Agnotology: As Knowledge Expands, Ignorance Increases

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Science historian at Stanford, Robert Proctor, has made this profound observation, as reported in the February 2009 issue of Wired magazine:

Normally, we expect society to progress, amassing deeper scientific understanding and basic facts every year.

Knowledge only increases, right?

Proctor points out that when is comes to many contentious subjects, our usual relationship to information is reversed: Ignorance increases.

He has developed a word inspired by this trend: agnotology. Derived from the Greek root agnosis, it is "the study of culturally constructed ignorance."

The reason I found this so interesting is I've been having an exchange with Jim Hassett, a legal consultant, who has written (so far) a seven-part series of blog posts on "alternative fees." There is no more contentious issue than suggesting professional knowledge firms trash their timesheet.

In his seventh post, he quotes me on why timesheets are part of the problem in transitioning to Value Pricing. After I present my argument, Jim writes:

In this case, Ron and I will have to agree to disagree.

Both law firms and their clients have several decades of experience thinking about cost in terms of the hours each matter will take. And there are good reasons for this approach, since ultimately most of the cost of doing the work will depend directly on the number of hours it takes, and the salaries lawyers are paid. In my opinion, asking law firms to throw this experience out the window is counter-productive.

To get better at pricing, you need to measure which matters produce the largest financial returns, and which people within the organization do. Tracking the time and money spent on each matter is the simplest way to measure that financial return.

My response to this is, so what? Jim is entitled to his opinions, but not his facts. The fact is, there are firms out there doing what he says shouldn't be done. At what point does one become persuaded by empirical evidence? As I wrote Jim in an email:

If we were debating Intelligent Design vs. Evolution, I can accept your comment--"Ron and I will have to agree to disagree"--though I still find it lacking in intellectual rigor

But we are talking about business practices, and hopefully optimal business practices. I have no doubt that cost-plus pricing is profitable. That's not my point. My point is it's not optimal. Timesheets are part of the reason.

The fact that there exists--right now, in the real world--hundreds of firms that have gotten rid of timesheet and have found it more optimal should spark your curiosity, not a dismissal that we'll have to agree to disagree.

If my worldview is challenged in such a manner, I investigate very deeply, not wanting to dismiss facts and evidence simply because they conflict with my worldview or experience, or because I do not understand exactly how they are doing it.

This is what I find so discouraging about consultants. They are not innovators. They simply spread orthodoxies from one firm to the other. And in the case of Value Pricing, they are part of the problem, not the solution.

It's almost impossible to debate people who believe that something that is being done cannot be done, or should not be done. I will let the empirical evidence speak for itself, leaving it up to leaders in the respective professions to investigate and draw their own conclusions. More and more do so everyday, and end up trashing their timesheet as a way to become better pricers.

People can disagree all they want, but that doesn't change the facts.

We can certainly argue about what facts mean--that is a true debate. But if we are arguing about what the facts are, then it denigrates into Proctor's agnotology Armageddon, where reality no longer matters.

John Maynard Keynes (an economist currently back in vogue) once wrote:

When somebody persuades me that I am wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?

Robert Proctor's new word resonates with me given my experience with debating the timesheet issue.

Is this a good explanation, or is there a better one?

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