I had a really nice moment with my students yesterday – I don’t often talk about my teaching here, for confidentiality reasons. But this was different.
We’re in a unit about how to write research reports of different lengths and formats for professional reasons and purposes. I’m teaching a class full of engineers, so I’m concentrating my supplementary comments on writing techniques and how to synthesize a big pile of ideas into a coherent, accessible picture.
If you're carrying out some work of research for your company, it’s going to have a purpose. You’re going to have to recommend actions, goals, and define some strategies for your company going forward.
I think of the subject matter as a practical epistemology class – how to gather and organize knowledge in the best way for action.
The most important part of any research is understanding what you actually have to learn before you know it. Let me explain that in a way that I tried for my class, in a way that gave me a little nostalgia.
You see, there are known knowns. . . . Yeah, I’m going there. Because it sounded ridiculous but was actually remarkably insightful and useful, like the most profoundly pregnant Bushism.
Known Unknowns. Your immediate targets for research and investigation. You’ve learned enough about your subject matter that you’ve formulated specific research questions. Your first major task in this project is to answer these questions.
You can’t always answer those questions univocally. But you at least have a research question in mind – you can understand how different variations in conditions can affect this aspect of your work going forward. You may not know how to handle it in advance, but you know enough about a problem to prepare.
Unknown Unknowns. You don’t even know how to ask the question. The notion isn’t anywhere in your thinking at all. You can’t prepare for it – You don’t even have any idea it could happen or exist.
What this amounts to is that the world tends to be more complex than we know. The invasion of Iraq itself, from the American perspective at least, is a really good example, unfortunately. The entire US military was, practically speaking, built for state-on-state combat. Total war, just like back in the Second World War.
Their ability to deal with a guerrilla movement was so pathetic for that exact reason. When you don’t even consider guerrilla movements a possible thing you could deal with, you won’t be able to fight them.
It’s a dramatic example for a business class, but the concept still works for more typical corporate priorities. For example, it’s difficult to prepare for your business model being disrupted by a wholly new technological development, or the law being changed to undercut your business practice or allow for more competitors.
You can’t ask people to prepare for future events which have literally no signs in the present. How can you plan for what you don’t understand?
Zizek hit the last category, in his depressingly Freudian style. Unknown Knowns. His example was the return of the repressed – the best example being Abu Ghraib.
We now know that it was much worse, the head of Blackwater being a radical Christian extremist. It’s a much better example of the Unknown Known – our blindnesses to how our own nature corrupts us. In the example of the war, it’s the American exceptionalist presumption that their military power brings good, that it liberates.
But that triumphalist vision of America ignores the horrors of slavery and religious extremism that were just as much parts of America’s origins as their heritage of liberal democracy.
Of course, I didn’t really discuss it that way in class. Instead, I talked about corporate issues – blindness to your own flaws, weaknesses that you don’t discuss or confront in the name of, maybe, maintaining company morale. Or just plain hubris.
Practical epistemology. A study of human stupidity.