Monday, January 29, 2007

Acquiring knowledge is acquiring a skill

I recently described one way that acquiring knowledge is like learning a language. This post describes another.

That earlier post argued that like our language ability, knowledge (particularly that forming the core of our picture of the world) is mainly constructed out of innate types of structures, by unconscious processes that integrate the information received from our environment.

The similarity I want to draw here is that both acquiring knowledge and learning a language are matters of acquiring skills. While that last post concentrated mainly on unconsciously obtained knowledge, this post seems to apply more to consciously learnt knowledge.

Acquiring knowledge is, in particular, like an adult acquiring a second language.

Acquiring a language is developing a skill: a skill in using the language. This process has the following properties.

You can't just memorise the details. You have to actually practise hearing and speaking the language.

As you learn more, you're not just learning more details of the language, you're also refining your existing abilities.

And of course, it all takes substantial time and practise.

What you end up with is fluency. Whatever you want to say, in whatever context, you just know how to do it. You don't have to think it through, you can just do it, in real time. Not only can you speak the language, but you can think in it.

All skill acquisition goes through such drawn out processes of refinement, ending in fluency. What I want to suggest is that acquiring knowledge is like this too.

Like with language, acquiring knowledge is really a matter of being able to use the information.

Like with language, it is not something you can just memorise. It's not just a matter of fixing a bunch of facts in you head. You need to see the information being used in different contexts, and try using it yourself.

You need to see the information being related to different things, reasoned about in various ways, and so forth. You need to apply it yourself, in thinking and other problem solving tasks.

Similarly to language, as you learn more, you're not just learning more information, but you're refining your existing picture of things. You refine your appreciation of how the bits of information relate to each other, and you refine your ability to make use of the information in your thinking.

Also, you can come to see how the information conflicts with other beliefs you hold (and potentially try and resolve these conflicts).

And like with language, it all takes substantial time and practise.

What you end up with is a kind of fluency, too. In a given situation, you know if the knowledge is relevant or not, and in what ways it may be relevant. And you can just do this, without having to think it through (or without having to think it through as much). And not only can you recall the knowledge, you can think in terms of it.

This is pretty different to the usual view of knowledge. There's a common belief that knowing something is just knowing the fact(s) associated with it, and being able to express them. And that if you know this, then that's all there is to it -- it's just assumed that you understand how it relates to other things, that it is genuinely assimilated into your worldview, that you understand what other beliefs it conflicts with, that you are able to reason effectively with it, and that you in fact do apply the information, that knowledge, when it is appropriate to what you are thinking about.

But all of these things don't come for free, from just knowing the facts. They are developed over time. And its probably quite rare that anyone's knowledge of a particular area gets as fully developed as it can be.

If acquiring knowledge is acquiring a skill, then this explains, I think, why writing about or teaching a topic is a good way to learn it. In other words, if acquiring knowledge was not a skill, then going to such lengths in applying it wouldn't be of that much use.

Why does writing about it help acquire that skill? The drafting process helps you build an understanding of how the information fits together. It helps you to explore the relationships between things. It gives you the necessary practise to build the knowledge.

That process tends to drive you forwards, to fix lackings in your understanding of these things. Wherever your writing contains a lack of coherence or forcefulness, this tends to reflect an lacking in your understanding of it, and working on these problems means improving that understanding.

InnoCentive problems more likely to be solved by 'outsiders'

An article in the Wall Street Journal titled 'Prizes for Solutions to Problems Play Valuable Role in Innovation' says:


Now, a proliferation of prizes is attracting bright minds to stubborn problems.

InnoCentive, a company spun off six years ago by drug maker Eli Lilly, charges clients ("seekers") to broadcast scientific problems on a Web site where scientists ("solvers") are offered cash -- usually less than $100,000 -- for solutions; more than 50 challenges are now pending (see the site).


After examining 166 problems posted by 26 research labs on the InnoCentive site over four years, Karim Lakhani, a Harvard Business School professor, found 240 people, on average, examined each problem, 10 offered answers and 29.5% of the problems were solved. (Read Mr. Lakhani's blog.)

One surprise: The further the problem was from a solver's expertise, the more likely he or she was to solve it. It turns out that outsiders look through a completely different lens. Toxicologists were stumped by the significance of pathology observed in a study; within weeks after broadcasting it, a Ph.D. in crystallography offered a solution that hadn't occurred to them.

I mention this because of the common, though not always explicit, belief that you have to be formally trained in something to have any sort of 'expertise' concerning some aspect of it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

How do societes evolve?

How do societies evolve? I’m quite interested in this question, and I want to explain a little about what I mean by it and why I think it's an important topic.

How, is a society built, from its beginnings in ‘primitive bands’ to the complex forms we see today, with their many laws, insitutions, and so forth?

It seems to happen by piecemeal evolution -- you can't jump straight from a hunter-gatherer society to a modern democratic society -- but what are the actual details of this process? (i.e. like other complex systems, it's a matter of laddered skills).

For example, how does a policing system arise? What conditions are required for that to happen? And what developments does it enable?

What sorts of structures are found within our socieities, and what is the ‘division of labour’ between them?

What are the general themes at work societal evolution? One seems to be the ability to put increasing levels of trust in individuals and insitutions, which seems to enable more complex structures to be built within socieities.

What are the general driving forces behind the development? One seems to be improved communication mechanisms, that allow information to be transmitted more accurately, over greater distances in shorter amounts of time. That example is, in turn, an instance of technological evolution, which seems to be a significant driving force, though it is of course only one of the many facets of this issue.

I have limited knowledge of what we currently know about these issues. How much do we know? Under this general umbrella of ‘the evolution of society’, there is a lot of exiting work, but how much of this goes beyond just chronicling the changes, to an analysis specifically focused on the nature of the evolution itself?

What is the value of understanding how societies evolve? I can think of two main areas. I think it's important for understanding the nature of the institutions and other elements within our societies, and I think it's a large source of insight into human psychology.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of the instituions and other elements of societies, and I think understanding them from an evolutionary standpoint would be a good way to understand their nature.

For example, the law seems to be commonly thought of as some sort of abstract force. John Searle's book The Construction of Social Reality is an attempt to clear up some of these misunderstandings and understand such institutions in concrete terms.

By understanding such things from an evolutionary standpoint, it's easier to appreciate their actual, concrete realisation, because you can see the processes by which it is built, and thus the way that it is realised. And it helps us hone our intuitions about how elements of socieites can change, and how the ways in which such change is constrained.

You need to understand these sorts of things if you want to think effectively about them -- which is important in many social/political/economic matters.

It's pretty obvious that human psychology plays an important part in the evolution of societies. If we can understand such changes (and similarly, when changes were not able to occur) then we can get some useful insight into our psychology. For example, by looking at the various conditions when people will or will not put trust in institutions.

Monday, January 15, 2007

37 signals say rewriting is key in software development and writing

A 37signals post with this message: whether we’re authoring software or prose, rewriting is key. Just get started, the say -- the bulk of the process is rewriting, anyway. They also talk a bit about what you’re goals should be when re-writing. The post also contains some nice quotes on its central theme.

On the issue of writing well, one of the comments under that post recommends the book On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which I hadn’t heard of. The reviews on amazon are pretty positive -- seems it's a bit of a classic. (seems this guy has also written a book called Writing To Learn, which also sounds interesting).

Monday, January 08, 2007

Labels added to blog, and updated blog template

Blogger recently added the capability to add labels to posts, so I've added labels to this blog's backlog of posts. I also updated the blog template, removing the old sidebar with links to external sites etc, and replacing them with a list of the labels and the updated blogger blog archive widget.

These are the labels I've added