Knowledge Generation As A Complex Social System

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Getting one’s work published today is different from what it used to be. Many consider self-publishing a vanity project, and pay little attention to self-published works, but that used to be the norm for writers like Kant, Wittgenstein, and so on.

The shift to publication companies created an environment of barriers and constraints for writers. Publishing of both books and papers is dominated by a small group of large publishing houses, whose business is profit, not knowledge. The value of what you write is less important than whether it will attract enough sales to be profitable. That creates two immediate problems. The first is if you want access to recently published articles and textbooks, you must pay, and it’s not cheap, hence if you can’t afford it, you are barred from some knowledge. The second is publishers create rules to ensure what gets published is popular, and mainstream.

What happens now is a writer submits a text for publication, which is then either outright accepted, which is rare, rejected, which is common, or accepted, provided you modify it, or in other words, make it acceptable and palatable to a sufficiently large readership to sell for profit. Modification means rewriting your text until it satisfies a reviewer, which creates another problem.

What is an expert reviewer? Ludwig Fleck argued knowledge clusters in groups who agree on what knowledge within a cluster is, or what he called thought collectives. Only those at the core can legitimately generate knowledge of their kind, and they become the custodians of it, by deciding what does or doesn’t belong to their knowledge field. That, socially, creates an iron dome that can become an echo chamber.

Kenneth Boulding pointed out once one accepts a social role, that role becomes part of who you are, but also carries social expectations about how you should behave. You can make promises as a Presidential candidate, but once you become President you are caught in a web of social relationships and expectations determining whether you can keep them.

At the core of thought collectives are experts, and, as McIntyre and Popper argued, experts are socially expected to know everything, and admitting you don’t know means you are no longer an expert, which calls the role and your image into question. That creates Festinger’s social dissonance; you must keep pretending you know when you don’t, or find justifications for why you are right and someone else wrong. Which explains Kuhn’s resistance to changing a thought pattern until either its contradictions become too big, or its custodians die out.

What I observed, from many years of attending conferences, is invited speakers inevitably are socially recognized leaders of the thought collective, and within their entourage are their chosen up and coming stars in new shiny suits. Soon after, you notice their names crop up as co-authors in the publications of esteemed authors setting the pace in the field, and eventually they become lead authors, which, as a social game, keeps the wheel going round. In other words, publication, including academic publication, revolves around the Oprah effect; if someone with social status recognizes your writing, you will get published and be successful, if not, your prospects are bleak.

Fleck also said the custodians teach their subject, which means to be certified in it, you must show a sufficient understanding and competence in it. There are many practitioners of a field who are not its custodians. It also means to practice it you must stay true to it. Challenges to a thought collective comes from those on the fringes using it without being experts or certified, and in doing so, find gaps and contradictions, or outsiders, who are unbiased by not being part of the collective.

Socially, groups protect their norms and what they value, hence in the case of thought collectives, protect the queen bee and beehive from outside attacks by rejecting and belittling them. Which brings me back to publishing.

The experts of publishing houses, or journals, come from the thought collective it is associated with, and the knowledge generated by the thought collective produces the honey generating profit. To get published, you either produce something aligned with the thought collective, rewrite it until it meets its standards, or get rejected because it doesn’t, and there are no publishing houses interested in what was rejected, irrespective of how important it may be. It’s not the merit of what’s written that matters, its whether it’s true to correct thinking, according to the thought collective.

One could argue that critiques and variations from the fringes of a thought collective, like all evolving systems, are weeded out so only the sound and better ones survive, but the way natural selection works, maladaptive thought patterns can also survive if there is an advantage to it. Such an advantage exists for thought collectives, and the payoff is social, political, and economic advantages and benefits. In general, you get paid better with a college degree, and even better with a professional certificate, and, in the latter case, in addition, accumulate a veneer of social benefit. Political thought collectives accumulate social power, which gives you access to valued resources, etc.

The nature of complexity is we need the chaos and variety of different perspectives to successfully adapt and evolve, otherwise the law of thermodynamics takes over and we stagnate. Yet, socially, thought collectives counter variety and difference, and the publication system actively suppresses needed conversation and dialogue. What we get instead is one-way communication and zero-sum debate during which we don’t explore and learn from our differences, but strive to eliminate and eradicate it.

No-one knows how many good ideas die in this way, but my best guess is a lot are hidden away in filing cabinets. A dominant dogma of our day is neoliberal economics, which is inherently deeply flawed, and rarely challenged. It calls for Hayek’s free market and free market correction, which, from a complexity perspective is a great idea, if it works, but it doesn’t.

Instead of truly free markets, we have large monopolies dominating, and politically and legally conditions favoring, and in many cases protecting it. The same monopolistic behavior to some degree dominates academics and knowledge thought collectives, and the benefits of monopolistic economics underwrites it. Consequently, I don’t see change anytime soon. We protect what we benefit from, individually and collectively, which is human, not what is true, or right.

What this all means is one can conceptualize knowledge generation as a human activity system, which is social, and complex through and through. From a moral and ethical perspective, one could argue in some ways it benefits human society, but in others is highly destructive. For that reason, there should be a dialogue about how we generate, use, and distribute knowledge, but its very complex social nature works against it.

It also means what we call knowledge and the truth is not something pure, but something emerging socially from interconnections and interactions, in other words, there are many potential versions of it, and there is no way to judge whose version is better, other than whether it works pragmatically. Also, as Churchman pointed out, the fact a theory, or thought system looks pretty, fits in with other theories, or we agree on it, philosophically doesn’t make it true, or beneficial. And that doesn’t even consider the politics, maneuvering, inclusion, and exclusion games, etc., in the background.

Some will argue a scientific approach of rigorous description, verification and repetition can sort out the problem, but they forget, as Feyerabend, Latour, and others pointed out, it is humans who approach things scientifically, which, as a human activity system, feeds back into and cycles through my argument in the same way. Ultimately, science has its own thought collectives, and is social through and through.

Next time you use something labelled as data, information, or knowledge, consider for a moment how it was generated and came about. It may not be what you think it is.