becomes bad when was it becomes a consistent basis for decision making. There are several reasons for this.

Error on Input
First of all, what we remember is rarely if ever what actually happened. What we see, hear, etc. is filtered as it is absorbed and processed by our sensory systems and then reviewed and cataloged by our brains.

People who say that they've tried sushi, but just couldn't get over the idea of eating raw fish, have never actually tried sushi; they've tried eating icky, bacteria-laden raw fish. A mom listening to her daughter singing in the school pageant hears something completely different than a friend who is a musician listening to the recording three days later. A couple arguing over finances each hear and recall completely different statements.

Ultimately, very little of what actually transpired makes it to memory.

In the age of easy access to information via Wikipedia and Google... in a time of voyeuristic access to the lives of others via Facebook and Twitter... in a service-oriented economy where very little of what we do, we do ourselves... most everything we know is not from first hand experience and direct observation. Very little is even second hand or third hand or fourth hand. Even researchers who publish papers on studies they've conducted tend to perform little of the hands-on research, delegating it to lab assistents, grad students and outside contractors.

Information is passed from one person to the next like a geographically and culturally distributed game of telephone. Even when each person in the chain does her best to accurately relay the information, she can't help but altering it somehow. And even if the exact message is relayed perfectly, the semantics employed by the person who observed and recorded the actual phenomenon are never exactly the same as the person reading or hearing about it. The very best you can do is to get an interpretation of what was observed expressed as facts.

The published papers themselves are filled with references to other published papers which in turn are filled with references to yet others, citing stacked upon citing stacked upon citing like a house of cards ready to topple if any one of them is inaccurate.

Most Research is Done Poorly
As I sat in the office next to a colleague who was working on her PhD conference with her advising professors, one of the professors kept harping on the results of her most recent experiment saying that they were not publishable. The experiment measured the change in frequency of a specific phenomenon observed over a two hour period. The change was remarkable, about 360%. However, in terms of absolute numbers it was just 0.7 times per minute.

One of the professors (a full tenured professor at a well recognized university) was insistant that the results were insignificant because they were "less than one". My colleague tried to explain that although the increase was indeed less than once per minute, the frequency was more than three times what it had been.

After about 20 minutes of overhearing the discussion, I leaned over, pressed the mute button on the phone and said, "Forty-two times per hour. Just say, 'Forty-two times per hour.'"

My colleague smiled at me, de-muted the phone and said, "Well, another way to think about this is that there was an increase of forty-two times per hour."

The phone went quiet and then the professor responded, "Well, OK, that's different then."

As I've been reading more and more studies on things like nutrition, medications and psychology, I've been amazed at how poorly they've been constructed. The conclusions are often based more on the citations than on the experimental results, the controls are incomplete, and the data flawed. The flaws appear to be systemic and in a system that prizes knowing, they're accelerating.

Predictive or Prescriptive?
When you know something, you tend to anticipate outcomes (based on what you know). This can be quite useful. However, anticipation also leads to filtering what you observe so that it aligns with what you anticipate, i.e., anticipation is not just predictive, it's prescriptive.

Iris and I hopped into our rental car in Las Vegas ready to go see the Grand Canyon. I pulled out the keys which were kind of funny looking. There were to electric door-lock dongles and just one key that looked more like it would fit a glove box than it would an automobile ignition. I looked for the key slot on the steering wheel column, but couldn't find it. Then I noticed something on the dash that must have been it. I pushed the key into the slot, but it didn't engage.

After about ten minutes of trying to figure out why the key wouldn't start the car, it occurred to me that it must and that I had something completely wrong. I started over looking at the key chain and then noticed that the shape of the plastic electric-lock dongle matched the shape of the slot on the dashboard. Hmmm... I slotted it into the dash and the car started.

Not having driven a car newer than 2004 and not being particularly interested in cars, I hadn't heard of what I then discerned were a new generation of intelligent ignition keys. I knew what car keys looked like, and what I had in my hand didn't match what I knew to be a key. However, when I abandoned what I knew and just observed, the problem was easily solved.

But I Read That
Pretty much everything that you read as a kid has been updated and changed. Pop psychology, physiology and science magazines tend to be wrong before they're published and wiki's are a crap shoot.

Knowing Leads to Dementia and Obsolescence
The cost of relying on knowing versus say, thinking or figuring out, is that your brain atrophies and you dig out neural ruts that make it difficult to think any other way.

Further, knowledge is to the brain as paralysis is to a stroke victim. Many stroke victims suffer some form of localized, partial paralysis. If the right hand is partially paralyzed, then the stroke victim will naturally favor his left. So, to help recover the use of his right hand, therapists will often restrict the movement of the left, forcing the stroke victim to use his right.

Analogously, we tend to favor and use that which we know in effect leaving other aspects of who we are paralyzed.

What's the Alternative
If we've been taught that knowing is a good thing, something to be valued and lauded, then what are the alternatives?

The key is to replace knowing with thinking. To do this you need to:
  1. Memorize as little as possible, only the key pieces that are essential to understanding
  2. Learn as much as possible through hands-on experience
  3. Never accept anything simply because it was published or an expert said it, but instead, take each assertion and work it through yourself to see if you can come to the same conclusion on your own.
  4. Practice figuring out that which you don't know.
  5. Practice explaining what you do know to a fifth grader. If you can't explain it, well...

As a kid I could never do math and I barely made it through high school.

When I landed a clerical job at Bell Labs, I enrolled in a company-sponsored night school program in computer science. At the time, it was the only way I could see to get ahead and make more money. The first class I had to take was a math class, calculus, and I had no idea how I would handle it; I couldn't manage algebra, let alone calculus.

The evening session was so sparsely populated that the college cancelled it. I couldn't make the day session, but I needed to take the calculus class before I could take other classes and I needed to take the other classes to get a better job and I needed the better job to make more money and my daughter Eila was on the way. So, I asked the professor if I could simply show up for the tests having no idea as to how I'd actually pull it off.

I bought five separate text books and tried to teach myself calculus, but to no avail. I just couldn't remember all the stuff. Then one day, I started treating calculus like music, not memorizing, but practicing the rudiments. Over time, I learned how to build up calculus from each of the little piece-parts that I'd practiced. I couldn't remember calculus, but I could derive it, build it myself.

I not only passed the class, but I got the highest score on the final exam and my first "A" in math ever, all while knowing very little.

Since then, for me, knowing has been a bad idea.

So, whatdya know?

Happy Friday,


  1. Excellent points, Tef. It's taken me a long time to come around, but I used to be firmly in the learn/know-something-and-live-off-of-it-for-ever camp. Even now, it's an effort to remind myself that knowledge gets obsolete very swiftly.

    A couple of related points: when I switched specialties (within mechanical engineering) a few years ago, it was a shock at first. I'd attend meetings where most of the technical stuff would go right over my head. But quite soon, I realized to my surprise that I had quite a few useful inputs to offer, and on more than one occasion, either set some 'experts' straight technically or resolved some hopeless muddles they got into. So since then I've been much less intimidated by 'experts' and much more comfortable wading into unknown waters. And what you say about most research being done poorly is tragically true in the case of the vaccine-autism connection.

  2. Here's an excerpt from a piece I recently read about knowledge & thinking:

    Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now — older people as well as younger people — you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

  3. Bravo!!! I was thinking (yes, THINKING) about this very subject yesterday and had set an intention devote some space to it in next week's blog. You have gone all the way with the idea and laid it out in beautiful detail. As I read your words today I have become aware of how very  focused I am on the acquisition of information at this point and am setting an intention to stop and smell the point as I go along. Suddenly Faithe's message about building understanding by finding the question and then hanging information on that makes concrete sense to me. Way cool!
    So the point for me is.....
    (Gotcha! you thought I was going to walk away all happy knowing I want to formulate my question without ever actually doing it.)
    OK, the question I'm teaching myself to answer is "How do I change my life which created this diabetes to make it go away and what do I need to do to keep it from further damaging me until I have sent it packing?".
    Not too shabby as mission statements go, but I welcome anyone's proposals for modifications. 
    An interesting by-product of this question is that although I am collecting lots of information about how diabetes works, that is not the goal. In fact all that info is rendered academic when I have lost the remaining 144 lbs. and rehabilitated my liver and pancreas to normal operation. Funny how often we distract ourselves in the pursuit of understanding how we got where we are and thus forget to think about where we want to go. 

  4. Sree,
    I love the metaphor, "marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom". Seems that there are many marinades in which we actively drench ourselves: the marinade of other people's opinions, the marinade of approval, the marinade of higher education, the marinade of television news, and so on. Before you know it, all you can taste is the marinade.

    Thank you too for pointing out the in-it-but-not-of-it balance that I think Emerson alludes to. I imagine there is some small set of questions that one could ask herself regularly just to see how well that balance is being maintained. Hmmm...

    Mark K, I love that you're asking questions and thinking about answers rather than looking them up. You may end up having to relinquish your title as the world's fastest draw on iPhoned Wikipedia references. I think you've got a great mission statement and I love the jujitsu you pulled on the "moving away from diabetes" flipping it into the moving towards a healthy liver and pancreas and a 2?? pounds.

    BTW, what would your target weight be? What would some of the other moving towards items be?

    Thanks guys!

  5. Tef -
    I forgot you can't do math ;). I am now 334, down from 364. Take away another 144 and you get my target weight of 190 lbs.

  6. Tef: you raised the idea of "some small set of questions that one could ask herself regularly just to see how well that balance is being maintained". I would love a discussion on that, but for those of us who have more poise than action, we could also use a discussion on assessing our level of action/momentum.


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