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The Gap Between Fact and Ideal

Two objective phenomena—human fallibility and vested interest—account for why few, if any, professions are close to approximating the ideal of professional knowledge and practice. These two phenomena are at the root of much of the misuse of professional knowledge in the world:

  1. Human fallibility: All professional knowledge is acquired, analyzed, and put to use in the world by individuals subject to the pitfalls of human weakness, self-deception, and a variety of pathological states of mind (e.g., prejudice, egocentrism, or sociocentrism).

  2. Vested interest: Human professional knowledge exists in a world of power, status, and wealth. The struggle over all three significantly influences what information is acquired within any profession, how it is interpreted, and how it is used.

It follows that we should be skeptical of any description of a human professional knowledge-constructing enterprise that characterizes itself as an approximation of an ideal. Rather, we should approach human professions as in some state of contradiction between an announced ideal and actual reality. In this way, we can realistically take into account the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the profession and thereby contribute to the higher state of development of the profession.

If we begin with the hypothesis that there is some gap between the ideal of any profession and its actual practice, we are much more likely to identify the misuses of information and professional knowledge on the part of human professions. We will come to see that, to some extent and in some discoverable ways, the phenomena of human fallibility and vested interest are operating. No profession has isolated, or could isolate, itself from the irrational dimensions of the human mind in action in human affairs. And, as always, we deal with irrationality best by raising it to the level of conscious recognition, not by sweeping it under the rug or denying it. All illusions about present practice become blinders rendering us incapable of protecting our interest and impeding full development of the profession. Both those who use information disseminated by professionals and those who generate that information should have a realistic conception of the profession.

So we begin with two premises:

  1. Every profession has great potential for contributing to human welfare in the world.

  2. Nevertheless, the information and professional knowledge that professions generate are subject to mistakes, distortion, and misuse by fallible, self-interested humans at every stage of collection, construction, and use.

We should not assume, then, that professional associations, schools, or universities—even official ethics committees set up by professions—are exempt from irrational influences. We should not assume that professions are now, or at any previous time in history were, motivated to disclose their weaknesses. We should not assume that any profession is willing to put us on guard against self-deception or vested interest in the profession's present practices. For example, only rarely do professions document weaknesses in the professional preparation of those certified in the profession, and when they do, that documentation is frequently marginalized, discredited, or restricted to insiders.

Accordingly, as critical thinkers, it is helpful to recognize the inevitable difference between theory and practice. With the hypothesis that in all likelihood some gap exists, we are much more likely to discover it. With the recognition that any documentation of a gap is likely to be resisted, we are more likely to be politically astute in its disclosure.

Of course, our hypothesis of inconsistency between the ideal and real should not prevent us from noticing very different degrees and forms of inconsistency. Some professions are undoubtedly much closer to the ideal. Some professions are more vigilant about the pitfalls that attend their practice. We, in turn, should guard against our hypothesis becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy in our minds, for then it itself constitutes evidence of self-deception on our part. Though we should be alert to problems in a profession, we should not see problems where none exist. Let us now look at a couple of sample professions and begin to consider further strategies to use in our thinking.

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