November 15, 2007

Collective Wisdom Ain't

Collective wisdom is no kind of wisdom. A look at the major breakthroughs in thought throughout history shows that defying collective wisdom often leads to the purest creative solutions to the questions that are pondered. The history of science and technology particularly is a progression of one case study after another that shows how new advancements rely on stepping outside of what is at the time considered by many people to be an obvious fact.

Consider the case of Ptolemy. He developed a beautifully detailed and well reasoned model of the universe in which the Earth stood at the center. To account for the motion of the heavenly bodies, Ptolemy reasoned that they sat upon fixed spheres which rotated around the Earth. Since he realized that stars, planets and comets all seemed to have different trajectories, he reasoned that there were in fact several of these spheres.

The most important thing about Ptolemy's model is that it worked. He had the evidence in front of him and constructed a model based on that evidence. Because Ptolemy's model explained things so well, it became widely accepted. This model, along with the remarkably detailed records that he kept regarding the motion of the stars and planets, proved to be useful for navigation and astronomy for centuries to follow.

Although people periodically hypothesized that the Earth might actually be orbiting the Sun, Ptolemy's model remained the commonly accepted view of the cosmos for fourteen centuries! It was not until Copernicus arrived on the scene that a heliocentric theory gained traction. Prior to that time, people were largely complacent to accept the collective wisdom of others.

Let's face it: we all have a tendency to be lazy thinkers. That in and of itself is not a bad thing. Lazy thinking helps us get through the day. At some point, you can button your shirt in the morning without any deliberate thought. And imagine what the world would be like if everybody had to discover everything by themselves, without relying on the knowledge and wisdom of others. Fortunately, we don't have to understand how computers work, we just have to know how to use them. We don't have to know the entire written works of physics and astronomy to enjoy watching the sun set. We can use the wisdom of our predecessors to leapfrog to our own discoveries.

But when we become too complacent about our thinking, we run the risk of preventing further progress and prevent increasing the quality of our knowledge. When we accept assumptions as fact solely because everybody agrees with the idea, we have something that is cause for suspicion.

This is not to suggest that all collective wisdom is wrong. Sometimes things are widely accepted as true because they actually are. People would generally agree that leaping off of a cliff is detrimental to your health. Most people agree that you should not eat rat poison. It would certainly not be wise to defy conventional thinking and leap off of a cliff or to feast on a box of rat poison "just to double check".

The key is to ensure that you are always thinking. Challenge your assumptions. When you accept something as true, accept it because you have thought about it and found it to be true -- not merely because somebody told you that "everybody knows" it is true.

Also At Babblermouth:
Fools Have Answers, Intellectuals Have The Questions
Fun With Truisms
Financial Freedom Series -- Cause and Effect

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