• Friday, September 29, 2023
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What is the purpose of knowledge? (2)


Challenge the prevailing narrative

In my column of 7th April 2020, I discussed “The power of narratives” using insights from Nobel laureate Robert Shiller’s 2019 book “Narrative Economics: How stories go viral & drive major economic events” and how to manage them. In the pursuit of knowledge, you find repeatedly that what is deemed to be conventional wisdom is often not wise at all. In their 2020 book “Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future”, former Bank of England governor Mervyn King and first dean of Oxford’s Said Business School John Kay highlight a resonant example to make the point.

It used to be the conventional wisdom that the build-up of acid in the stomach that supposedly caused ulcers was due to stress and a bad lifestyle. Australian pathologist Robin Warren thought differently, asserting they were caused by bacteria instead. Teaming up with like-minded Barry Marshall, he found that “almost all gastric inflammations and duodenal and gastric ulcers” had one commonality: a bacterium they would call “Helicobacter pylori”.

“Eureka!” yes? You wish. What was a source of humongous profits for big pharm was now to be cured with antibiotics that could be procured for pittance? Warren & Marshall were rebuffed. But they did not relent. “It is now accepted that most gastric ulcers are caused by H. pylori, often acquired in early childhood.” The pair won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

So, what is the purpose of knowledge? It is a rhetorical question at this point. But at the very least, you know enough not to accept the conventional wisdom without doing your own investigations

So, what is the purpose of knowledge? It is a rhetorical question at this point. But at the very least, you know enough not to accept the conventional wisdom without doing your own investigations. From the African perspective, using the stomach ulcer ailment as an allegory, there are many who have lost their way in the pursuit of solutions owing to superstitions and bizarre cultural beliefs. But even if you were one swayed by science, you clearly would have been at your wits end following medical advice considering they did not know any better before the dogged pursuit of truth by Warren & Marshall. Beware of the dominant narrative.

Dream awake

I also use the faux “Madagascar covid potion” as an allegory of a broader malaise in our cultures. We rely overly much on untested superstitions and herbalism. These beliefs continue to hamper our progress. In days of yore, we believed flights could only be experienced quite literally in our dreams, with our butt cheeks twisting the long handle of a broom. Not until such silly beliefs were relegated as fodder for relaxing fiction did the idea of mechanical flight blossom and eventually triumphed. Now if you want to experience the joy of flight, you do not need to conjure up one in your sleep. You simply buy a plane ticket. And yet, we continue to hold dear many fictions as “culture.”

You do not need to wear a leopard skin, with a beaded gourd in hand, and shouting out loud incantations in some deep forest to engineer ostracism, stigma or slander. These are human phenomena that have existed and been used for millennia in war and peace times to various ends. Instead of falling victim to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” faux “wisdom”, we should resort to diligence, focus, hard work and patience.

The key insight from Michael Hunter’s 2020 book “The decline of magic: Britain in the enlightenment” is its description of how science prevailed over superstitions. While the details might not be ideal for this page, the long and short of it is that science prevailed over magic because it made clear truth from error. And as Kay & King’s 2020 book “Radical Uncertainty” shows, even science has its biases and constraints owing to the human constant and its proclivities for stories and fantasticism, a dimension amply explored in Shiller’s 2019 book “Narrative Economics”.

We have to give up many of our silly beliefs if we desire progress. Evidence of the progress that is possible in the aftermath can be seen in the modern comforts we enjoy today. And not until the people who invented these things jettisoned these fantastic fallacies were they able to concentrate their thoughts towards true magic: aeroplanes, automobiles, mobile phones, satellites, and so on. Things that actually work wonders in the real world and in our lives. Things that do not exist only in our dreamy sleeps.