This is an interesting approach to this kind of problem, even if I don't necessarily agree with the conclusions they draw in this case.
Knowledge Is Power Only if You Know How to Use It
The New York Times
March 11, 2007
By DENISE CARUSO
“IF we can land a man on the moon, why can’t we ...?” has been a familiar, fill-in-your-pet-peeve lament about the state of the world since Neil Armstrong’s historic giant leap in 1969. It is a question that continues to engage innovators and scholars.
The question is less plaintive and more pragmatic for Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.
“Why can we — people or society — do some of the things that we set out to accomplish, and not others?” asked Professor Sarewitz, who examines the relationship between scientific research and public benefit. Recently he has been studying effectiveness in human action, working with Richard R. Nelson, an emeritus professor at Columbia University and a pioneer in evolutionary economics and the economics of innovation.
“Many years ago, I got interested in what people were then calling ‘the moon and the ghetto’ problem,” said Professor Nelson, who published a book by that name in 1977. “This was the commentary in the late 1960s: ‘If you can land a man on the moon, why can’t you solve the social problems of the ghetto?’ ”
In work funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the professors theorize that the answer to this question may lie within the deceptively simple concept of human know-how.
Know-how is more than knowledge. It puts knowledge to work in the real world. It is how scientific discoveries become routine medical treatments, and how inventions — like the iPod or the Internet — become the products and services that change how we work and play.
As the moon-and-ghetto disparity demonstrates, know-how is unevenly distributed. But why? To find out, the professors looked for a real-world comparison that would not carry too much of a political or emotional charge. In a yet-unpublished essay, they contrast the know-how behind vaccinating children for measles and the know-how behind teaching first graders to read.
In the 17th century, they note that reading know-how was such a known quantity that the colony of Massachusetts had a law requiring it to be taught in the home. But a century later, when Cotton Mather championed a new and effective smallpox inoculation in Boston, most of the physicians in town rejected the treatment because it was not supported by the accepted know-how of the time.
Today the situation is reversed. “While almost every child vaccinated against measles is safe from the disease,” the professors write, “an alarming number of children who are ‘taught’ to read in school never really learn to read at a level necessary to perform well in today’s society.”
One criticism of their approach is that these two examples are not comparable — that the effectiveness of teaching a child to read is contingent on a variety of factors, from nutrition to peer-group reinforcement to adequate school funding, while the effectiveness of a vaccine is virtually automatic.
But “that’s precisely the point,” Professor Sarewitz said. “We want to compare the state of know-how, not knowledge.” In that case, today’s know-how on vaccination is far more robust than that on teaching a child to read.
When know-how is robust, it has a quality that the two men have called the “go” — or a core of reliable action. In their theory, any technology, object or practice that can be reliably standardized and improved over time, like vaccines or software or automobile emissions, has a “go.”
The relationship between a strong, technology-enabled “go” like a vaccine and the problem it solves may seem obvious — even redundant. After all, at its core, technology is about know-how — about the tools we develop to help us act and think better.
But the “go” enables more than just the right tool for the job. It can provide a vital convergence point for stakeholders with very diverse agendas. Once they find common cause in a reliable technological solution, they have something to rally around so that all their interests can be advanced.
“Reading creates conflict because there’s such variability in the predictability of results,” Professor Sarewitz said. “But think about the networks of people that have to cooperate in order for vaccines to work in society, and how incredibly different their agendas and worldviews are. They are no more or less diverse than the people who are in a state of pitched battle around reading.”
As another example, he cites the passage of the Montreal Protocol in the late 1980s. Meant to phase out production of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons that were believed responsible for ozone depletion, it is considered one of the most successful international agreements ever.
At the time, the chemicals were used widely as refrigerants and solvents for semiconductors. But no one ended up going without refrigerators or computers.
“Companies came up with substitutes,” Professor Sarewitz said. “And when they did, interests that were previously completely at each other’s throats — chemical companies resistant to regulation, environmentalists, leaders of developing countries, diplomats — they all converged around the alternative.”
So how might a better understanding of robust human know-how help us think more strategically about problems like reading, improving health care or reversing climate change? Can the “go” teach us something about those problems where there is “no go?” After all, the fact remains that “it’s really hard to make progress where you don’t have a ‘go’ or a technology” to solve the problem at hand, Professor Sarewitz said.
THE professors stress that their work is still in progress. But they hope that their work may reframe how we think about our “no go” problems and help us find new ways to deploy human know-how and effectiveness beyond the comparatively low-hanging fruit that technological solutions provide. This ability would signal an important change in how societies approach and address their most pressing issues.
“One of the things we need to get away from is the notion that science and technology know-how is a general-purpose magic bullet that will solve all problems,” Professor Nelson said.
If they can study enough examples of effective human know-how, they might be able to identify new ways to make progress when no technological fix exists. “We’re looking for a ‘go’ where there might not be an obvious one,” Professor Sarewitz said.
Whether or not the search yields results, it will at least help us to better understand why we can put a man on the moon, but we cannot manage to improve literacy rates, or shape workable policies on climate change, or reduce global poverty.
Knowing the mechanics that drive the “go” may help us to separate what is practically effective from our value judgments, and come up with a process that spurs solutions to problems as predictably as technological know-how does today.
Denise Caruso is executive director of the Hybrid Vigor Institute, which studies collaborative problem-solving. E-mail: email@example.com.