Do you ever wonder how you know what you know? Or if what you know is even true anymore?
That’s not a philosophical question so much as a pragmatic one because in our world the body of knowledge for just about every single field you can think of and some you’ve never even heard of is growing exponentially and will likely continue. Never mind the average person’s questions. The world’s universities are pumping out scores of BAs, MAs and PhDs and new minds are turning over old problems with new questions and new ways of looking at things, and generating new knowledge. Or they are creating entirely new channels of enquiry into new fields.
Now in a way, that’s always been the case, but what’s new to the equation is the speed at which this is happening, due in part to a more formalized approach to getting research findings out there. I heard that once upon a time it took about 40 years to get from the research bench to the average person on the street, and while that seems a bit long, it probably was an indication of the entire process of research into solid, irrefutable evidence.
We do not stand for the long view. Not anymore.
There are now the fields of research transfer and for the business world knowledge transfer that are offshoots of communications/PR (heresy, I know) that deal strictly with bundling up research findings into usable bits of data and information and sending it out to trade and public media in some form or another so that we can get a sniff of it.
I’m using the term research findings deliberately. It would be good if it’s the body of evidence that’s disseminated in digestible bits, together with ideas as to what it all means and how the new evidence meshes or doesn’t with existing practices and beliefs and attitudes. But no. That’s not really happening in spite of the concept, (very big in health and related fields) of evidence into practice.
As fields of endeavour, research and knowledge transfer are basically about gathering the information ‘stuff’ aka, the right information to the right people at the right time and in the right way (MP3 or CD or news release or workshops or face-to-face meetings) so that whatever needs to get out there is released. The notion of transfer is deceptive in this context: it imagines that somehow a bit of information is going to get into my head and not only change my worldview in some way but also change my behaviour.
One of my areas of interest is the knowing-doing gap. It’s a term used primarily in organizational life and businesses, but in my little mind, it is about people and that three-pound thing called a brain. Knowing-Doing is a complex process and maybe there aren’t gaps so much as obstacles and barriers. Transfer of research findings or knowledge runs SMACK into the knowing doing gap universe. I am also interested in expanding and contracting universes, but that’s a whole other tangent to this tangent, even if it is related.
Back to main point
I wonder about knowledge and knowing because about five years ago, I was reading an article about dinosaurs and the emerging theories/new knowledge about the relationship between dinosaurs and birds. It struck me that I was reading was totally different than what I had learned in school. Until that point, I was blissfully ignorant of my ignorance.
And then, this week, I ran across an article that after I read it, and thought about it and re-read it I landed on two feelings about it: amazement and troubling.
The article is troubling because it presents research findings from one study. One study’s findings does not meet the burden of proof necessarily to be considered evidence.
It’s troubling because it is speculative, and perhaps we have enough speculative journalism in our world.
It’s amazing because I did not know about the Sunflower galaxy in the shape of a spiral. Did you? No-one I know knew about it. And so I got to find out about spirals and galaxies all over again and update my knowledge.
And it’s troubling PLUS amazing because if proven true it means, as the article suggests, that dark energy is real, and that what we know about gravity is up for revision. And while that is SUCH good science, it’s also a major pain in certain body parts. How do I change knowing what I know???
I have to go wonder about that now. In the meantime I have included the article for those who might be interested.
ScienceDaily (Oct. 23, 2009) — An international team of astronomers have found an unexpected link between mysterious ‘dark matter’ and the visible stars and gas in galaxies that could revolutionise our current understanding of gravity.
One of the astronomers suggests that an unknown force is acting on dark matter. The findings are published this week in the scientific journal Nature.
Only 4% of the universe is made of known material. Stars and gas in galaxies move so fast that astronomers have speculated that the gravity from a hypothetical invisible halo of dark matter is needed to keep galaxies together. However, a solid understanding of dark matter as well as direct evidence of its existence has remained elusive.
Now the team believes that the interactions between dark and ordinary matter could be more important and more complex than previously thought, and even speculate that dark matter might not exist and that the anomalous motions of stars in galaxies are due to a modification of gravity on extragalactic scales.
Dr. Benoit Famaey (Universities of Bonn and Strasbourg) explains: “The dark matter seems to ‘know’ how the visible matter is distributed. They seem to conspire with each other such that the gravity of the visible matter at the characteristic radius of the dark halo is always the same. This is extremely surprising since one would rather expect the balance between visible and dark matter to strongly depend on the individual history of each galaxy.”
Dr. Zhao at the SUPA Centre of Gravity notes, “The pattern that the data reveal is extremely odd. It’s like finding a zoo of animals of all ages and sizes miraculously having identical, say, weight in their backbones or something. It is possible that a non-gravitational fifth force is ruling the dark matter with an invisible hand, leaving the same fingerprints on all galaxies, irrespective of their ages, shapes and sizes.”
Such a force might solve an even bigger mystery, known as ‘dark energy’, which is ruling the accelerated expansion of the Universe. A more radical solution is a revision of the laws of gravity first developed by Isaac Newton in 1687 and refined by Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in 1916. Einstein never fully decided whether his equation should add an omnipresent constant source, now called dark energy.
Dr Famaey added, “If we account for our observations with a modified law of gravity, it makes perfect sense to replace the effective action of hypothetical dark matter with a force closely related to the distribution of visible matter.”
The implications of the new research could change some of the most widely held scientific theories about the history and expansion of the universe.
Lead researcher Dr. Gianfranco Gentile at the University of Ghent concludes, “Understanding this puzzling conspiracy is probably the key to unlock the formation of galaxies and their structures.”
- Gianfranco Gentile, Benoit Famaey, HongSheng Zhao, Paolo Salucci. Universality of galactic surface densities within one dark halo scale-length. Nature, 2009; 461 (7264): 627 DOI: 10.1038/nature08437