Making Knowledge and Uncertainty Truly Multi-Dimensional

Piano Accademia

The world’s first pianoforte, created by Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1732), in the Academia Gallery, Florence, Italy

A very interesting piece ran on the website of Foreign Affairs, the magazine of the Council on Foreign Relations, titled “What Science Can’t Explain — A New Study Reveals the Blind Faith Behind Neuroscience.” Authored by By  and , partners at a consulting firm specializing in the human sciences called ReD, they offer strategic advice to business.  Their statement from their web page is below:

“All of our work begins with an exploration of the customers’ world— using social science tools to understand how people experience their reality and, in turn, offering businesses a “reality check” on what is meaningful to people.”

This statement alone should be resonant with readers of this blog.  Using the terms I like to use, I could shorten this to “We specialize in empathetic connection to our customers, as well as helping with assuring validity of their perspective regarding their customers.”

The piece in Foreign Affairs goes on to discuss a couple of topics.  The first is a discovery, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy that showed one error in fMRI software used for brain scans that decalibrated approximately 70% of all research from the  past 15 years.  This puts in doubt over 40,000 articles on brain function in the published literature.  With this discovery, the reliability of a huge hunk of neuroscience, which has gone to finer and finer scales, claiming this part of the brain, or that part, performs this particular function, because of certain environmental influences that cause the particular area to glow (or not) on an fMRI scan, is in doubt.  That in itself is interesting.

But the whole science behind fMRIs in the first place — not the elaborate construction of machines, nor the refinement of techniques to create those pictures — is based on a principle that, as the authors say clearly, something that would give pause if people understood it.  From the piece above:

And indeed, it is easy to embrace claims from such studies uncritically. They are brain scans, after all. And they are alluringly simple: it takes neither a rocket- nor a neuro-scientist to discern that in two side-by-side photos of brains, the one labeled “when in love” looks brighter and different. Meanwhile, the underlying science is impenetrably complex enough to make it impossible for mere mortals without years of experience to challenge it. Invoking the authority of neuroscience allows you to easily win any argument. “

Except it’s not that complex.  fMRIs show brain activity in terms of increased blood flow  in the center under study.  The generalized thesis is that increased blood flow means the neurons in that part are more active, and thus more processing is being done. It’s better than phrenology, for sure. But it’s also not a whole lot more advanced than “we looked at a circuit, and when the resistors heated up, we determined that was where the action was.”

And how about validity? The idea that a particular part of the brain is solely responsible for particular thoughts belies the entire emergent, evolutionary, and massively connected nature of the organ.  Our brains are not organs that appeared overnight.  They appeared over literally hundreds of millions of years. And all the parts, while certainly having some level of differentiation, are all wired together.

Where does our understanding of the fragmented brain — or rather, that the brain is a mostly fragmented organ, composed of starkly differentiated pieces — come from? It comes from the fragmented social structures present in institutions that study brains. Why?  Because the social structure really doesn’t have a good way of generating knowledge except fragmented parts, due to research questions of smaller and smaller scope that can result in the status-based leveling of paper publication.  Holistic functioning, especially at this time in technological development of fMRIs, is almost impossible to study.  So, if you want to write papers on brains, you better have tools that allow finer and finer scales of whatever it is that you’re trying to measure.  In the case of fMRIs, that’s blood flows, and that can be localized to 2-3mm of the spot on the brain with the activity.

How can we surmise that brains actually work?  A better, less crude (but still crude!) approximation might be a circuit analogy.  Parts of the brain are wired together with lots of neuronal pathways, that have the ability to change dependent on the circumstances.  We also know that this is true.  Due to neuroplasticity, people injured in certain parts of the brain often recover fully as the brain re-wires itself around the damaged part.  This model, which I use extensively in this blog, allows building on some of the knowledge and long-term understanding of brain function using reason.  Most of the stuff I discuss starts from an understanding of function of a particular part, then thinks through how those units would function together to give a particular action. That’s the basis of my whole Neurobiology of Education post.

When coupled and informed with results from fMRIs, I’d argue that my method is much higher on the validity scale.  You can understand how, for example, the amygdala, which is in charge of fear (or confirm that it is active during fear using an fMRI,) shuts down the hippocampus, which is in charge of integrating information, during times of stress. But actually proving this completely with something like an fMRI — or perhaps better said, creating a reliable, duplicable experiment, when a person has their head shoved inside an fMRI machine, is almost impossible. How do you trigger a person to feel fear (or any other emotion) consistently, while learning a task, in such an environment?


fMRI machine — Creative Commons

The authors don’t stop there.  The point they’re really trying to make is below:

It also points to a more general scientism that increasingly pervades academic, public, and even business discourse. In all fields, there is an implicit but increasingly strong belief that the only things that matter are those that are measureable and that the only way to make sense of the world is through the hard sciences and quantifiable, objective data.”

The authors go on to make a case for research in the humanities as a way to get at integrated, connected experience, hitting people where they know it will hurt — or convince.  How do you quantify love?  That’s been a stumper forever, because attachment is a multi-faceted thing.  The authors invoke what I’d like to call the ‘messiness’ principle, which is how folks deal with stuff where they don’t have a good model of how information is created.  But they are doing better than most in getting to the heart of one of the problems that our Theory of Empathetic Evolution addresses — namely how to disagree with someone who’s full-on ‘sciencing’ you when what they say  quite obviously doesn’t match what you can see and hear with your own eyes. It’s an argument aimed at confronting the reliability stick being beat over your head, when the data that you’re collecting from direct experience — the validity helmet — is being walloped in an attempt to assert power and control over your own thoughts.  ‘Sciencing’ someone can be just another form of gaslighting, and a tool of yet another collapsed-egocentric Authoritarian with an empathy disorder.

I went to the authors’ web page and read about their consulting firm. They’re sophisticated thinkers, and believe in both the power of reason, and the great works of philosophers (they’re big on Heidegger, for example.)  It’s a method of understanding that is necessarily complex and anthropologically centered, which is all well and good.  But it still suffers from the meta-structures of knowledge present in it, and over time, sticking with the 2-D knowledge meta-structure that comprises all of academia, where it’s a choice between either reliability or validity. Even when you give yourself the ability to take little hops off Flatland and make connections, you can only get you so far. The authors have come down pretty hard on the side of validity, or as they might say it, Truth. But the minute that you do this, without confronting the necessary temporal, spatial and energetic scales — that fundamental thermodynamics thing — you’re setting up a dichotomy.  If things are True, then there is the implication that its opposite must be False. And those time-invariant concepts are still going to require modification in an ever-changing world.


Reading the authors’ paper leads to as strong an argument that one could make for our knowledge structure-based Theory of Empathetic Evolution. Instead of a Flatland 2-D knowledge meta-structure, where laid out on the same playing field is scientific thinking, tribal knowledge, authority-based assertions, personal experience AND collected personal experience, we can understand that these are more or less complete evolutions of the social structures beneath them. Empathetic Evolution allows us to go 3-D.

Empathy Neural Fcn SD Slide

The big, connected, cross-referenced picture of empathy, neural function, and Spiral Dynamics

How does that work? Science, mostly constrained to the Legalistic v-Meme mode, absent the occasional Guiding Principle flash, can mostly only establish testable, repeatable hypotheses. But it can establish a baseline for data collection that says you have to go out and find facts that can be validated.  That leads to supporting both individual and group heuristics (Performance and Communitarian v-Meme) higher up on the Spiral, as well as empathetic development, that then lead to larger, more integrated perspectives and truths that very likely are time- or spatially-dependent.  What works in one situation, may or may not work in another, dependent on when it happened and where.

When we cap it off with understanding our own biases and perspectives as researchers, we’re in Spiral Dynamics Second Tier land, and then that couples with a much more developed sense of rational AND conscious empathy. As our temporal and spatial scales expand, it’s hard to know exactly where we’ll end up.  You’ve got the famous Butterfly Effect from chaos theory, which says small changes (like a butterfly flapping its wings) can lead to large changes (like a hurricane) in other locations, due to sensitivity of initial conditions.  At the same time, the power of an evolved empathy gives one the ability to expand their social network across diverse individuals, cultures, and consciousnesses. The implication?  The butterfly may flap its wings, and maybe that has the potential to lead to a hurricane.  But through our expanded empathetic network, we may also be able to detect change in time, and turn on a fan that blows our butterfly back on to another patch of posies, and the hurricane is prevented.

And maybe we can’t figure out how to stop that butterfly.  The evolved wisdom that we might have from Empathetic Evolution will equip us with the ability to know what we can’t know.  And that self-knowledge will direct strategy that can accurately assess and compensate for alternate outcomes — like building a seawall to stop the hurricane’s storm surge — before they happen.  Consider both the aggregate knowledge and wisdom in the Dutch Oosterscheldekering.  It is both flood wall and movable barrier to keep out the North Sea during storms, while having large movable sections so that sea life can move in and out of the protected area when a storm isn’t active.  And that feature was incorporated because of large, public (read collective intelligence) outcry over closing off the estuaries on the Dutch Coast to natural interactions with the North Sea — an action that the Dutch populace were uncomfortable enough with unknown outcomes (like mass extinction, or pollution, or whatever) that they made parts of the barrier movable and more naturally adaptive.  They knew that they didn’t know, and they also likely surmised that there was stuff they didn’t know that they didn’t know.


The movable gates of the Oosterscheiderkering, Vladimir Siman photo, Creative Commons Wikipedia


Here they are in action — from the Dutch Infrastructure Ministry

And that kind of self-awareness is only possible in a society as empathetic as the Dutch.  It doesn’t typically happen, because most cultures are just not that evolved.  Around the world, we see the the lower v-Meme level- kind of disconnected thinking being used — from China with its Three Gorges Dam project, to Brazil, with its Belo Monte project.  Large, prestige-based projects, with very little thought to long-term consequences.  And all these were patterned after our own large scale failures in the U.S.  Problems in the Mississippi Delta from excessive dam construction on the upper Mississippi much?  How much longer does New Orleans really have, considering that the barrier islands are receding so rapidly?

If there’s a dominant insight in all of this, it’s that the best thinkers in the commercial sector are starting to confront lack of strategic performance in ways that both embody empathetic thinking, and are accessible to people in power.  That’s a great thing. Here’s a shout-out to them that they’re on the right track. As well as a reminder to them that the path is actually an evolutionary one.  We’ll see if they get in touch when I write them.  It’s time to realize that the knowledge space of what humans can collectively know isn’t flat, and accreted real estate.  It’s a Spiral, nesting larger and more comprehensive understandings inside itself, using the tools from the lower v-Memes to connect and buttress the validity of the higher understandings, bending upward out of sight.





2 thoughts on “Making Knowledge and Uncertainty Truly Multi-Dimensional

    1. Just fixed a couple of things for clarity. The larger idea — not of right or wrong, but greater temporal, spatial, and energetic completeness — is the key. This is very challenging for people to understand.


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