The Importance of Shared Knowledge

In the early 1800s, John Dalton theorized that matter is made up of tiny particles known as atoms. His idea of the atom was a solid sphere and is often called the “marble” model. The sphere was not positive, negative, or neutral because Dalton had no concept of electrical charge. He developed this idea without ever seeing atoms through a microscope, through solely macroscopic observations and experimentation.


In the early 1900s, J.J. Thomson discovered the electron, which he called a corpuscle, and created a new model of the atom. His model is known as the “plum pudding” model because it describes an atom as a positive sphere embedded with smaller negatively charged electrons. The starting point of his theory was the model proposed by Dalton, simply a solid sphere. When Thomson discovered electrons through his experiments with cathode ray tubes, he hypothesized that the negative electrons would also need some sort of positive charge to balance them out. He logically incorporated this new knowledge into what he already knew to be true, thus determining that the solid sphere proposed by Dalton was positively charged and contained negative electrons.


This situation brings us to the following question: Does shared knowledge bring a knower new understanding?


Shared knowledge allows knower’s to build on one another’s ideas. Academic shared knowledge is particularly important in the natural sciences as scientific discoveries often build on one another. Shared knowledge encompasses the entire knowledge people share with one another and includes academic knowledge, informal knowledge, and practical knowledge.


For this real life situation and in the natural sciences as a whole, most of the shared knowledge is academic. Without this academic shared knowledge, it would be impossible for scientists to make new discoveries. Scientists would always be starting from the most basic source of knowledge, primarily gained through sense perception, rather than understanding more complex ideas developed over time.


Thomson studied Dalton’s research to get a basic understanding of the atom and then built on those concepts. A significant aspect of the natural sciences is the ability to formulate a hypothesis and conduct a controlled experiment by following the scientific method. Without Dalton’s initial discovery of the atom, Thomson never would have thought to develop his experiments with cathode ray tubes to further study the atom. While neither of these models is entirely correct based on what we know of the atom today, Thomson was able to draw on shared knowledge to gain more understanding and create a more accurate model.


Knowers can compare perspectives to gain understanding. Every area of knowledge is so broad that it is impossible for one person to become an expert in every aspect of the area of knowledge. This is especially true of the natural sciences as there are so many unique fields within this broad area. However, by comparing different perspectives, scientific developments can continue to be made.

This can be seen in the real life situation with the perspectives of Dalton and Thomson. Since Dalton did not have access to as advanced technology, he specialized in theorizing based on what he could determine on a macroscopic level. Since the cathode ray tube had been invented by the time Thomson began his experiments, he had a different perspective. Thomson specialized in specific experimentation on a molecular level, as seen in his series of experiments that led him to discover the electron.


By combining these two perspectives, Thomson was able to create a new model. Dalton provided Thomson with a starting point and a bigger picture of the structure. Thomson’s own experiments allowed him to add in more specific details, specifically the concept of the negative electrons. By combining Dalton’s wider perspective with his own narrower details, Thomson was able to create the “plum pudding” model.


The limitations of shared knowledge are outweighed by its uses. While there are some limits of shared knowledge that can affect its application in the natural sciences, there are steps that can be taken to avoid these obstacles.


Authority worship is accepting a statement of idea as true simply because someone in a position of power or influence says it is true. To avoid this in the natural sciences, an experiment must be able to be repeated with the same results. Additionally, scientists check to ensure prior discoveries are consistent with what they find. While Thomson respected Dalton and his findings, he was also aware that they might not be entirely accurate. He developed original experiments to test Dalton’s theory with cathode ray tubes and found flaws in Dalton’s design. When he discovered the electron, he realized that the atom could not be a simple sphere and adapted Dalton’s model accordingly. Rather than taking Dalton’s findings to be absolute truth, Thomson simply used them as a starting point. As Thomson said, “A scientific theory is a tool and not a creed.”


Another limitation of shared knowledge that is particularly relevant to the natural sciences is the fragmentation of concepts. As more research is done over time and more theories are created, fields within the natural sciences become too broad for one person to fully understand. Additionally, new research may not be verified or entirely accurate. However, making an effort to gain some knowledge in a wide variety of fields in addition to one’s specific field of interest can help alleviate this limitation. J.J. Thomson studied mathematics, physics, and chemistry, but chose to focus on molecular physics His knowledge in his specialty helped Thomson make new developments while his understanding of the fields as a whole enabled him to ensure the results fit with prior knowledge.


Shared knowledge is not only important in the natural sciences, but can also bring knowers new understanding in other areas of knowledge, such as art. The change in style of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings over time was largely due to knowledge he gained from the impressionist works of Claude Monet. After Van Gogh was introduced to Monet’s work, his color palette changed from the darker tones of his early works to the more vibrant tones of his more renowned paintings.


The same can be seen in the human science of philosophy. Aristotle was Plato’s student and learned the philosophy of metaphysics from him However, he adapted Plato’s teachings and combined the ideas of metaphysics with those of naturalism in his works. He was able to consider Plato's perspective and as well as his own views and propose new ideas by combining the two.


Finally, in mathematics, Isaac Newton developed his laws of motion and gravitation by building on findings by Johannes Kepler. Kepler developed a theory specific to the Sun and Earth, which Newton altered using a broader perspective to develop his universal laws. A quote by Newton sums up the importance of using shared knowledge to gain understanding. He said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Shared knowledge allows us as a human race to continue to advance and progress. Without this communication and development, our civilization would be drastically different from the current reality as we know it.

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