More on the Curse of Knowledge

Stephen DeAngelis

January 15, 2008

A few days ago I wrote a post on The Curse of Knowledge, which examined how knowledge sometimes restricts one’s ability to think creatively. Mark Safranski at ZenPundit has added his own views on the subject [Knowledge Expertise as a Springboard instead of a Cage] and some of his readers have chimed in as well. Lest readers think I believe that gaining knowledge is a bad thing (a real curse), let me assure you that I am all for gaining knowledge. The “curse of knowledge” is that the more we know the harder it is to forget what we know, which ironically limits our having wild and crazy ideas about things we are expert in. Yet, as Safranski points out, we need experts (a non-expert can come up with an idea but only an expert can make it a reality) and gaining expertise is no short term process. He writes:

“Acquiring disciplinary expertise typically takes … a minimum of 7-10 years for the student to master enough depth of knowledge and requisite skill-sets to become an expert practitioner. In many fields, notably pure mathematics, theoretical physics and musical composition, this period of early mastery is often the most fruitful in terms of significant contributions of new discoveries or the kinds of innovations that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner consider to be ‘Big C’ creativity. Einstein’s papers on Relativity or Newton’s early exposition of the Laws of Motion being the great historical examples of paradigm-shifting innovators. If a practitioner remains entirely in that field for their career, cultivating an ever greater and rarefied depth of knowledge (and thus having fewer true peers and more disciples) further contributions are likely to be of the ‘tweaking’ and ‘critiquing’ variety. Useful but not nearly as satisfying as the grand ‘breakthrough’ moment.”

Science fiction writers, like H.G. Wells, can dream of time machines, but it takes someone with expert knowledge like Einstein to develop a theory of relativity that helps explain the peculiarities of time. Wells would be considered a zero gravity thinker. Not all experts, of course, become Einsteins. There is a peculiar class of expert we call geniuses (the Einsteins and Newtons) who see beyond what they know to discover new knowledge. Safranski sees that “genius” diminishing with the concomitant accumulation of more knowledge (which he labels vertical thinking) and immersion in a specific discipline’s culture.

“I suspect that the reason for this decline in major creativity has to do with two realities of expertise: First, the analytical-reductionist emphasis on vertical thinking; cognitively, for an acknowledged expert, there is a great deal more time spent on mere data retrieval, interpretation within accepted frames and scanning patterns for consistency than there is original problem solving, questioning premises, speculating, imaginative brainstorming, analyzing anomalies and thinking analogically. The latter are too often the tools of the novice, the student, the child, the layman trying to grasp in the process of learning what  they do not yet fully understand. Too often these powerful (though tiring and time consuming) cognitive skills are set aside in favor of operating on ‘autopilot’ once the student has achieved mastery. Unless consciously practiced, the hard thinking tends to stop when one is constantly confronted by the routine. Secondly, disciplinary fields, like all forms of collective human endeavor generate their own cultures with accepted norms, rituals, in-group terminology, orthodoxies, implicit and explicit rule-sets, authoritative hierarchies, politics, and peer pressures. As one gains seniority it becomes harder and harder to rock the boat because challenging one’s peers brings professional risk, social ostracism and conflict while validating the community’s beliefs yields rewards, advancement and praise. A phenomenon of human nature that has been observed by thinkers as disparate as Thorstein Veblen, Thomas Kuhn and Howard Bloom. Vested interests are irrational in their own defense. It is here that knowledge can be come a ‘curse’ and expertise a form of incompetency or blindness to the larger picture (‘educated incapacity’ in Herman Kahn’s terminology).”

Safranski agrees that creative thinking (that is, Big “C” creativity) is more likely to occur among “experts” when they probe the intersection of disciplines — achieving Frans Johannson’s so-called Medici Effect. Speaking of Johannson and his Medici Effect, he is holding what he calls The Medici Summit: Where Business and Innovation Intersect. Although he is bringing together some interesting speakers, the summit is not too different from other business conferences. It certainly appears to fall short of events like TED or PopTech venues at which my partner Tom Barnett has spoken and which focus on new ideas that could change the world — not just improve your business. Charles Cameron, a reader of both this blog and ZenPundit, underscores the fact that it is diversity not quantity that is important. He writes in comments attached to Safranski’s post:

“I’d like to propose that the reason, as you say, that ‘a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas’ is so powerful isn’t because the more ‘people’ the merrier — its because the more ‘diverse fields’ the merrier. Each new expert, if expert in one field, brings one new family of ‘frames’ together, and it is the viewing of the known facts (and occasional anomalies) in new frames that provides the unexpected glimpses. So that in fact the most useful expertise would be in (almost content free) frames — in knowing a wide variety of angles from which to look at each situation.”

Safranski notes that it takes more than simply getting people from different disciplines together to make good things happen, you also have to give them the freedom of action to work on creative concepts and the time to do it. He continues:

“On the individual level, novelty is an important stimulus toward horizontal thinking. New concepts and experiences stoke our curiosity and ‘wake’ our brains out of the usual, habitual, patterns in which we operate. Attention levels increase as we begin to operate at the beginning of the learning curve and start to recognize parallels and connections between old and new knowledge. We can also make deliberate choices to think ‘outside the box’ by voluntarily changing our position, perspective and scale, reversing our premises, engaging in counterfactual thought experiments and other lateral thinking exercises. In this way, we are more likely to be behaving metacognitively, aware of both our own thinking and more alert to the nature of the information that we are receiving. We have something of a paradoxical situation. An untrained mind, looking at a field with ‘new eyes’ is the one most likely to notice that which has eluded the expert of great experience but is least able to make use of, or even assess critically, the importance of their insights. A trained, disciplinary, mind has the capacity to extrapolate/ interpolate, practically apply new insights or think consiliently with great effect but is the mind least likely to have any insights that could conflict with the major tenets of their disciplinary worldview.”

Go into the office (or workspace) of anyone you consider truly creative and you are likely to find toys, gadgets, and other interesting clutter. They have these around them because, as Safranski says, novelty is important to them. They appreciate life and all it has to offer and are unquenchably curious about how things work and why things were designed the way they were. Creativity gurus recommend that we read magazines completely unrelated to our area of expertise, surround ourselves with people who work in different segments of the economy, and that we get out of the workplace and visit museums, art galleries, shopping malls, factories, and so forth. A creative person is a curious person and that curiosity need not diminish as we grow older or gain more expertise.