Some time ago the thought came to me that knowledge is an industrial business these days. In Aristotle’s era knowledge was lying around like coals on the fabled Newcastle beach. That’s not to say that Aristotle’s ceaseless collecting and inquiring and ordering where not great feats – and indeed arguably the invention of the scientific method. But there was plenty to go at and lots to be discovered. I consider this the era of beach coal.
Pace the Victorians and the great scientific amateurs. Named for the Latin ‘to love’, they pursued knowledge with independent means, chipping ‘curiosities’ out of geological strata, condensing chemical elements and taking care to ensure god was suitably credited in the processes they discovered. This was the age of independent mining – small entrepreneurs digging deeper and descending into specificity.
Then we enter the industrial era of knowledge. Universities, labs, great machines, competition between countries and ideologies, chemical warfare, Los Alamos, the military industrial complex, the 5 year plan, the ‘white heat’ of progress, the space race and the mindblowingly massive Large Hadron Collider. Science now sinks deep deep shafts and scours entire landscapes in the industrial pursuit of small incremental additions to the sum of what we know.
One of the downsides of this is the great discoverers of our time can generally only tell us a lot about very little. They are so deep down their shaft of knowledge – illuminated only a few feet ahead by their hi-tech miners lamps – that they sometimes struggle to interest the common man. They are also a fractious bunch. As the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn persuaded me 20 years ago, science is a competitive business. Flying elbows, trashing of reputations, the race to publish first and good old fashioned bickering are all a commonplace. Throw in powerful lobbies and money and the truth easily disappears back down the mineshaft.
Some are frustrated by this and believe public policy makers should rise above the melee and submit to the randomised double-blind trial. Others argue that more research and evidence will lead the human race to peace, prosperity and happiness. A few capture the popular imagination: Dawkins, Hawking for example. A very few (E.O. Wilson the socio-biologist is the only one I can immediately think of) manage to retain an Aristotelian ‘holism’ in their work and advance the big picture as well as the small detail.
So where does that leave the thoughtful polymath of today? Amateurs, in the Victorian sense or ‘lovers’ of knowledge, can feel intimidated without citations, a tenure, papers, experiments, machines and a peleton of research assistants. What chance of any useful discovery? Worse any statement, or thesis advanced might easily be disproved, infirmed or dismissed by competitive, individualistic and fractious experts.
I think the answer is to give up on the search for brand new knowledge. Leave that to the deep shaft miners. And as for ideas, like in the movies all the best plots have been written, all the best ideas have been had. New syntheses are what the complexity, chaos and the pace of change in modern life demand – new takes, approaches, ways of looking at ourselves.
There are few new discoveries which are accessible to the amateur thinker, but we all have the Bayesian brains to form a new powerful, personal synthesis which helps us and others.
I think ecology and epidemiology – seeing the interrelations and underlying patterns – not seeking the Eureka moment is where most of us will find our intellectual fulfilment.