At FOO East, at a small session, I gave a brief re-cap of what “Too Big to Know” is supposed to be about, and asked for help, particularly with the chapter I’m about to start writing (on “difference”), and with an upcoming chapter on how we make decisions. The “difference” chapter deals with the question the prior chapter — a history of facts — leaves the reader with: If we no longer (at least in many fields) have the comfortof thinking thatt what we know of the world rests on a bedrock of facts, then what do we about the, um, fact that we don’t collectively agree about anything?
The discussion was quite helpful about those two chapters, especially the one on decisions. I may blog about that later, but something quite disturbing happened during the hour-long discussion. About three-quarters of the way in, someone (let’s call him Seth because that’s not his name), said, kindly, “I understand what this book is about, but with your other books I knew why they mattered. I’m not getting why this one does.”
The problem is that Seth is just about my ideal reader. He even liked my other books. So, if I can’t explain to him face to face why 2b2k matters, then I have a problem.
Now, maybe I just did a lousy job in my overview. And, actually, I did. I got snared by some abstract points I happen to find interesting. Plus, since it was an overview, I didn’t go through the examples in the various chapters, which made the book sound more theoretical than it is. But Seth’s problem is real and worrisome.
His comment bothers me particularly because I worry that I am peculiarly hung up about knowledge. I think we’re undergoing a revolution in knowledge, but most of the world doesn’t think about it in those terms, and most of the world has been making the transition in a pragmatic and effective way anyway. This is one reason why the topic of expertise is better for the book than the topic of knowledge, although the book has slipped its leash and now seems to be chasing knowledge through the underbrush. People know that the role of experts and expertise matters.
So, here’s what I’m going to do. For now I’m going to leave chapter 3 — the history of facts chapter that’s actually about removing the hope of hitting bedrock in our arguments — as is (especially since I just finished a draft of it three days ago). I’m going to make sure that the next chapter, on the inevitability of difference and disagreement, gets pulled back toward pragmatic questions. Inevitably, in that chapter I’m going to talk about the assumptions that underlie our belief that since diversity is good for decisions, radical diversity is even better. Some of that will be theoreticalish. But I will be sure to stress practical considerations, especially how to scope difference, i.e., how much diversity of opinion is good and when does too much diversity get in the way of progress towards accepted goals. (Scott Page’s “The Difference” is useful here.) I hope also to talk about homophily, serendipity, and curiosity (= demand-side serendipity).
Addressing Seth’s question makes the chapter on decisions especially important, because decisions are where the questions of knowledge come to a head. Difference, diversity, blah blah blah, but now does this affect me at the moment when I have to say yes or no?