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Reblogged:Our Broken Knowledge System

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One of the things I am looking forward to reading more about when Alex Epstein's Fossil Future comes out later this month is learning in more detail how he defines and what says about our society's knowledge system.

I've heard him discuss this in bits and pieces in various podcasts, especially his earlier Human Flourishing Project episodes, and the idea features throughout the upcoming book, as we can see from the detailed outline.

From my recollection, the knowledge system is a superset of such cultural institutions as the press, the universities, and the government, and reminds me a little bit of Ayn Rand's discussion of how ideas influence history via professional intellectuals:
Image by Lana Todosiychuk, via Unsplash, license.
The professional intellectual is the field agent of the army whose commander-in-chief is the philosopher. The intellectual carries the application of philosophical principles to every field of human endeavor. He sets a society's course by transmitting ideas from the "ivory tower" of the philosopher to the university professor -- to the writer -- to the artist -- to the newspaperman -- to the politician -- to the movie maker -- to the night-club singer -- to the man in the street. The intellectual's specific professions are in the field of the sciences that study man, the so-called "humanities," but for that very reason his influence extends to all other professions. Those who deal with the sciences studying nature have to rely on the intellectual for philosophical guidance and information: for moral values, for social theories, for political premises, for psychological tenets and, above all, for the principles of epistemology, that crucial branch of philosophy which studies man's means of knowledge and makes all other sciences possible. The intellectual is the eyes, ears and voice of a free society: it is his job to observe the events of the world, to evaluate their meaning and to inform the men in all the other fields.
Epstein's knowledge system, as far as I understand it, captures the above, as well as the role of institutions in conveying and implementing these ideas (both to evaluate information and to apply the lessons to our lives), also including by shaping what is regarded (correctly or not) as knowledge, how to use it, and to what ends.

This I gather from two early parts of the detailed book outline referenced above. First, from "How to Know When the 'Experts' Are Wrong:"
- How Research Works
- How Synthesis Can Go Wrong
- How Dissemination Can Go Wrong
- How Evaluation Can Go Wrong
Here, we have the steps in the flow from discovery through to a course of action -- with the potential for error every step of the way since man is not infallible. (Indeed, this probably can precede discovery, by setting priorities for what is named (or funded) as an area worthy of research.)

Later, you will notice that Epstein speaks of two competing frameworks for evaluating fossil fuels, climate research, and energy policy. These frameworks capture elements of both how we acquire knowledge and what we do with it, as one can glean from the outline.

It will be very interesting to see these ideas fleshed out not only because of the importance of the subject of the book, but for precisely why Jim Brown, commenting on the outline indicates:
... If you could release or talk about the key passages that explain what you mean by "knowledge system," how you observe it, how you identify its components, that might be helpful in understanding knowledge systems of other disciplines like economics or foreign policy or public health.
This is pretty much the same kind of thought I have had over the course of reading a book about medical quackery over the past week. The problem isn't just that charlatans keep getting away with the same kinds of claims year in and year out, or that lots of garbage is regarded as common sense: It's that people, including those in such institutions as the press, seem not to know what knowledge is, how to evaluate it, or what to do about the problem of people falling for nonsense.

I would guess that a society's knowledge system is a major part of how a society achieves an intellectual division of labor. As with division of physical labor, a society can do this very well (e.g., the near-captalism of America's late ninteteenth century) or poorly (the socialism of Venezuela), with major impacts, good and bad, on the individual lives of those who live in that sociaty.

-- CAV

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