Friday, 10 August 2007

we know more than we can tell

What does riding a bicycle tell us about science and knowledge? (Photo:Webshots)

We live in a world where science and technology rule. So much so that some people seem to think that the only kind of real knowledge is that revealed by science. "Show us the evidence" they say, "We only believe what can be demonstrated." It all sounds very reasonable. It is, in fact, an expression of a philosophy known as positivism: "the only way we can know something is through empirical evidence, that is, observable via our senses."

Michael Polanyi was a scientist and philosopher who lived through much of the twentieth century. He reacted against positivism, and came to the conclusion that "We know more than we can tell".

From his and others' insights have come the ideas of tacit knowledge and the relevance paradox. Tacit knowledge is the information we carry in our heads that cannot be easily explained through logical statements. How to ride a bicycle might be an example - it cannot be learnt from a textbook, but requires experience and practice.

The relevance paradox arises where a group of people miss important information because they did not recognise its relevance. A classic example (according to Wikipedia) was when NASA scientists were trying to develop a knee joint for a spacesuit, and finally found that their problem had been solved centuries before, and the solution could be seen in King Henry's suit of armour in the tower of London.

Why is all this important? I want to suggest three reasons:

1. Tacit knowledge has been found to be important in innovation and research. Despite the scientific method being all about testing the evidence, many top scientists say that their initial ideas came via inspiration, which were then verified by evidence. Sometimes we know more than we can tell.

2. We have been burned many times by the relevance paradox, for example, in ecology. In Australia, foreign plant and animal species have been introduced for some purpose thought good at the time, but almost all have turned out disastrously:

  • foxes and rabbits were introduced for sport, but now wreak environmental havoc;
  • European Carp and the lantana plant were let loose in the wild and now are in pest proportions;
  • cane toads were introduced to control two species of beetle which are pests for cane growers, but have multiplied and spread across vast areas of northern Australia, leading to much destruction of native species
  • non-native feral cats are one of the biggest threats to many smaller native animals and birds which have never before had to cope with such voracious and vicious predators.

European settlers in Australia didn't understand the environment they were effectively experimenting with - and fell victim to the relevance paradox.

3. I think there is a danger that twenty-first century western culture is falling foul of the relevance paradox and ignoring tacit knowledge in many ways. So much of what we know and do is changing so fast, from ethics to relationships to information and entertainment. It is like we are in the middle of an enormous social experiment and we don't know where we'll end up. Some of the gains are enormous, for example in medicine and communication, but I can't help feeling we may be throwing away some of the intangibles like ethics, courtesy, faith, altruism and common decency a little too fast. We may live to regret it. We know more than we can tell, but not as much as we think we do.

It is interesting to note that sociologists tell us that "modernism", built on the certainties of science has now almost passed, and given way to "postmodernism", which has far fewer certainties. But that's another story.

Read what Wikipedia has to say about Michael Polanyi, tacit knowledge and the relevance paradox.


  1. i think that decency will come back around. silly hope:)

    i was just talking to my husband the other day about how science has proven a lot of previously unexplained phenomena. this seems to have caused some people to rely less on their faith and more on science. i think that science will eventually be able to "explain" everything, and as history shows us, it may be re-explained a couple of times over. however even the most solid scientific evidence does not say to me that other forces are not at work. it is simply a physical explanation of what happens here on earth. i think, anyway.

  2. I think I agree 100% with what you say, especially these two points:

    "science will eventually be able to "explain" everything, and as history shows us, it may be re-explained a couple of times over"

    It is the srength of science that it continually revises as new information comes in. But this also makes it ludicrous to claim the level of certainty some people seem to claim. And scientists are also human, so there are sometimes cases where the truth is manipulated, just like in any other field of life.

    "even the most solid scientific evidence does not say to me that other forces are not at work. it is simply a physical explanation of what happens here on earth"

    Yes, I think this is a very good statement. We could consider the operations of the human brain as just electro-chemical activity, and that would be true. But I (and I think almost everyone else) also consider the brain to be a wonderful hive of human creativity, consciousness, etc. The first does not preclude the second.

    Likewise it is not unreasonable to believe, for example, in a god who is active through physical forces, in humanity and in history, while still believing in scientific laws..


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