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Tacit Knowledge and Science Communication Dilemmas

date: February 4, 2016

Since, most of the time, we cannot watch, interact, participate, or study in other people's labs, on their computers, with them on their field work, and so forth as they conduct scientific investigations and experiments, we depend on the scientist's ability to report about the processes, environments, and methods used when investigating and experimenting. As a result, science depends on good scientific communication, and good scientific communication depends on documenting the steps, materials, and other activities and qualities that are a part of that process (and also on writing well).

However, Polanyi's claim that “we can know more than we can tell,” what he refers to as tacit knowledge, continues to raise important dilemmas. In short, the assumption in the knowledge management literature, that we can know more than we can tell, does hold, but there is often disagreement about the type of knowledge that will forever be tacit and the type of knowledge that has the potential to be explicit but has not yet become so (Nonaka (1994) was one of the first successful people to begin categorizing these differences 1)). Specifically, then, some problems we face with tacit knowledge, with this knowing more than telling problem, is whether tacit knowledge can be made explicit (can it be codified?); if so, is it tacit knowledge (or just implicit in some way); whether there will always be some kind of knowledge that will forever be immune to documentation; and whether, among other things, it's worth documenting, or attempting to, certain kinds of tacit or implicit knowledge (because, for example, the cost is high in some important way or the cognitive load of too much documentation is too great (information overload), etc.)?

Transparency is not a new norm for science. Historians of science write about early motivations to disseminate scientific reporting, and Robert Merton's 2) insights about the norms of science touch on this, in particular, the communism norm (I write briefly about it here:Reading Robert K Merton: Normative Structure) describes it in particular, at least in part (it focuses on findings, more so). However, what's interesting, as of late, is that communication and information technologies, such as the web and the Internet, have enkindled the debate, by providing an enhanced ability to document, in more detail and thoroughness, the scientific process. The assumption, then, is that more and better information and documentation of the scientific process 3), maximized by these technologies, will lead to a better way of doing science and thus more reliable scientific findings and truths.

These assumptions, however, need more testing. First, the same epistemological questions raised above apply to scientists; that is, what do scientists know more than they can tell? How much of and of what kind of their tacit knowledge needs to be made explicit, if it can be? If some tacit knowledge cannot be made explicit, does this type of knowledge present any true obstacles to reproducibility (akin to the Gettier problem 4)–reproducibility by luck and not by true justification)? Second, once those epistemological questions are surveyed, then the assumptions about the communication of science need to be addressed. For example, is the quality of the scientific enterprise a function of its transparency (its openness–open science 5), open access 6), open source 7), open standards 8), open peer review 9), etc.)? If so, what are the maxima and minima 10), so to speak, of this function? Or, what's the minimal or maximal amount of transparency needed for a healthy scientific enterprise?

It turns out that these problems hold true across the spectrum of organized human activity and not just the scientific enterprise (this is why the business/management literature has been able to take off with these knowledge management dilemmas). This makes sense and gives some credence to Susan Haack's view that scientific knowledge is neither epistemologically privileged nor ill-founded. Generally, it's simply more rigorous. More on that later.

Haack, S. (2007). Defending science—within reason: Between scientism and cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Nonaka, I. (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.

Polanyi, M. (1966/2009). The tacit dimension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1966)

blog/tacit-knowledge-and-science-communication-dilemmas.txt · Last modified: 2017/03/07 15:16 by seanburns