Most of us know a great deal about something.

It might be the batting averages of New Zealand test cricketers or the best splash of colour for the living room colour palette.  Maybe it’s the way a computer is wired or the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe.

Even those who profess ignorance know about something — beer in my son’s case.

So I contend that the ability to acquire knowing about things is a critical human trait. No matter that the knowing might not be that relevant.

And yet the corollary is true too.

Not one of us can know all things. There are limits to what an individual can retain and retrieve. One persons knowing does not stretch to everything, not even after a few of said beers.

Each of us only knows about a few things, a tiny part of the available universe of knowledge. We are well aware of this limitation and accept or even embrace it whilst still knowing that, on retirement, Brendan McCullum’s batting average in tests was 38.64 and that this is not the highest for New Zealand wicketkeepers.

Most of us accept this limit theorem without much fuss. There are things we will never know and so be it. We settle for details only in a narrow topic.

This narrowness is especially acute for those whose job it is to find new knowledge. Researchers and academics are so focused that they could concentrate the sun’s rays onto an ant. They find and record ever-finer specifics, more nuance and detail than is imaginable.

And there are a lot of these people.

Catalogues suggest there are around 16,000 universities in the world. Given a conservative assumption of 500 researchers in each of these institutions, academia has millions of people paid to generate more knowledge.

So knowing more than just a tiny part gets more difficult by the day.

But here is the thing.

Our problems — the tricky conundrums that come about trying to feed, clothe and house 7 billion souls and their pets — require lots of connected knowledge. They are not fixed by knowing the detail. They need threads, scenarios, and systems.

Solutions need knowledge that is of and from the many.

At the same time that knowing goes deeper and deeper into the details, we need it to overlap, converge, and mix together.

One way to do this is to be sure we are as up to date as we can be on the available evidence. Cover off on what has been researched and with what rigour for at least the most important linkages.

Search engine power, some rules about evidence, and a bit of effort makes this a tractable task for many important questions. A few evidence reviews will get many more of us up to speed with the skills to start mixing it all up.


Post first published by Mark Dangerfield on LinkedIn






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