The slipperiness of evidence, knowledge and facts

Evidence, knowledge and facts. They seem so reassuringly solid. And yet we look back in time and can see that yesterday’s facts and knowledge with time start looking more and more like opinions and then are superseded. Think about a healthy diet. In Under My Skin, Doris Lessing’s autobiography, she describes eating at her neighbour’s:

[…] the household’s rituals centred on food or serving it, beginning with the early morning tea that came with Marie biscuits, at six. Breakfast… morning tea… lunch… afternoon tea, snacks with the drinks that arrived at six o’clock, the famous sundowners, dinner. Mealtimes were occasions for a good deal of proselytizing, for in this household vegetables were bad for you unless ‘thoroughly’ cooked, whereas my own home was in the grip of the conviction that only lightly steamed vegetables were wholesome. Both diets were presented by experts as definitive and for all time, just as every new diet is now: nor argument was possible, or even discussion”

This relativity of fact and evidence is particularly pertinent in the framework of development, agriculture and the environment, all of which are asking for evidence-based policy. This gives the idea that the truth is out there and all you have to do is go find it and then design the policy to deal with that. Phew. Problem solved.

And yet there are the facts and knowledge slipping and sliding and changing from country to country, generation to generation, man to woman.

Geoffery Vickers addressed this by developing a concept called ‘appreciative systems’. This is not ‘appreciate’ like “Oh thank you, that’s great!”, but ‘appreciate’ in the sense of “I appreciate that you may not have much time”. (Nor is it anything to do with Appreciative Inquiry, which is great but something different). It means more an understanding or recognition of a situation. Appreciative systems are one way of intervening in the flow of ideas and events which at any given point look like ‘fact’. It is a visual way of conveying the idea of dynamism and change. So how we intervene at any point in the flux is dependent on the way we appreciate the situation. Our appreciation leads to the ‘Standards’ we apply, in other words what we consider ‘correct action’ but also the laws, regulations and guidelines in which we codify that. These two together provide the framework for our decisions about what to do.

But that is not the end of the story. Because what we do feeds back into the stream of events and ideas, which are now different based on our actions (Please nobody mention parallel universes and Schroedinger’s cat at this point!). The world is now different and our appreciation moves along by a millimeter.

But that is not the end of the story either. Because we are so small and our brains can only contain a minute part of the understanding needed to understand the whole wide world, so we can sometimes ‘appreciate’ the ‘wrong’ things or make the ‘wrong’ connections, so sometimes we go in the wrong direction. With the best intentions. How can we find alerting mechanisms for when that happens?


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