Knowledge, Justified True Belief, and David Brent’s dance

If Knowledge is Justified True Belief, then what does “Justification” entail?  A recent New Scientist article, and a BBC charity video, give us some pointers.

BBC Comic Relief charity video including Ricky Gervais’ character “David Brent”

The April 1, 2017 edition of New Scientist magazine has the theme of Knowledge, and contains a set of Knowledge-related articles, the first of which explores the definition of Knowledge as “Justified True Belief” (aka the JTB definition).

I am not an epistemologist, but from what I read there are many type of knowledge, and this definition only applies to one type.  There is Propositional knowledge (“I know that Paris is the capital of France”), there is Acquaintance knowledge (“I know (am acquainted with) Paris”), and there is Ability knowledge or know-how (“I know how to drive in Paris”).   In other languages there may be different words used for these different types of Knowing, which is why Knowledge is often a term lost in translation. The Justified True Belief definition applies only to Propositional Knowledge.

For propositional knowledge, the three parts of Truth, Belief and Justification are important. To know something you must first believe it, and for Knowledge to be factual it must by definition be true, or else it is falsehood (although the definition of True is not easy. Given the half-life of facts, “True” often means “True for now, as far as we know”). However Belief is not enough, and that is what brings us to David Brent, and the question on whether he really knows how to dance.

Illusions of belief and David Brent’s dance

Most of us believe things that are not true, and in particular overestimate our own Ability Knowledge. For example,

  • In a survey of faculty at the University of Nebraska, 68% believed they were in the top 25% for teaching ability, and more than 90% believed they were above average. 
  • 87% of MBA students at Stanford University believed their academic performance was above the median. 
  • In ratings of leadership, 70% of US students put themselves above the median. 
  • In ability to get on well with others, 85% of students put themselves above the median and 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.
  • 93% of the U.S. students and 69% of Swedish students in a survey put themselves in the top 50% for Driving Abiility for safety,
  • in another survey almost 80% of participants evaluated themselves as being an above-average driver.

This is the “Superiority illusion” described by Wikipedia. We consistently overestimate our Ability Knowledge, and the estimates above are of course nonsense. 80% of people cannot be above average, and 25% cannot be in the top 1%.  To make things worse, it is often the people who know the least, who overestimate their knowledge the most (the Illusion of Confidence).

Ricky Gervais’ comic creation David Brent is funny largely because he consistently overestimates his own ability, and this becomes very obvious to the viewer in the embarrassing situations that follow.  In the video above,  he honestly believes he not only knows how to dance, but knows how to dance better than the professional.

It is his firm belief, but is it Knowledge? Is it justified? We can see, through our own reaction and that of his Office colleagues from 3 minutes into the video, that his self-knowledge is in fact totally unjustified, and that it is false opinion, and not knowledge at all.

So why is this important to Knowledge Management?

Knowledge management seeks to improve the Ability knowledge of knowledge workers in the organisation, and thus help them perform better. It requires some way of sharing, co-creating and transferring knowledge – making it more widely available than just leaving it in the heads of the experts. But how much of the expert knowledge is justified? And how much is “David Brent” knowledge – asserted with confidence, but actually false?  Just because an expert confidently believes something, does not mean it is true. 
When seeking to transfer knowledge, I think that we often (or maybe always) need to transform Ability knowledge and Acquaintance knowledge into Propositional knowledge. An expert can be able in a topic and acquainted with a topic, but to teach or coach a non-expert, they usually need to transfer a proposition like “I know this is a good, or useful, or recommended way to do something”, or “I know that this is a bad, or dangerous, way to do something, which you should therefore avoid”. (I have to say that I could well be wrong here, not being an epistemologist).
Once you turn your knowledge into a proposition, it needs to be justified.
  • Teaching material should be justified as “good things to learn from”
  • Tips and Hints should be justified as “good things to consider”
  • Recommended practices should be justified as “approved practices to follow”
  • Guidelines and standard procedures should  be justified as “as far as we know at the moment, the most reliable way” to do something.

Justification comes through two mechanisms:

  • Justification through experience. Know-how knowledge is justified if it reliably results in above-average performance. The justification requires not just a correlation between the knowledge and the performance, but a justifiable causal link. Saying “I did X and my project succeeded, therefore doing X will help project success” is no more justified than saying “I wore red socks to the football and my team won, so wearing red socks will help team success”. 
  • Justification by the community of peers and experts. Once the community agrees that “doing X is recommended, as a way of enabling project success” you have community justification. 
These two mechanisms are also seen in the scientific method, where scientific results should be repeatable, and externally reviewed. David Brent’s dancing would not be justified, as it would consistently by rejected by any dancing community as being repeatedly awful. 
We need deal with the issue of justification in our own Knowledge Management programs, lest we end up with unreliable knowledge, the equivalent of David Brent trying to teach others how to dance. Because if it’s not justified, it’s not knowledge.

However we also need to recognise that justifying knowledge is not an easy thing to do, and that any justification is probably only provisional.  As the New Scientist article concludes:

Various attempts have been made to tighten up the standards of justification, and provide a definition of knowledge everyone can agree on. (However) all these epistemological investigations point us to one fact that we are wont to forget: that knowing something is a far richer, more complex state than merely believing it. The ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and to constantly question what we call knowledge, it vital to human progress and something we cannot afford to let slip”.

View Original Source Here.

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