Gongol.com Archives: October 2023

Brian Gongol

October 24, 2023

News We're all just figuring it out as we go

Jeffery Tyler Syck, who teaches on politics, offers this relatable observation: "At some point in life we all realize that the whole world is run by people who do not really know what they are doing and are just figuring it out as they go." It's a familiar lament, and one that ought to remind sensible people that while patience with those "figuring it out" can be hard to summon, it is a real grace. ■ Nor does the observation have to be strictly true to be materially true. There comes a time for many conscientious individuals -- even if they're not subject to imposter syndrome -- when they realize the outer perimeter of their competence. And there is no small number for whom that outer boundary is also the outer boundary of what is known by anyone at all. Every field has its authorities, and every field has its unresolved questions. ■ This realization ought to bring with it a sense of modesty: If there is only so much that anyone knows yet about a topic, it's perfectly honorable to admit that we're often just "figuring it out" as we go. Even the experts. ■ But it should also underscore why institutions matter so much. Institutions -- colleges, clubs, journals, firms, conventions, and many others -- ought not to exist merely for their own self-perpetuation. They are needed to give structure and predictability to the transmission of vital knowledge, practices, and values. ■ The illusion of the Internet "hive mind" and sophisticated artificial intelligence tools is that everything that needs to be known can be reliably searched-for. This is emphatically not the case. Perhaps the most important reason is that knowledge isn't flat: Different answers may apply at different stages of a process, or when viewed from different levels. ■ An explanation that is correct and appropriate for an experienced professional might be entirely wrong for a second-grader, and vice-versa. But a constructive approach may very well need to start with a simple but "wrong" answer to lay the foundation for a human being to learn a more complex "right" answer later. Likewise, a meaningful answer to "What time is it?" could range from "11:15" to "Here's to build a cesium clock". ■ A parent can't rightfully get mad at their own child for using a knife dangerously if the parent never taught the child how to use it safely. Institutions like Scouting exist in large part to give structure to the process of transmitting this kind of knowledge to the young. On the other hand, a child can't rightfully get mad at their parents for exposing them to drinking water that passed through lead pipes if the parent didn't know that a health hazard existed. Institutions like regulatory agencies and professional trade organizations exist to give structure to aggregating and disseminating knowledge about difficult problems and their best solutions. ■ Institutions are needed because human nature, which hasn't changed very much across history, contains aspects that need to be guided and corralled so that people can become smarter and better than their ancestors. We need them to help transmit both information and behaviors. It is only upon good institutions that we can both figure out how to teach our novices and deliberately build new knowledge all the time. Even as a species, we really are just "figuring it out", but we stand a much better chance of getting more of our answers right if we build institutional knowledge (and vitality) along the way.

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