Surveyors: Are we our own worst enemy?
Tuesday, February 07, 2017
This article first appeared in The American Surveyor.
I admit to being a novice when it comes to ancient Greek philosophers. However, they seem to speak to some contemporary issues.
In the Phaedrus dialogue, Plato expresses concerns that an information technology called writing might weaken a person's mind and cause trouble in the community. He suggests "learners will read and think they know many things; however they will not possess knowledge and become difficult to get along with."
It seems to me his main concern was that this approach to knowledge transfer would be unable to validate whether understanding had been achieved.
In the poem titled "The Rock," T.S. Eliot writes, "Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge lost in information?" This insight seems to address a hierarchy in understanding that is losing something in the process. Along the way, information theorists appear to have adopted this insight in developing the data-information-knowledge-wisdom — there seems to be a (DIKW) model for deploying information technology in organizations.
These quotes and a growing body of research suggest Michael J. Pallamary, PS, is onto something in his commentary from October 2016.
We know digital technology and automation has impacted surveyors. We are much more productive, and the results are more precise. However, there seems to be some loss of quality at the stage in the work where judgment is applied and decisions are made.
These abilities can be challenging to develop. They represent the threshold to professional-level performance, and any deficiencies in this area eventual show up as defects in the work product.
Aristotle, another ancient Greek, discusses different types of knowledge and offers insights into how master them. We can trace some of his notions to such terms as science, art and practice that are found in the modern day definitions of surveying. Some say we are all Greeks when it comes to the framework of knowledge we use on a daily basis.
Instead of wandering further into ancient methodological analysis weeds, I want to offer a few observations about the changing nature of land surveying work. These observations are associated with the theory of knowledge.
When I started surveying, the equipment was analogue, the methods were mechanical, and the work brought us in close contact with physical reality. The phrase "following in the footsteps" could almost be taken literally.
Today, the work is largely computer-based. The computer contains a model of reality, and the surveyor interacts with the model through an interface. The computer then interacts with some device, and the device interacts with physical reality.
As the level of automation increases, the more challenging it is for the surveyor to maintain a connection with reality. Since this is the realm where clients and their projects reside, the continuity between realms is important.
I have encountered projects in which a surveyor purports the coordinate system is on the surface of the terrain, but independent measurements reveal it is detached from it. I have had a field surveyor report that a monument does not exist simply by listening to the tone the metal locator emits — a shovel was never used in the search.
These and a growing list of other examples point to a cognitive problem. Somewhere in the process, the surveyor's reasoning appears to have run amok.
In conversations with surveyors, I find they can recall a great many things, but their ability to apply this knowledge may be suspect. Historically, surveyors have emphasized the "know-how" variety of knowledge that is learned on the job over the "know-that" variety that is learned in the classroom. So when I find problems that seem to fall in to the "know-how" category, I wonder what is going on.
My initial stance on these matters is to adopt Hanlon's razor — never assume bad intentions when a more likely explanation involves neglect or misunderstanding. When this issue is approached from the perspective of knowledge formation in the body of a would-be surveyor, it is possible to develop a theory that explains what is going on.
Each type of knowledge tends to develop under different conditions. Furthering the mastery of one type does not guarantee the mastery of the others, although they do sometimes complement each other. For example, a surveyor can read all the BLM has to say about obliterated corners and be able to correctly answer test questions on the subject, but upon taking up the task on the ground fail miserably.
Or a field surveyor can collect three epochs of RTK data in a high multipath environment, review the statistics generated by the system and conclude on the basis of the statistics that the position is reliable even though a bit of theory knowledge might suggest the surveyor's confidence is misplaced.
It seems to me that when it comes to professional practice, "know-how" needs to be driving the bus, and "know-that" needs to help navigate the route — otherwise, the business might end up making good time reaching the wrong destination.
Professional surveyors contend with complex issues. As a result, they need a repertoire of knowledge and skill that is equally as complex.
Digital technology and automation have added an almost invisible layer of complexity to the workflow that is based on advanced science and math. We can debate how much of this science and math the practitioner needs to understand, but it seems to me that without some level of understanding this layer can become a gap in understanding, which can contribute to poor outcomes.
I don't want to leave the impression that this is solely a surveying technology issue. Land surveyors also work with a complex body of law. Today, thanks to digital information technology, surveyors — and anyone else who has an internet connection — have much greater access to this information. This raises expectations for all involved. And as Plato warned it may also cause problems.
Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. I have encountered surveyors who will assert there is not enough evidence to accept what appears to be a survey monument, then proceed to adopt a position based on measurements and mathematics.
I would ask: What evidence do you have to reject what appears to be a survey monument? Could this represent an obliterated corner? The response is often unsatisfying.
At some point in their work, they should have weighed the evidence in forming a belief on the matter. Articulating this thought process is instrumental in gaining social acceptance of a boundary solution, which at the end of the day is what matters in the community. I suspect this is simply another disconnect between "know-that" and "know-how."
Registration as a land surveyor is an important accomplishment. Among the many things it represents are the opportunity and the responsibility to direct one's own development in the days that lay ahead. The knowledge frontier is always expanding and creating a gap between what is known and what is knowable. Many of these advances come from outside the profession.
Sometimes surveyors can exert influence, and in other situations we simply have to adapt. The modern-day technical professional has to contend with the finite limits of the mind and an expanding body of knowledge.
Perhaps the two most important skills a practitioner must develop are:
- Figuring out what knowledge is no longer relevant so it can be unlearned
- Understanding the most effective and efficient way to learn what needs to be learned in order to remain relevant in the marketplace.
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