May 18, 2011
Professor seeks to expand the limits of the unknown
Pushing past the present limits of human knowledge is crucial in tackling society’s challenges, says James Evans, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and in the College.
Evans, along with postdoctoral scholar Jacob Foster and professors Andrey Rzhetsky and Ian Foster, is on a quest to reach far beyond those limits by researching knowledge about knowledge, or “metaknowledge.”
“Metaknowledge results from the critical scrutiny of what is known, how, and by whom,” he says. “Discovering the nature and source of limits to understanding will literally help us see past them and face the big questions that lie beyond.”
Such questions lurk at every scale, from the galactic to the genetic.
“We envision projects like ‘the human dimension of cosmology,’ asking how new theories of the universe arise and gain scientific, popular, and religious attention,” Evans says. “Or imagine a similar investigation of theories of inheritance. Genetics and epigenetics have emerged rapidly, and we are putting heavier explanatory demands on them.” Such projects might suggest better ways to tackle the big questions.
Evans is forming a metaknowledge network to catalyze a new field devoted to understanding these issues and to provide a new perspective on human capacities for creativity and intelligence. Over the next few years, this group of experts, including scientists and scholars from a variety of fields, will focus on the processes by which knowledge emerges, evolves, and thrives—or disappears.
“Studying knowledge in this way will allow us to recursively shape it,” Evans says. “We will use measured biases, revealed assumptions, and previously unconsidered research paths to revise our confidence in particular claims and direct attention to hidden problems.”
For example, because it is widely assumed that most human psychological properties are universal, results from ‘typical’ experimental participants—most of whom are American undergraduates—are often extended to the entire species. “Sixty-seven percent of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology use U.S. undergraduates,” says Evans.
However, a recent meta-analysis published by Joseph Henrich and colleagues at the University of British Columbia demonstrated that this universal assumption is false in several domains, including fundamental ones such as perception, and recommends expensive changes in sampling to correct for the resulting bias.
“My hope is that by expanding metaknowledge research, attention and funding will be redirected toward fundamental, neglected questions that have the highest potential to improve the fidelity of our knowledge,” he says. “Tracing the arc of our knowledge and attention will open up a wider menu of choices about how to invest them going forward. This will be critical for us to get the most out of our science and scholarship.”
By Tanya Cochran