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06 December, 2006

Knowledge Multipliers

Still on the subject of the fragility of human knowledge (see yesterday’s post), have you ever wondered why the accumulation of knowledge is going at such a pace these days?

I used to think this was entirely due to the fact that we have as many geniuses alive today as have ever lived in the history of the world up to this point. Ditto for very clever people, ditto for ordinarily clever people, etc.. More bright sparks means more knowledge. It seems a pretty obvious outcome. In fact, the exponential growth in world population might also account for what feels like an exponential growth in knowledge.

These days, however, I think that this is not the whole story. I think there may be a multiplier in effect too. In fact, three multipliers.

The first one is science. Science is pretty new and its a really great way of accumulating knowledge because the way it works ensures that new knowledge almost always builds on old knowledge and almost never just replaces it. It also, because of experimentation (testing supposed knowledge against reality) makes sure that incorrect ideas get thrown out as quickly as possible so don’t confuse future research and waste everyone’s time. Science also acts as a a channelling or coordinating mechanism for vast numbers of researchers, within and across different areas of understanding so that they can stay focused on the important and unresolved issues. It is an extremely efficient process.

The second is specialisation. Not only are there as many people alive today pushing the frontiers as have existed in the whole prior history of the species, but there is such a huge population now that even the most bizarre and obscure fields of study can attract a ‘critical mass’ of interested minds. This, I suspect, is something unique to our age and is being felt as sudden and rapid progress in every conceivable area across the scientific and technological smorgasbord.

Finally, there is the decline in religion and other odd superstitions. If our great minds aren’t studying theology, if our best thinkers are not trying to communicate with the dead, if their minds are not crippled by the kind of madness that would have them praying and flagellating themselves rather than doing anything useful, they have more chance of being productive.

Actually, I’m not as sure about this last one as I am about the others. For a start religion hasn’t declined all that much and many great minds are still crippled by it. For another thing, our modern world has many other ways of distracting the brightest and best (like the pursuit of wealth, drugs, sex, rock’n’roll and so on). It’s hard to say if the good outweighs the bad here. (Someone should do a PhD on the subject.)

Anyway, if I’m right, the pace will only get faster as the population keeps growing, up to the point where there are so many of us that we spend all our time trying to fix the problems that overpopulation has caused and we have no time to think about anything else! Which is why I agree with Stephen Hawking who recently told the audience at an award ceremony that the human race should colonise other worlds so that we’re not so vulnerable to catastrophe. Or, to put it another way, we’ve got to get off this little rock before the tide of our own effluent engulfs us.

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