Preserving Practical Science (Phronesis)

by JohnBuridan 4 min read28th Nov 2019No comments


This is my first commentary on the previous Saint Louis Junto Meeting whose notes are here. Since a meetup can cover diverse topics, I have decided that I will not include running commentary in the meeting notes, and instead reflect upon a few of the discussions in subsequent posts. If I like the results of this procedure, I will stick with it.


There is a certain type of knowledge gained from experience which is different from scientific theory and from rudimentary skills, but which is at the same time skill-based and scientific. Here are the examples we came up with in our meeting:

i. Iron Working, Guild and Trades, etc. functioned through an unbroken apprentice system. It takes a blacksmith to make a blacksmith. The non-academic approach makes learning what was done at any particular time difficult. High iteration processes generally have this feature. What fields today are very difficult to learn about without doing?
ii. NASA’s Apollo Program was so “do engineering” focused that it took a long time after the fact to figure out exactly how all the parts were made to fit together.
iii. Nuclear scientists today are monitored so that their know-how is put to use in approved countries, same for WMD specialists, etc.
iv. International Students in the US have limited access to highly advanced fields and the most cutting edge. Sometimes for National Security reasons, but mostly for the reason of patent protection and intellectual property rights for professors and grant making agencies. It's not that other countries can figure out these technologies in principle; it's that implementation is somehow a different category of knowledge.

The Greek word phronesis is usually translated as 'practical wisdom' or 'prudence' which is distinct from rudimentary skills (techne) or scientific knowledge (episteme). These three categories or knowing were codified by Aristotle, and we probably should be careful about using them to apply to today. Nonetheless, they are decent starting point for thinking about a type of knowledge that is sometimes hard to preserve, and extremely expensive to recover once lost.

I came up with some additional examples that are not in scientific fields.

i. How to raise a family. A community of friends of different ages and generations develop an art of living and take care to provide advice and help to young parents so that they can do well and ensure the children have the resources and opportunities to succeed. When a community does not have this, it becomes extremely hard to overcome poverty.
ii. A business becomes the best at doing some activity, say, HR consulting, because the managers collectively have more experience executing projects of this type than any other business AND consequently they have developed more effective processes than their competitors. If the business goes belly up, what are the chances that the unique know-how developed in the business, but not in the head of any one person, survives?

Society has done a few things to make knowledge more durable.

1. Put it on the internet. Much stuff is on the internet. There is a lot of advice out here, some good, some bad. But for everyday know-how the internet is everyone's one stop shop.

2. Internal audits. Perhaps your information is proprietary, secret, or classified, internal audits ensure that what is happening within the organization is codified and recorded so that it is at least possible to go back in time and figure out what was happening.

3. Good Old Education. There are probably more technical skill programs in existence today than at any time in history. While learning the skill is not exactly the same as getting the experience, it is necessary for the re-creation of that practical wisdom.

To 1: The internet is a great source of knowledge. But I am not prepared to say it is a great source of highly specialized know-how. Is how to be a good University president an easily discoverable and widely discussed skill on the internet? No. How about Governor of a State or Mayor of a City? These obviously require skill and know-how, but the practical wisdom is extremely tied up with the subtle particulars of each individual situation. One might rightly call these fields 'overdetermined' and the people who hold these positions are frequently 'overfitted' for the position through a network of 'who-you-know' stretching back at least one generation.

For many business issues, the no one on the internet has already addressed your specific situation, because if there are 15 binary factors at play, then it is likely no one has encountered this exact situation before. Same goes for scientific researchers and political operatives and all the highly specific factors in your life. You will get general guidance by looking at the archives or a mathematical model, but never a specific answer. Your own judgement is ultimately required, hopefully you have a community in the know to discuss it with... I guess that's why we invented conferences. Yet somehow I don't think conferences are the grand answer to breaking open narrow communities of expertise.

To 2: Internal audits, done well, ensure that everything is being recorded and essential aspects of the system can be put back together again. How to run the business is not usually part of the audit, but the process for creating the product is. Preserving that is essential. Keep doing it! However, there is a danger that mergers and acquisitions will likely screw up the knowledge contained in the processes, misplace that hidden information, and then do things worse forever.

Furthermore, the preservation of old information is hard problem. Doing it without the internet is even harder.

To 3: Two complaints about education. "We teach quickly outdated skills. Technical training is useless if students don't know how to reason." And "Everything I learned in school was theoretical, and though interesting, had no practical value!" Robert Heinlein's most divisive quotation I think concerns the middle ground, the type of practical competence gained after years of both practicing and theorizing.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I appreciate the spirit behind Heinlein's quixotic list, a society which had similar skills more widely distributed, could only come to be if communities of experienced practitioners were constantly enrolling inexperienced amateurs into their ranks. Even so, there can never be enough experts to train the next generation of novices in a local area. Much specialization is required.

In conclusion, our society preserves and extends practical wisdom through internet blogs and vlogs, conferences, professional societies, internal audits, research journals, and educational programs. If we can make sure these things happen in our own fields of expertise, then we can go a long way to making sure the future is not condemned to reinventing the wheel, writing, or actuarial science.