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Knowledge Expertise as a Springboard instead of a Cage

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

Steve DeAngelis had an excellent and timely post on the cognitive diversity involved in the creative process of innovation, working off an article in The New York Times, Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike:

The Curse of Knowledge

“There is a lot of denial when it comes to the curse of knowledge. Nobody likes to admit that they are incapable of thinking out of the box. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on being able to envision the “next big thing.” Designers and inventors are always looking for better ways to do things. The good ones have learned tricks that help them break down the walls of knowledge. According to Rae-Dupree psychologists have conducted experiments that demonstrate that a person’s first instinct is to think about old things rather than new things. That’s not really surprising since we can only think about what we know.

‘Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist, conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her doctorate at Stanford in 1990. She gave one set of people, called ‘tappers,’ a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called ‘listeners,’ were asked to name the songs. Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent. The tappers were astounded. The song was so clear in their minds; how could the listeners not ‘hear’ it in their taps?’

….Rae-Dupree notes that there are ways to “exorcise the curse.” I have written about one of those ways before. Frans Johansson calls it “The Medici Effect” in his book of the same name. He argues in favor of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici’s, of course, were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages. Getting people with different knowledge bases together means that none of them can remain within the walls of their own knowledge domain for long. As a result, good ideas normally emerge”

Read the rest here.

Acquiring disciplinary expertise typically takes approximately a minimum of 7-10 years for the student to master enough depth of knowledge and requisite skill-sets to become an expert practitioner. In many fields, notably pure mathematics, theoretical physics and musical composition, this period of early mastery is often the most fruitful in terms of significant contributions of new discoveries or the kinds of innovations that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner consider to be “Big C” creativity. Einstein’s papers on Relativity or Newton’s early exposition of the Laws of Motion being the great historical examples of paradigm-shifting innovators. If a practitioner remains entirely in that field for their career, cultivating an ever greater and rarefied depth of knowledge ( and thus having fewer true peers and more disciples) further contributions are likely to be of the “tweaking” and “critiquing” variety. Useful but not nearly as satisfying as the grand “breakthrough” moment.

I suspect that the reason for this decline in major creativity has to do with two realities of expertise:

First, the analytical-reductionist emphasis on vertical thinking; cognitively, for an acknowledged expert, there is a great deal more time spent on mere data retrieval, interpretation within accepted frames and scanning patterns for consistency than there is original problem solving, questioning premises, speculating, imaginative brainstorming, analyzing anomalies and thinking analogically. The latter are too often the tools of the novice, the student, the child, the layman trying to grasp in the process of learning what  they do not yet fully understand. Too often these powerful ( though tiring and time consuming) cognitive skills are set aside in favor of operating on “autopilot” once the student has achieved mastery. Unless consciously practiced, the hard thinking tends to stop when one is constantly confronted by the routine.

Secondly, disciplinary fields, like all forms of collective human endeavor generate their own cultures with accepted norms, rituals, in-group terminology, orthodoxies, implicit and explicit rule-sets, authoritative hierarchies, politics, and peer presssures. As one gains seniority it becomes harder and harder to rock the boat because challenging one’s peers brings professional risk, social ostracism and conflict while validating the community’s beliefs yields rewards, advancement and praise. A phenomenon of human nature that has been observed by thinkers as disparate as Thorstein Veblen, Thomas Kuhn and Howard Bloom. Vested interests are irrational in their own defense. It is here that knowledge can be come a “curse” and expertise a form of incompetency or blindness to the larger picture ( “educated incapacity” in Herman Kahn’s terminology).

The answer to this problem requires actively determining how we will think about our knowledge. Steve pointed to cultivating “the Medici Effect” of multidisciplinary interaction in his post, a highly effective practice for organizations who want a work force rich in “intellectual catalysts”. To this, I would add another important set of variables: freedom and time. Seemingly non-productive activities, when we are “fooling around” appear to permit an indirect processing of information that leads to a burst of insight about the problem we have failed to consciously solve ( the “idea came to me in the shower” effect). Time needs to be set aside to explore possibilities with acceptance that not all on them are going to pan out ( Frans Johnansson covers these points at length in The Medici Effect). Permitting employees autonomy strikes at the power and culture of American middle-level management, which is why inculcating such practices often founder, even when introduced support of organizational leaders ( “leadership” and “management” are entirely different outlooks) due to the passive or active resistance of those whose position or status in the organization depends upon exercising control.

On the individual level, novelty is an important stimulus toward horizontal thinking. New concepts and experiences stoke our curiousity and “wake” our brains out of the usual, habitual, patterns in which we operate. Attention levels increase as we begin to operate at the beginning of the learning curve and start to recognize parallels and connections between old and new knowledge. We can also make deliberate choices to think “outside the box’ by voluntarily changing our position, perspective and scale, reversing our premises, engaging in counterfactual thought experiments and other lateral thinking exercises. In this way, we are more likely to be behaving metacognitively, aware of both our own thinking and more alert to the nature of the information that we are receiving.

We have something of a paradoxical situation. An untrained mind, looking at a field with “new eyes” is the one most likely to notice that which has eluded the expert of great experience but is least able to make use of, or even assess critically, the importance of their insights. A trained, disciplinary, mind has the capacity to extrapolate/interpolate, practically apply new insights or think consiliently with great effect but is the mind least likely to have any insights that could conflict with the major tenets of their disciplinary worldview.

Having the best of both worlds means avoiding either-or choices in cognition in favor of both. Analytical-reductionism and Synthesis-consilience have to be regarded by serious thinkers as tools of equal value. Imagination and vision should be as important to the genetic microbiologist or physical chemist as it is to the artist but they should be regarded as a complement to the scientific method and logical, critical, analysis, not as a substitute. Looking for alternative choices to a course of action should be valued as highly as correctly identifying the likeliest outcome of the action. We can embrace intellectual curiousity and shun “paralysis by analysis”.

Crossposted at Chicago Boyz.


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