The Loss Of Disruptive Knowledge

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Publish or perish. A system and a mess.

A recent publication by Park, Leahey, and Funk in Nature shows innovation is dying. Innovation and novelty require connecting different areas of knowledge, and we lost the ability to do so. A comment in the same journal remarks no-one knows why. I blame our over-reliance on clockwork thinking for this situation.

Gharajedaghi said if one game writes the rules, no matter how many games you create, they are all the same kind. Everything we grow up with, learn, think about, experience, etc., is based on mechanistic thinking in the Western world, i.e., on a single interpretation of reality making the rules for all games. Not only that, questioning it is unthinkable because it questions the very foundation of our society, hence makes you an outcast, enemy, troglodyte, rock spider, etc. And yet, as the paper shows, we are ossifying ourselves into a frozen state from which there is no escape.

According to the paper, there are two types of scientific and technological breakthroughs, the first by improving existing knowledge, in other words adding to what we already know, the second by disrupting that knowledge and making it obsolete. It is basically the distinction between Kuhn’s continuation of “normal” science, and breaking with the paradigm and going into a different direction. Despite the many contradictions in the existing paradigm, the paper says we are becoming more resistant to changing it, which means unable to make that break. And, as it points out, the biggest problem is in the social sciences and technology.

A common explanation for this phenomenon is the low-hanging fruit has been picked, which itself is a mechanistic explanation of what is happening. It assumes knowledge is a thing, like a machine, that can be analyzed and explained, and perfected. We know the “easy” truths and struggle to get to the “difficult” ones.

I’d like to offer a different explanation. The mechanistic perspective of reality makes us unable to adapt and learn. The alternative is acknowledging that our reality is complex, which not only shifts the current mechanistic paradigm, it changes everything. From the perspective of a complex reality, knowledge is not a thing, it is what we use to adapt to a constantly changing world as we act in it and observe the outcomes, which changes what we know, and we retrieve what we learned from memory to use it again. It means knowledge has practical value and constantly changes as we interact with the world, in other words is part of an ongoing learning process.

A complexity perspective also means we live in a very complex social world which the mechanistic perspective ignores. Like mechanistic scientific experiments, it makes us focus on what is in front of us and ignore what surrounds it, but even mechanistic experiments take place in a social context, which not only influences the outcome, they are also inherently political.

The authors point out 1% of influential papers are cited frequently, which decreases diversity and makes papers more similar. We come to rely on familiar knowledge which narrows the scope of existing knowledge and reduces discovery and invention. As Darwin pointed out, diversity is required for adaptation and survival and the same goes for knowledge. The very essence of complexity is variety and adapting to constant change, which is the opposite of what is happening.

Why is this? Relying on silos of knowledge benefits individual careers but kills progress. In other words, the reason we find ourselves in this pickle is the very social nature of our world we are ignoring. Academics must publish or perish, which means volume and similarity trumping innovation.

Traditionally academics and researchers disseminate their work so their colleagues can comment on it and fact check it for truth and accuracy. Accepting it implies agreement and adding the work to the existing storehouse of knowledge. More importantly, being cited by colleagues improves one’s status and therefore marketability.

Now we run into a problem. Today, that filter is the publication system, and the way it filters reinforces the mechanistic perspective at the exclusion of everything else. Researchers know if they step outside the narrow boundaries of that system they won’t be published, which is career ending.

Journals set rules for accepting publications, all the same kind, determining what will be published. This doesn’t separate the corn from the chaff, it separates what fits the matrix from what is different. Your paper is not published because of a remarkable discovery or new solution to a problem, but because it fits the Journal’s style. The more prestigious a journal, the less likely you will be published, because there is an overload of submissions due to the need to publish or perish. Less prestigious journals are not included in elite databases, which reduces the possibility of being cited and increases the logjam.

Most elite journals today are under the umbrellas of a small number of large publishers who publish, not to disseminate knowledge, but for profit. Note, they get the big bucks, the authors get prestige. They are biased towards first world researchers, their publication rules conform to their first world perspectives, they are linguistically biased towards the English language, and your affiliations to prestigious institutions matters, a lot. It assumes there is only one way to knowledge, the mechanistic kind, editors and reviewers rigorously enforce that, and they in turn are part of a self-perpetuating system, where becoming an editor or reviewer depends not on what you know, but who you know. To become a part of this elite group, you must publish or perish, which perpetuates the cycle.

As Fleck pointed out, this small group is the custodians of knowledge, and only they can decide what is knowledge and the truth, that knowledge is used to train others to become part of the same system, and challenges to that knowledge comes from the outside. But like an immune system, it contains and kills off different knowledge as if it are viruses and dangerous.

The publication system assumes in clockwork fashion there is a measure for separating papers into “good” or “bad”, all reviewers and editors have great wisdom and know what those measures are, and all researchers have access to the same resources and therefore produce research of the same kind.

The one thing it doesn’t do, is consider different viewpoints as worthy of discussion and publication. It doesn’t allow multidisciplinary work, because being in a silo means you cannot understand what’s outside it, and, for social reasons, don’t want to, and it is incapable of critically reflecting on its social nature and the very significant consequences of what they are doing to our societies.

Clearly, as the paper shows, the mechanistic perspective has run its course and it is time to consider alternative perspectives to dig ourselves out of this hole. The world we live in and the problems confronting us are complex, and we should approach them us such. But above all, we should acknowledge the fact as humans we are social, that social world is immensely complex, and it is through living in that world that we both create and solve the problems facing us. Continuing to pretend we are not part of it and doing more of the same is not an option.