One of the most pressing questions of the pandemic era has been: what should be done about bad knowledge practices? And specifically, what actions are justifiable to prevent individual or group harms arising from bad knowledge?
This is not as easy to answer as it sounds, for knowledge is fluid, evolving and most importantly, contextually separate from objective “truth.” For example, researchers have examined the psychological benefits of tarot1 and individual and social benefits of religion2, despite the fact that the purported truths presented by the activities are either irrelevant to their purpose or unfalsifiable by design.
Therefore, as knowledge managers we must be careful to distinguish between truth-seeking activities using methods such as critical rationalism3 and evaluating the impact of knowledge practices on individuals and groups. We must be clear-minded about the distinction before engaging in systems interventions.
There are three basic scenarios of bad knowledge practices to consider:
- Individual harms – The question of whether to intervene with a person who is acknowledged to be acting contrary to their self-interest but is otherwise harming no-one is primarily an ethical one. There has been a trend away from laws forbidding personal harms (eg anti-suicide laws) with a recognition that positive education and pastoral care is a more productive approach to changing these kinds of bad knowledge
- Group harms – Individuals may engage in behaviours that either exploit bad knowledge in others or are driven by bad knowledge of their own, but have a limited impact due to the degree of individual volition in participation. Common examples are fraud, illicit drug distribution, and advocacy of pseudoscientific practices. Consensus and remediation of bad knowledge here can take a range of forms, including group leadership structures (ie families, schools), informal social and cultural norms. Formal legislative or regulatory enforcement may be require to limit extreme examples of harmful behaviour while still allowing significant autonomy and self-determination within groups.
- Whole of society harms – Some knowledge can lead to actions that have a multiplicative or compounding effect on others (for example, a broad failure to adopt protective behaviours against infectious diseases, or adopt prosocial behaviours more generally). Correcting this presents a unique challenge because any broad attempt to limit availability of knowledge to a pre-determined “good” form of knowledge requires censorship, or propaganda, or both (according to a value-neutral definition of these terms). There is also an inherent conflict of interest between the entity best placed to implement either measure – the leaders of a country (or organisation) – and their self-interest in continuing to lead going forward.
A fundamental limitation of all attempts to improve knowledge is that those seeking to correct knowledge may themselves be incorrect. This problem can be mitigated through a range of techniques including:
- Consensus – identifying multiple sources who agree on the best knowledge to disseminate
- Accountability – letting others evaluate your techniques in identifying better knowledge to distribute
- Steelmanning – seeking out the strongest alternatives and arguments against proposed better knowledge
- Transparency – telling people when, how, and why you are attempting to correct their knowledge.
Once a harm has been established, and there is an intent to intervene and create better knowledge among a population, we must then consider how best to achieve the desired systemic change. A range of interventions have been identified above, each with their own benefits and drawbacks:
- Education – Time consuming and costly, especially for complex topics, but highly effective for forming sticky initial knowledge when a person has no preconceptions. While education can develop critical thinking skills, it can also be a form of “soft” propaganda when facts are simply presented to students as “presumed true”.
- Individual support – Empathetic and caring interventions can lead to the most sustained changes in knowledge, especially for topics of low interest, but this is nearly impossible to scale beyond immediate peer groups.
- Leadership and norms – The establishment of authority structures and culture norms are critical for stability in all societies. Highly sticky and enduring, structures and norms can be responsible for enduring success or hold back communities for decades until a mass movement for change is created by people who want to operate within a system’s power dynamics to alter them.
- Legal enforcement – The use of laws and regulations acts as a kind of brute force form of negative knowledge4 inasmuch as people will learn to moderate any knowledge that results in an enforcement outcome.
- Propaganda – Widely presenting certain knowledge as unambiguously true is a very common form of government manipulation, designed to inculcate certain beliefs and attitudes in the general public. Despite the negative overtones of the term, propaganda can be a positive force when used to strongly communicate useful knowledge, such as the benefits to a parent of vaccinating their child.
- Censorship – The forceful suppression of undesirable views and knowledge attempts to achieve similar ends to propaganda, generally through very narrow targeting of topics except in the most authoritarian scenarios. While in theory censorship represents a more targeted correction than the broad knowledge uptake sought by propaganda, the punitive aspects of censorship can lead to both chilling effects on other speech topics and a backfire effect5 among those who were meant to be protected from the “forbidden” knowledge.
In all cases, it seems clear knowledge interventions should be limited to areas where a definable and immediate harm can be identified. Having a diverse and dynamic range of knowledge in teams and organisations is important for ongoing success, and so any attempts we make to engage with and control bad knowledge need to be undertaken with care and clear intent.
- Hofer, G. M. (2009). Tarot cards: an investigation of their benefit as a tool for self reflection (Master’s dissertation, Concordia University). ↩
- Mochon, D., Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2011). Who benefits from religion? Social Indicators Research, 101(1), 1-15. ↩
- Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0. ↩
- Gartmeier, M., Bauer, J., Gruber, H., & Heid, H. (2008). Negative knowledge: Understanding professional learning and expertise. Vocations and Learning, 1(2), 87-103. ↩
- Jansen, S. C., & Martin, B. (2004). Exposing and opposing censorship: backfire dynamics in freedom-of-speech struggles. Pacific Journalism Review, 10(1), 29-45. ↩