Friday 8 July 2016

The dangers of knowledge bubbles - the Brexit example

I introduced on this blog, over 5 years ago, the issue of the danger of Knowledge Bubbles. We have now just seen this phenomenon potentially derail a country, or even a whole continent.

The knowledge bubble is a construct that filters out knowledge that those within the bubble disagree with. Hitler and Stalin created their own knowledge bubbles, and you can also see the phenomenon in the way we tend to create knowledge silos in social media, exacerbated search engines and social sites that preferentially point you towards items they think you will agree with.

 It has been argued that knowledge bubbles may have been behind many major disasters, such as the lack of recognition of the imminence of Bin Laden's plans to attack the USA, or the loss of the Titanic, or the Challenger Shuttle disaster.Maybe we can now add Brexit to the list of examples.

During the Brexit debate in the run-up to the recent UK referendum on membership of the EU, voters instinctively polarised into two camps and read the articles, followed the twitter accounts and joined the conversations that reinforced (or, in the case of newspapers, formed) their personal views.  The Leave campaigners were bolstered in their views by other Leave campaigners, and the Remain camp bolstered by other Remainers.

Now the best way to burst knowledge bubbles is to commission, and remain open to the results of, independent expert review.

You listen carefully to the experts, and use this to inform your opinion and update your knowledge. In the Brexit debate, you think this might have been very useful, as there was a huge amount of evidence about the level of value the UK gained or lost from it's EU membership, and the amount of risk/value it stood to gain/lose by exiting. And the experts were pretty much unanimous (see here for a good example) that to leave the EU would be a Bad Decision.

The response to this expert opinion by the Leave campaign was the most telling example of a Knowledge Bubble I have ever seen; specifically the response by one of the leaders of the Leave campaign that
"People in this country have had enough of experts".
Widely derided as anti-intellectualism or "post truth" politics, I would rather see this statement as evidence of a robust knowledge bubble, and an example of an individual refusing to accept knowledge (no matter how expert the source) that challenged their own position. By refusing to listen to experts and preferring to listen (within their bubble) to politicians with whom they agreed, a significant proportion of the British public voted to leave the EU.  The jury is out on the long term consequences, but the short term consequences have been chaotic in both economic and political terms, and will require a much more robust approach to knowledge if we are to recover the situation.

We are all prone to knowledge bubbles. Individuals, teams, projects, organisations and countries. It is when we refuse to learn, turn down knowledge and stop listening to experts that the bubbles become become most robust, and the consequences most dire.

Please, as knowledge managers, listen out for statements like the one highlighted above, and if you hear them, sound your warning klaxon as loud as you can. It might just save a disaster.

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