The Analytical Knife — Science, Enlightenment, and the New Dark Ages

It’s so attractive to think that once we have all the data we’ll truly understand the world. We’ll know what is right from what is wrong, and any time someone disagrees all we’ll have to do is point to the data to settle it.

But all of a sudden we’re in a world where everyone has a peer-reviewed study that backs up their argument. Often people will point at the exact same study and say the study proves completely different things.

This didn’t make sense to me until I looked at it through the lens of Robert Pirsig’s analytical knife. He describes how this knife cuts through his experience of riding a motorcycle through the countryside:

The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us — these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road — aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see. We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious, a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.

The handful of sand looks uniform at first, but the longer we look at it the more diverse we find it to be. Each grain of sand is different. No two are alike. Some are similar in one way, some are similar in another way, and we can form the sand into separate piles on the basis of this similarity and dissimilarity. Shades of color in different piles — sizes in different piles — grain shapes in different piles — subtypes of grain shapes in different piles — grades of opacity in different piles — and so on, and on, and on. You’d think the process of subdivision and classification would come to an end somewhere, but it doesn’t. It just goes on and on.

Instead of just our personal awareness creating a landscape of sand, we now have Big Data creating mountains. Technology has heightened our ability to observe and capture grains of sand. And that ability is only growing.

But just because the data are larger than our personal observations doesn’t mean the handfuls we hold on to have gotten any bigger. Our ability to hold this data within our minds has not grown in step with our ability to capture it. So the process of winnowing becomes more extreme than ever.

We need to build a story around the data. We have to pick which data matters, and which doesn’t. We need to interpret it.

This is the point of the split. The point where everyone has a different takeaway from a study. As our ability to pick up finer grains of sand grows, our ability to find any pattern we choose in that handful grows.

Take the debate about minimum wage. Seattle is moving towards a $15 minimum wage. A study came out showing data that the raise was making peoples’ lives worse. Then many counter-arguments came out discussing how the study’s data didn’t reflect reality. The researchers at the University of Washington picked up a handful of sand and built a story. Dozens of people came out and talk about the mounds of sand that they ignored.

At this point my eyes glaze over. Reading every academic paper on a subject to attempt to form an opinion is not only infeasible, but will likely lead to a similar conclusion that I’ve already reached: there are many data sets and what stories you choose to superimpose on that data are largely up to the reader.

In the end I’ll end probably just end up picking the position that will give me the lowest risk of losing all my friends. Which I suspect is what most other people do too.

We’re all rushing to those screaming loudest about the pile of sand that they’ve found. Or we’re all staring at the same pile of sand and dividing it up into completely different piles based on different categorization criteria.

The worst part is there is no road to resolution. As our ability to measure and pick up ever finer grains of sand continues, our conviction that we’re correct and that our viewpoints are grounded in measurable reality will only grow. The different patterns we discover will only become more irrefutable.

And these different patterns leading to deeply different beliefs will not be false! Everyone will continue to be more measurably correct! And as people become more sure that the pattern they’ve found in the sand is the truth, we’ll continue to fork apart more and more deeply.

I’m not sure where this leads, but it feels like it doesn’t lead anywhere good. I’m generally optimistic, but on bad days I can’t help but feel that the same tools of analytical thought that brought humans into the Age of Enlightenment feel like they might just drag us into a new dark age.


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