Pigeonholed Thinking

Scrolls in pigeonholes in the ancient Library of Alexandria.

Scrolls in pigeonholes in the ancient Library of Alexandria.

We are prone to pigeonholed thinking.

Accelerating Knowledge

A few days ago I talked about how human knowledge is accelerating; that the change in the knowledge base of 10,000 vs 250 years ago is tiny when compared to that of 250 years ago vs today.  The rate of change is dizzying.

There is no apparent reason that this acceleration will not continue.  Try to imagine how much our knowledge base will expand in the next hundred years, the next thousand, or the next ten thousand.  Of course that’s impossible for us to do, but perhaps we can construct a metaphor.

Knowledge in 10,000 Years

Imagine that everything we know today – or more accurately, what we think we know – as part of an enormous library 10,000 years in the future.  Imagine the Pentagon, still one of the largest buildings in the world at 6M square feet.1)The New Century Global Center in Chengdu, China, is the largest at 19M square feet.  Now, imagine the British Library, the greatest repository of knowledge in the modern world with over 170M books and other reference works, shoe-horned into just one, tiny closet of the Pentagon.

Ancient scrolls, note the syllabi hanging from the ends.

Ancient scrolls, note the syllabi hanging from the ends.

But rather than a modern library, to people in 10,000 years our jot of knowledge will resemble an ancient classical library, where books were written on scrolls, and the scrolls kept in pigeonholes in the wall.2)One rolled-up ‘volute’ scroll was a volume; scrolls were glued together from many pages and the index was on the ‘first gluing,’ the proto-col; and the tag on the end of a scroll which identified the title and author was the ‘σιττύβα,’ ‘syttúba’, or syllabus.  That metaphor describes the way we look at the world, and the way that our descendants will view our laughably simple-minded understanding.  Our understanding of the world will be seen as pigeonholed thinking.

How Open-Minded are We?

In our science classes we are taught the view of science as Karl Popper described it, an egalitarian, completely open-minded community in which “a single experiment” could cause everyone to rethink everything we know.  Ask yourself a question:

Have your ever known anyone, even one person, who was that open-minded?

It’s romantic fiction.  Working with physicians who trained at the world’s best medical schools, speaking with and corresponding with some of the preeminent scientists in my field today, I have never come across anyone who approaches new information in that way, at least not information that does not fit with their current understanding.  When confronted with a new idea or confounding data, all of these people – and all of us – rationalize it away, and stick to our pigeonholed thinking.  We certainly do not listen and reflect with an open mind.

Bernard Barber & Thomas Kuhn

At some point I will relate my own experiences, but for now read Bernard Barber’s classic paper, ‘Resistance by Scientists to Scientific Discovery‘.  You might also try to read Thomas Kuhn’s seminal Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but having survived the ordeal I cannot recommend it.3)I was sitting in the public library struggling through Kuhn when the former head librarian happened by and asked me what I was reading.  When I told her, she asked me what I thought of it.  I said, “It’s OK, but someone needs to do an English translation.”  She looked puzzled for a moment, and then asked me what language it was written in.  I replied, “English, I think.”  Anyway, in Structure Kuhn originates the phrase ‘paradigm shift’.

Robotic shelving and retrieval system at the University of Chicago. Despite the high-tech application, the information is still pigeonholed.

Robotic shelving and retrieval system at the University of Chicago. Despite the high-tech application, you can see that the information is still pigeonholed.

What Barber and Kuhn relate are fascinating examples of how throughout the history of science the authorities staunchly resisted what eventually became essential to the scientific canon.  One of my favorite examples from Barber is how, after Helmholtz had struggled for years to get his own ideas accepted, he then turned a deaf ear to Planck’s ideas.

Reputation & Vanity

But to my mind, the more telling observation is the reception to Roentgen’s work on X-rays. Roentgen ran into much criticism and attack, although nothing he discovered violated any existing theories or models at the time.  Rather, his work was rejected because it threatened the existing research.  No one had controlled for high-energy radiation in their experiments, so he was threatening their results.

He was threatening their reputations, and their vanity.

I remember some years back that anthropologists published work arguing that humans had crossed the ice sheets from Europe long before Leif Erickson came over.  The work was blasted from all sides, and I remember being stunned.  Not one of the critics argued that the ice sheets didn’t connect Europe and the Americas.  Given the ice sheets, we would be rather surprised if people had not followed the ice sheets.  So why were other academics fighting the ideas?

Because it threatened their reputations, and their vanity.

It is not in the nature of humanity to evaluate a new idea, or new data, on its own merits.  Instead we take the data, turn around and look at our pitiful closetful of pigeonholes and if it doesn’t fit, we declare it wrong.  Every scientist and scholar is aware that our ignorance is infinite.  But if new information doesn’t fit into our current understanding, we refuse to question the accuracy, nor completeness, of our own knowledge.

At all.  Rather, we attack them; we blame them for our own ignorance.

So scientists simply turn around and tell us we’re wrong.  What they will never admit is that their reason for insisting we’re wrong is because our new ideas, or much worse our confounding data, doesn’t fit into their pigeonholes.

We’re threatening their reputations, and their vanity.

Pigeonholed Thinking

Now if scientists think this way, then we can hardly fault the political partisan and the religious dogmatist for being so closed-minded.

My question is, how do we change it?  How do we get people to realize we live in an infinitely large library, of which we can only see a minuscule corner; and because of it, we need to be profoundly humble, rather than arrogant and dogmatic?

This blog is my minuscule attempt.


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Picture of the Library at Alexandria, source obscure; this image appears hundreds of times around the Internet with no clear source or attribution. This copy taken from xOrisOriaNews.gr.

Scrolls and syllabi courtesy of LibraryThing.com.

Robotic librarian courtesy of The Mansueto Library, University of Chicago.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The New Century Global Center in Chengdu, China, is the largest at 19M square feet.
2. One rolled-up ‘volute’ scroll was a volume; scrolls were glued together from many pages and the index was on the ‘first gluing,’ the proto-col; and the tag on the end of a scroll which identified the title and author was the ‘σιττύβα,’ ‘syttúba’, or syllabus.
3. I was sitting in the public library struggling through Kuhn when the former head librarian happened by and asked me what I was reading.  When I told her, she asked me what I thought of it.  I said, “It’s OK, but someone needs to do an English translation.”  She looked puzzled for a moment, and then asked me what language it was written in.  I replied, “English, I think.”  Anyway, in Structure Kuhn originates the phrase ‘paradigm shift’.

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