theory of knowledgeDuring my ten years as a Chief Knowledge Officer, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how people should use knowledge, and to some extent how people learn, but it never occurred to me to develop an overarching ‘theory of knowledge’ until I decided to write a book called The Cost of Not Knowing. This article summarizes that theory.

This is not a new epistemology. I am disinterested in academic arguments that use language, a clumsy and artificial abstraction, to try to justify theories that to me are needlessly complex, counter-intuitive and of no practical use. For students of philosophy, and I’m sure this will come as no surprise to my regular readers, my theory is consistent with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological view of epistemology. For those interested in the philosophical basis for this theory, I would recommend David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous, much of which is devoted to explaining Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. I’m merely interested in its practical implications, in work and in life.

My theory starts with learning. Learning is the process of direct and indirect experience and observation, and knowledge is simply the personal, collected, internalized result of learning. We learn in different ways (fig.1): The best way is through active participation, which engages all our senses in the learning experience. Next best is observation, where we see or hear but where some of our senses are not engaged. The least effective way is second-hand, through communication of reports from someone else. When a squirrel learns, by personal trial and error, how to defeat a baffle on a bird feeder, this is powerful knowledge, well retained and employed. When that squirrel instead watches another squirrel show how to do it, the knowledge is less valuable, less credible. The observing squirrel may not be able to replicate the other squirrel’s moves, and the method may not be the best one for the observing squirrel, which may have a different body-weight or dexterity than the demonstrating squirrel’s. And if one squirrel merely tells another, unfamiliar squirrel of the presence of food in a bird-feeder ‘over there’ that can be accessed by navigating around the baffle, that knowledge is even less valuable. The squirrel listening may doubt whether the baffle was or even can be overcome — perhaps this second-hand report is merely bragging or a ruse on the part of the reporting squirrel.

In human activities, we now get almost all of our knowledge second-hand, through books, newspapers, television and online, and its relative lack of credibility causes us to develop and assign a trust ‘rating’ to different sources, based on how often, in our experience and that of others we trust, that report has turned out to be accurate or useful. A blogroll is one manifestation of that need to rate the trust-worthiness of second-hand sources of knowledge. Schools, unfortunately, now provide almost all learning second-hand, and it is not surprising that ‘field trips’ are so loved by students — an experience to learn something first-hand. It is also not surprising that the most effective and credible form of second-hand report is the story, which conveys knowledge in a way highly analogous to the way we might have experienced it personally.

Why do we learn? The squirrel learns in order to survive — by direct participation at first in play and then, often by observing its parents, in gathering food, building a nest etc. The squirrel draws as well on instinctive knowledge, which is coded in its DNA as an evolutionary advantage, which ‘teaches’ it the knowledge of its ancestors, for example to ‘freeze’ when it senses a predator species, which is often more effective than fleeing predators whose eyesight is attuned to motion, more than shape. That instinctive knowledge also tells it at what point, as the predator approaches, to flee, based on its ancestors’ cumulative learnings of that point at which the probability of evasion through flight begins to exceed the probability of non-detection by the predator. Instinctive knowledge doesn’t need to be learned, so it doesn’t appear on fig.1 above. We’re born with it.

In natural systems, where the community, the physical area in which animals spend their entire lives, is small and almost completely ‘knowable’, we learn only to survive and make a living, and because nature has evolved us, as an adaptive mechanism, to find learning fun (fig.2). In such closed systems, we can get almost all the knowledge we need from direct experience and observation, and from our instincts — there is little need to rely on second-hand reports as a source of learning. As that physical area that we need to know to survive increases, we can no longer get by with direct experience and observation, so we need to evolve languages to convey more and more knowledge second-hand. Our society becomes inevitably more interdependent, and in addition to survival there are now three more reasons to learn:

  • To be a responsible citizen of that society we need to know as much as possible. Crows have fairly sophisticated and interdependent social structures, with ‘travellers’ that move back and forth between different crow communities, carrying information about the location of food and predators with them, and they have developed appropriately sophisticated languages to convey that second-hand knowledge. In fact, they have developed ‘body’ languages and sounds that communicate the location of food to other species (notably wolves and indigenous humans) on which they depend (since their claws are not strong enough to tear flesh and kill, they locate food for other species that can, and then eat the leftovers).
  • To be an intelligent consumer we need to know enough to evaluate our choices. In a society where you don’t just eat what you kill and live where your ancestors did, there are often more choices than we can try out through direct personal experience.
  • To understand our purpose we need to learn as much as possible about our physical world and the history of life in it. We have an instinctive desire to understand how and why things are, which serves an evolutionary purpose — it helps us to survive. As we assimilate more and more knowledge we assemble patterns and theories about how and why things are. These are belief systems (fig. 3). When early man observed how nature automatically corrected population and resource imbalances quickly and painlessly, he began to believe in a higher power. When more recently he invented civilization, a ‘man-made’ way to live apart from nature, he developed new, anthropocentric belief systems to justify and explain this new ‘separate’ purpose for living. Belief systems so powerful that they allow us to tolerate, and even celebrate, incredible suffering, and to ignore and disregard our intuitive knowledge, which is inconsistent with these belief systems.

So where does all this get us? Of what practical import is this theory? My prospective book is about the cost of not knowing, and that is the ‘so what’ of this theory:

  • Because we did not know the degree to which extreme and sustained suffering and outrage perverts the human mind, and the malleability of those minds, we allowed the slaughter of nearly a million innocent civilians in Rwanda in 1994, and of nearly 3000 in the US in 2001.
  • Because we did not know the consequences of reliance on catastrophic agriculture, we allowed millions to die in the Irish potato famine, eighty million more to die of starvation in China during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, and the horrendous threats posed today by BSE (Mad Cow), the Asian bird flu, and as-yet-unevolved diseases and pests that prey on massive concentrated quantities of astonishingly homogenous, vulnerable human foods.
  • Because we did not know that nature uses diseases to winnow overcrowding, and that these diseases will always evolve faster than we can prevent or treat them, we allowed half the people of Europe to die in the Plague, and more than one billion to die of Smallpox, and despite ‘clues’ like AIDS of what is to come, future diseases we do not yet know, we still have not taken drastic steps to reduce human overcrowding on our planet.
  • Because we did not know the impact of our wasteful and thoughtless burning of hydrocarbons and forests on our planet’s climate, we now face cataclysmic global warming and the paradoxical early triggering of the next ice age.

Not knowing led directly to the loss of biodiversity and much of the carrying capacity of our Earth, the demise of Enron and its auditors, the Great Depression, the dot com bust, the atrocities of Stalin, and the Great Extinctions that regularly obliterate much of life on our planet. And because we still don’t know these things for sure, we allow ourselves to hesitate, to do nothing, to hope these problems will magically go away, to allow the conditions that almost certainly gave rise to these and other disasters to continue, to in fact continue to get worse.

I had dinner last evening with some of our neighbours, and we were talking about some of these immense problems, and one of my neighbours, a student of history, said that no problem in history has ever been solved until it got so bad for so many that there was a spontaneous revolution. What would it take, he asked, before these problems — overpopulation, famine, oppression, violence, disease, resource scarcity, pollution, war, suffering, cruelty, misery — got bad enough that people would rise up and demand immediate resolution?

I think the massive unrest and strife we see everywhere in the world indicates that we have already passed that point. However, in order to have a revolution there must be (a) consensus on the need for change, (b) consensus on the change that is needed, and (c) a simple process to bring about that change. Historically, the solution has been political — to oust, violently if necessary, an identifiable oppressor, the cause of the problem, and replace him (or them) with new leaders committed to the consensus solution. And although billions have shown that they see Bush’s corporatist imperialism, and the oligopolists’ ‘free’ trade and globalization, to be causes of some of the major problems we face, once we get rid of these scourges, most of the biggest problems will remain. These more intractable problems have no identifiable enemy and, as yet, no consensus solution. They are systemic problems that can only be changed by a radical change to our entire global economic and political systems. And changes to these massive, entrenched and leaderless systems have historically almost never come about by political means, but rather by introduction of disruptive technology innovations that undermine the existing system, as the agricultural and scientific and industrial revolutions did. It is tempting to believe that scientists, not collective human energy and collaboration, are the only hope we have for saving us from ourselves, of rescuing us from our colossal ignorance.

What is the cost of not knowing when, even if we could communicate enough knowledge to achieve global consensus on the need for change and the change that is needed, there is still no simple process to bring about that change? If we were to magically and suddenly be able to bring knowledge to bear that would persuade the vast majority of people on the planet that unless we quickly reduce human population below one billion and reduce each human ecological footprint to no more than one eighth of the current Western footprint, would that be enough to precipitate a combination of voluntary abstinence, intense social pressures, and (over the objections of the very powerful elite) laws and taxes and sanctions, to ensure that these targets were met? We did bring about the end of slavery this way, and the end of the Vietnam War, and in much of the world women’s suffrage. Is the intractability of our greatest problems really the lack of a simple, known solution, or is it rather the lack of consensus on the problem, and of its severity and urgency and what needs to be done to find a solution? — The cost of not knowing.

Until the reactionary cult of leadership took over business thinking a few short years ago, there was a consensus that the best way to run a business was to agree on and articulate the business’ objectives, get each employee to define their role in achieving those objectives, remove the obstacles that prevented them from fulfilling those roles effectively, and otherwise stay out of the way and trust the Wisdom of Crowds to produce better results than the arrogance of a few. Could the same principle, applied to the world’s most challenging and threatening problems, work in society as a whole? And if not, why not?

It is the examples of slavery and the 60s peace movement and women’s suffrage that have caused me, insufferable optimist that I am, to think that there is hope. The solution of reducing human population by 90% and ecological footprint by 10% (in the third world) to 90% (in the West) is daunting, but it’s also a simple, clear, measurable objective. And if we have six billion people working on it, convinced that this is what must be done to save the world, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be achievable. Women choose not to have babies if they know pregnancy would put their lives in danger, why wouldn’t they choose likewise if they knew it put their world in danger? Would knowledgeable people agree to participate in an annual lottery for the right to have a baby, and live with the results, as they now compromise so many of their ‘rights’ for the greater good? Would they agree to a 100% tax on all wealth beyond sustainable consumption levels, to be distributed to the poor? Would they shut down permanently businesses that knowingly damage the environment? Would they abandon urban sprawl and big centralized governments in favour of self-managed, self-selected, self-sufficient communities if it could be shown that these are more socially and environmentally responsive, and responsible, political units? Would they wrench power, by citizen and consumer action, from unrepentant corporatists who refused to give up their excessive wealth and influence?

It is hard to give up old paradigms. I know a lot of people that see the salvation of the world in global government, to which all states will cede authority. I see no reason to believe that bigger more powerful governments, which largely got us into this mess, and which are more removed from the people they supposedly represent, would do anything but make the problems worse.

But as the Internet has shown, the real power in any system remains at the ends: The front lines, the communities, where people learn by direct experience what works and what does not, what makes sense and what does not. It is as individuals and as members of small communities that we define ourselves and establish our belief systems and commit ourselves to action and to change. As citizens and consumers and members of communities, if we only knew, we could accomplish what needs to be done.

It is time for a bloodless coup, the taking back of power and authority from central corporatist political and economic institutions and its reinstatement in local communities and in individuals. To bring it about, we need only accomplish these four daunting tasks:

  1. We need to communicate to everyone on the planet, one person at a time, that there is a better way to live: happier, healthier, safer, more egalitarian, more harmonious, more responsible, and sustainable for future generations. We need to tell everyone a new story of our planet’s destiny.
  2. We need to achieve, by a great deal of open conversation, discussion, and sharing of knowledge, a huge consensus that there are two root causes underlying all the problems we face today and preventing us from achieving that better way to live: Overpopulation and overconsumption, and to set and agree upon deadlines and targets for solving these two problems. Just as in past we agreed that slavery and imperialism and suppression of women were our global enemies, we need to agree that overpopulation and overconsumption are our global enemies, a threat to everything we believe in and a threat to our future. With the right mix of empirical and intuitive knowledge, we can achieve this agreement.
  3. We need to organize six billion people to use their collective wisdom to tell us how to meet these deadlines and targets, and then free them to work in their communities to make it happen.
  4. We need to help each other clear away obstacles to success. That means a lot of humanitarian and peacemaking assistance, helping to build new infrastructure that will work in the new community-based world, redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, and disarming those that will try to establish new wealth and power hierarchies.

So maybe knowledge is power after all. About two centuries ago some new stories arose that were so compelling that they became the world’s dominant religions, the basis for everything the vast majority of people on our planet believed, and still believe today. Those stories spread person to person, by word of mouth, before the printing press accelerated their influence. At that time the people of our planet were struggling with the new problems of civilization, like famine, disease, poverty, addiction and violence, and they were desperate for new knowledge, a new story, something to give them faith, purpose and direction. Today we face much greater problems on a much greater scale, but we also have powerful new resources for spreading knowledge, for telling a new story. We also have a much better sense of what the root causes of, and solutions to,  our problems are, and knowledge offers the most potent, perhaps the only, means to achieve global consensus and global mobilization to solve these problems.

The cost of not knowing is the end of our world. It’s too great a cost to pay, and the answer, if we use the power of knowledge, is within our collective reach.

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  1. Dermot Casey says:

    Davevery interesting piece (as usual). Need some time to fully absorb. A few thoughts. First I’d link the idea of knowledge to perception. We are blind to the problems even thought they are in front of our eyes. This links to your point about things not changing until they become overwhelming. What we need to do is to change peoples perception of the problem. One question. I’m not quite sure what point you’re making about the Irish famine. The exact comment was “Because we did not know the consequences of reliance on catastrophic agriculture, we allowed millions to die in the Irish potato famine” Ireland was a net exporter of grain during the famine. There was a political attitude of Laize Faire capitalism that said – well if these people can’t support themselves let them starve to death. The ultimate cause of the famine was the failure of the potato. The proximate cause was the unwillingness of the British Government to help British citizens as we Irish were at the time. [n.b. As far as I know British citizens are subjects because there are no citizens in Britian only subjects to the queen… just a side point]

  2. Ken Hirsch says:

    Because we did not know that nature uses diseases to winnow overcrowding, and that these diseases will always evolve faster than we can prevent or treat them, we allowed half the people of Europe to die in the Plague, and more than one billion to die of Smallpox, and despite ‘clues’ like AIDS of what is to come, future diseases we do not yet know, we still have not taken drastic steps to reduce human overcrowding on our planet.This is magical thinking, no different from “AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality.” Crowding is one risk factor for disease, but disease is hardly an automatic response to crowding (and even happens in very uncrowded conditions).Infectious disease is just opportunism, it’s not “nature’s way” of doing anything and although it’s inevitable that they will evolve, it’s not inevitable that they will evolve “faster than we can prevent or treat them.” Lifespans continue to increase.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Dermot: Thanks. In Richard Manning’s book Against the Grain he says the potato famine was aggravated by English indifference to the suffering of the Irish, but was mostly due to a terrible blight that killed 90% of the potato crop and left much of Ireland (with large families, dependent on this one crop) starving to a degree unprecedented in history.Ken: *sigh” You’re misinformed. If you studied epidemiology you would learn that opportunistic diseases *always* arise in crowded populations, an evolutionary inevitability and a key balancing and control mechanism in nature. In particular poxviruses play a constant and critical function in regulating populations of specific creatures that breed rapidly, without which population imbalances would constantly wreak havoc. Very few diseases survive in uncrowded environments — there are even formulas used by epidemiologists to describe the critical population density below which they either die out or go dormant. The rate of bacterial and viral mutation is phenomenal — far beyond current or forseeable science to catch up to — just look at SARS, which has already evolved a host of variants, and is now considered by scientists ‘endemic’ i.e. we will never get rid of it and it will flare up regularly with new variations of unpredictable potency and mortality. *Average* lifespans continue to increase, but that’s only because of progress on childhood diseases and the extermination of natural human predators. The ‘normal’ lifespan for those that escape childhood diseases, poxviruses, diseases caused by poor hygiene, and being eaten, is largely unchanged in millennia. The childhood diseases, poxviruses and poor-hygiene diseases were almost unheard-of, before civilization and its crowding created the perfect breeding ground for them. So medicine has really done no better than keep lifespans unchanged, and much less healthy at that — we spend trillions to cure and eradicate diseases that never used to exist, and we never had heart diseases, cancers, tooth decay or bone deformities until the dawn of civilization 30,000 years ago, with its lousy diet and chemical poisons.

  4. Don Dwiggins says:

    The usual disjointed observations:The linearity of Figs. 1 and 3 bothers me a bit (in fact, I always tend to be suspicious of linear models applied to living systems). For example, on the superiority of participation to observation: when you’ve been thrown by a horse a few times, it makes sense to sit back and watch an expert (and maybe to watch a video of what happened to you). “Second hand” reports from someone who was watching you might be helpful as well. I certainly agree, however, that neither of the bottom two boxes is a substitute for “action learning”.In Fig. 3, put the three boxes in a triangular arrangement, then consider all possible arrows among them. Do you see some possible feedback loops? What might second-order learning be like?One more box for Fig. 2: Because it’s what Homo Sapiens does — it’s built in. (Quote from Stafford Beer: “the purpose of a system is what it does”.)Re the numbered points under the “bloodless coup”: take a look at the paragraph under “Who’s

  5. Ken Hirsch says:

    Look, every single species studied is infected with parasites. Parasites are considered a major force in evolution. SARS, after all, comes from wild animals. Yes, there is lower mortality from SARS in wild animals, but that’s because they have evolved resistance to it, not because SARS dies out in wild populations. Look at the West Nile virus epidemic that is happening in the U.S. Wild birds are dying by the millions, people are dying by the hundreds. Is that because there is overpopulation in birds, but not people? That’s nuts. There’s just a new parasite. After evolution, the bird population will likely return to what it was before West Nile arrived. Some modes of transmission (insects, e.g.) are much less sensitive to population density.The knowledge that’s needed to fight disease is not “nature uses diseases to winnow overcrowding”! What you need is the knowledge of clean water, sanitary sewers, vaccination, antibiotics and so on. Despite the fact that diseases keep evolving, we are still gaining on disease.Although it’s clear that some diseases increased after agriculture and civilization, the overall picture is that population increased, so the mortality/fertility was in favor of agriculture and civilization. The evidence on the health of ancient populations is extremely thin.

  6. Stentor says:

    it is not surprising that ‘field trips’ are so loved by students — an experience to learn something first-hand.I don’t know how things work in Canada, but at my school field trips were loved because they were a day off from learning — we’d often just go to an amusement park or a baseball game. I wish we’d had more hands-on learning type field trips.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Don: Very valuable suggestions — thank you! This article was something of an idea dump, some incomplete thoughts that were brewing in my head, and which will eventually morph into something more. I’ll certainly incorporate your suggestions in that metamorphosis.Stentor: That’s a shame — we had (and still have) visits to farms, factories, museums, even hydro and nuclear power plants. I loved all the trips except the museums (though I made an exception for the science museum). Even today when I visit wineries I love taking the tour through the plant.

  8. Peter Bailey says:

    Hi Dave, another fascinating article. Just a quick one: you provide a gradient from best to least-best ways of learning being from personal experience to reading about something. I agree whole heartedly with respect to learning with application in the tangible world. But does it also apply learning with application in an intangible world? Isn’t that in fact what most writing/reading often is about? For example, it’s difficult for us to directly experience the consequences of world-wide over production of greenhouse gases, because the feedback cycle is way too slow. What we are learning (by machine sensor analysis, then simulation, modelling etc to create an intangible future world) is that these actions are inexorably leading to a very unpleasant world indeed. We ourselves are quite likely to experience more and more of the effects, especially over the next 50-100 years, regardless of what we do today. But we don’t directly experience much of it today at all. This of course is your “cost of not knowing”. It seems that reading is probably our best (as in, best for our personal/world survival) mechanism of learning, not our worst, in such scenarios. In fact, it’s precisely because we place so much trust in our own physical experience that we have been able to ignore things which we do not directly experience themselves.What do you think?

  9. Michael says:

    Absolutely fascinating, Dave.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Peter: I agree completely. The fact that we cannot *see* greenhouse gases and the damage they cause is the reason we are so reticent to believe they are a problem, and so tempted to ignore them, and to glom on to skeptics who deny them. It’s probably also the reason that Bush, and the rest of us, put so much stake in finding WMD in Iraq — something tangible we could see, and why the killing of 3000 people on 9/11 all witnessable in one place at one time, was so powerful, while the death of 50,000 per year in America in traffic accidents, mostly due to alcohol or unsafe driving or ‘learned helplessness’, which we can’t begin to visualize, doesn’t move us to take any action whatsoever. The fact is that learning about these things by reading isn’t the *best* way of truly learning about them in a powerful, actional, motivating way, it’s the *only* way of learning about them, and as our response shows, it’s not a very good way.

  11. peter nguyen says:

    I’ve never read a more thoughtful and humane piece of KM. Fascinating. Thanks so much!

  12. An Idea says:

    Dave – I feel that saying how wonderful your article was is actually a diservice to it as wonderful is not a good enough adjective. With that said, and moving forward to a new idea. My question is to you and everyone: How. After we hit the stump of how, my question is why. And after why I am sure there will be lots more how and why’s until we get an answer that works. To clarify my initial “how” though – Does anyone have any ideas “how” it (the knowledge of what Dave said and is probably 95% universally true- minus some points like the one’s rasised above), be speread to (as dave said) everyone? After that, if the suggested idea inferred from last sentense isn’t working – I beleive we need to ask “why” and proceed to our next “how”. I guess the point I would love to share is that, in my life, I have been stumped alot of times, but asking why always gets me there. I ask how, if I am in a group and can get help. As always – take care and god bless.

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