The invention of sharp knives starts with dull rocks

The invention of sharp knives starts with dull rocks.

I often see rather absolutist (and in my view, very sheltered) opinions that appear to be making the fallacy that the tools which create a tool must themselves be of a superior order. That is to say, they appear to believe that only decay can happen in the quality of tool-making.

But it is a fact that the first tools were just rocks — flint. We chipped them and took advantage of the way the crystal layers made sharp edges. Then we used our chipped-flint to fashion wooden tools, to strip bark and make twine and rope, to make fire, to fire pottery, and eventually to extract and cast metals, which themselves are refined to higher and higher precision by a succession of machining processes — until today, we can cut them to the accuracy of a few waves of light if we so choose.

At each stage, we improved the precision of the products — using less precise tools to make them. This is the way the bootstrapping of civilization works.

The same thing is wrong with the idea that all authority must come from a higher authority.

Because this process applies equally to intellectual works. 

Science and scholarship arise from a successive winnowing of less precise sources through filters like peer review, logical argumentation, and experimental evidence. Software is written to determine things that the author of the software could not figure out on their own, and software from different sources is combined to compute even more complex things.

This is a complex process, but it is true that the result can be of higher quality than the inputs to that process.

This is what’s wrong with the criticisms of Wikipedia or other open sources online, when people suggest that “just anyone” can edit them. In practice, this amounts to the ultimate peer review — just anyone can call you on a mistake if you make one, and more to the point, they can correct it.

A Wikipedia author, for example, does not need to have very great authority on a subject in order to collect knowledge from those who do and put it into a summary. And if they’ve cited their sources (as they obligated to do), then it’s fairly easy to check. This process of review and correction is what matters, not the authority of those doing it.

Because here’s the thing — what exactly are you looking for in an appropriate level of authority to speak on a subject? Highly “authoritative” sources have historically said all kinds of things that turned out to be really stupid. Simply seeking somebody with more “authority” (which I suppose means with a better imprimatur from the rich and powerful)  is not the way towards a higher standard of truth.

Getting to truth, making real progress — these are matters of process more than of who is executing the process. Processes (peer review and experimentation) are what makes science so reliable — not that scientists are geniuses.

Setting up a good process that reliably improves the results is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, and the digital age has given us a lot of opportunities to rethink our processes and come up with better and faster ones. They aren’t all successful — as the proliferation of troll comments and commercial e-mail spam on the Internet demonstrates, but quite a few them are, and they are not somehow less effective just because they aren’t being done on paper or on university campuses.


About Terry Hancock

Terry Hancock is the producer and director of "Lunatics" ( ). He is also a regular columnist for Free Software Magazine ( ), and a lifelong advocate for space, science, and technology. More at
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