Windmills And The Problems Of Knowledge In The Mind And Society
By David Metcalfe
June 27, 2019
Lately, I have been increasingly concerned that the acquisition of knowledge is a futile pursuit. I suppose this article is as much to convince myself of the efficacy of knowledge as it is for the reader.
First, I would like to explain where my pessimism comes from. Lastly, I would like to explain why knowledge is still important despite its obvious shortcomings.
The Limits (And Outright Failures) Of Knowledge
There are, as far as I can tell, four main concepts in knowledge acquisition: learning, maintaining, developing, and implementing. I will explain where each fall short at producing truth.
Will Thalheimer, an educational psychologist who specializes in learning processes, mentions in his article for “ATD”, that we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we say and write, and 90% of what we do. This is, of course, an average and an approximation, but nevertheless, the point is made: we don’t remember much of what we learn!
Since we are only actually taking in a percentage of the things we learn, there is no doubt that we are getting many things wrong as we take it in and try to understand it. I can’t count how many times I’ve mentioned a statistic and been way off, even on things I read very recently or would consider myself an expert on. Even as ideas exist within our own minds, we are thinking in wrong ways. For example, let’s say I read an article that suggests windmills are only 50% as efficient as hydroelectric plants. But then, I misremember it as that they are 50% more efficient than hydroelectric plants. Suddenly, my knowledge acquisition has actually made me more wrong than I would’ve been had I simply never read the article to begin with.
Beyond the fact that we simply forget, we also learn alongside our biases. For example, in that article about the windmills being less efficient than hydroelectric plants, if I am an oil worker, I may walk away from the article thinking that renewable energy is a stupid idea (I associate the inefficiency of windmills with all renewable energy). But, if I am an environmentalist, I may walk away thinking that we need to implement more hydroelectric plants (I assume that since hydroelectric plants are a more efficient energy source, that they are the most efficient of all sources). My bias determines the conclusions I draw from my learning.
A terrible thing that happens is when these two things- forgetting and bias- combine. I am convinced that this is the source of a great deal of misinformation in the world. This may cause the environmentalist to confidently argue in favour of windmills, thinking they are the most efficient energy source in existence, ambiguously citing “an article I read once”. This may cause the oil field worker to confidently argue against renewable energy, thinking it is all inefficient, ambiguously citing the exact same “article I read once”.
But so far I have assumed that the information itself is correct, and the only problem is the learner. This is, however, not the case. The problems of forgetting and bias exist within the source itself. How did the author get their information? How do we know it’s credible? Are there conflicting reports from other authors? Does the author have motive to misrepresent information to build a certain case?
These questions are all worth considering, but many times, will not yield good results. If you Google search “are windmills a good idea?”, you will get completely different reports with completely different information. Even searching academic articles, while there will be more consistency, will still have differing information and conclusions presented. Trying to follow the evidence becomes quite a difficult task, and too often one’s personal bias determines the winner.
Knowledge of any kind is almost never static. It is constantly changing and moving. That windmill report you read 6 months ago? There’s been 5 new kinds of windmills developed during that time, all with different efficiency levels. There’s also new data on which types of windmills work best in what areas. So, even if the original source was correct, and you remembered it perfectly, and had no bias in interpreting it, it may be irrelevant within a matter of months.
The knowledge around you is constantly changing, but so is the knowledge within your own mind. Memories fade, mix with other information, and become of less personal relevance. If windmills did not come up in any discussions I had or any recent articles I read, I may file the statistic way in the back of my brain and, over time, fail to retrieve it. In addition, one’s worldview changes over time, so one’s interpretation of previous statistics may adapt to a new worldview. This may bring certain memories into prominence while others fade into obscurity.
The problems of maintaining is that information, both exterior and interior to the individual’s mind, is constantly changing, and needs to be constantly caught up with.
If someone successfully goes through the stages of learning that windmills are only 50% as efficient as hydroelectric plants, and is able to maintain the memory along with other new information that comes about, they will then face the problem of developing that information.
Developing information is like going to grab a t-shirt from your closet, and upon opening the door, having hundreds of clothes pile on you. You think this 50% statistic is so great- after all, it means you’ve solved that windmills don’t work, and hydroelectric plants are much better. Problem is, there are a million other things to consider. What is the cost of a windmill compared to a hydroelectric plant? Is there enough running water for hydroelectric plants to meet energy demands on their own? What is the environmental damage associated with each? Is efficiency even a good way to measure the effectiveness of an energy source? What about all the other potential renewable and non-renewable energy sources? The list goes on…and on………and on.
So, developing this knowledge becomes quite difficult due to the complexity outside one’s self. But internal to one’s mind, one is also dealing with potential inabilities to consume this new information (back to the learning problems), and the development can become skewed.
So, let’s say that, somehow, you’ve managed to correctly learn and interpret the 50% efficiency statistic, you’ve maintained it over time, and you’ve developed your understanding of the issue to the point where you are the world’s leading expert on windmills. Now, you have the problem of implementing this information.
The first problem is the gap between theory and practice. What worked in the laboratory, or testing in certain areas that seemed practical, end up not having the expected results. For example, it was found that windmills operate with 50% of the efficiency of a hydroelectric plant when humidity is 20%, but when humidity is 80%, suddenly the windmills gather moisture and become less efficient. Or it’s the air temperature, or air pressure, or altitude, or a million other potential variables.
But beyond that, you need to be able to convince other people of your ideas (unless you plan on buying all of the land and building the windmills or hydroelectric plants by yourself). These individuals then have to go through all of the first three knowledge acquisition problems that you had to go through. Or, they can just trust you as an expert, but blind trust in someone who may or may not be an expert is very problematic to knowledge acquisition itself. So, in trying to convince others that your ideas are good, it may prove very difficult. In addition, you may have other supposed “experts” contradicting your findings, and you will have to go through the process of responding to and debunking their ideas to prove your own (or them debunking your ideas and finding out you were wrong the whole time).
Lastly, implementation proves difficult because there may be factors, completely irrelevant of the base fact itself, that result in a major change. This might be, for example, the fact that oil work employs many people, and is vital to the economy. Although you may have proven a certain efficiency of windmills and hydroelectric plants, your idea will not get practically implemented if it is not deemed economically beneficial. The economics of energy, of course, suffer all of the same essential knowledge problems as the efficiency and environmental impacts.
Knowledge Is Too Hard; Should We Give Up?
Despite these seemingly daunting opponents to effective knowledge acquisition, we should remember that these are not new, and yet, we have made incredible strides in every capacity. Science is the most obvious and noteworthy. The human mind, and knowledge itself, is such a vast, confusing, illusory and dynamic concept, it is a wonder at how it has done so well. Man has walked on the moon, cured thousands of diseases, made cars, computers, smart phones, etc. We have gone from learning to maintaining to developing to implementing, really successfully, many times.
We’ve also done this with our knowledge of history, art, philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, music, and every other discipline. Somehow, we’re putting our minds to use, and benefiting greatly from its effects. While I may be concerned at the stupidity and ignorance that surrounds me, and the stupidity and ignorance I am often confronted with within myself, I find it hopeful that myself and others around me are part of the same species that thought and achieved so many great things, and will continue to think and achieve great things in the future. The human mind, despite its limitations, has amazing potential. That potential is yet to be fully realized within myself and society at large, and we must do our best to mediate the effective transition from learning to implementation if we are to benefit from that potential.