October 4, 2017

On Epistemology

Filed under: Philosophy,Politics — Bob Gifford @ 8:38 pm

We are living in a post-truth world. Belief in a universal, knowable truth has given way to truth as multiple, personal and subjective. What is true for me may not be true for you. Post-modernists argue that even scientific laws are contextual and culturally derived.

The amount of pseudo-science, conspiracy theorizing, and outright rejection of empirically verifiable facts is killing us. Too many people believe that everything is political, everyone is biased, “they” are keeping secrets from us, no one has integrity, everyone has a hidden agenda and the whole system is rigged. In this mindset, there is no source of truth except me and my tribe.

This is bullshit.

How do we decide what we believe? And how should we decide what we believe?

Herewith, then, is my epistemology.

Values are values, facts are facts. We will all disagree about our personal values and what gives meaning to our lives. We will all have different religious (un)beliefs. But facts can be measured and validated by both liberals and conservatives. They are not opinions, but can be empirically determined.

Any engineer with the right resources can measure the torque a 747 wing can withstand, the lateral tensor strength of a column in the World Trade Center, the temperature at which jet fuel burns, the degradation in tensile strength of steel at that temperature, etc. In fact, many engineers know these facts. Math is not subjective, and the structural analysis of the World Trade Center collapse has been reviewed repeatedly by architectural and structural engineering graduate departments all over the world. They come to the same conclusion, because physics is not culturally determined, liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist.

Things that are not facts include Youtube videos, which have been used to “prove” that we never landed on the moon and that Obama is a lizard alien. (I am sure that Obama is not a lizard alien. I am still undecided regarding Mitch McConnell.) Video is notoriously unreliable, especially when coupled with a compelling voiceover. Even if it is not tampered with, selective editing, lighting, point of view and other effects I’m not qualified to opine upon make them a poor substitute for quantifiable facts.

Speaking of which, compelling narratives aren’t facts. We have evolved to be storytellers, and we love telling and hearing stories. We form our deepest held beliefs based on stories. But good stories may not be true, and they certainly aren’t facts. It is tempting to believe in untruth because we want good stories to be true stories.

It’s a big world. Anecdotes and hearsay stories are not facts. They can’t be verified, and even if true, as the saying goes, data is not the plural of anecdotes. Yes, a true anecdote is a fact. But conclusions regarding how the world works can’t be based on a single fact. We need a wider lens.

I have no doubt that some children have developed autism following a vaccination. But of course many children develop autism when not preceded by a vaccination. And vastly more children don’t develop autism following a vaccination. Correlation does not imply causation (cliche I know, but true).

We can easily jump to conclusions based on our narrow experience of the world. It is easy to think that our little slice is what matters and that the rest of the world looks just like what we have experienced. How arrogant of us to presume that because we are attracted to the opposite sex that the same must be true of everyone! How arrogant to discount the truth that trans people tell of their lives because it is not what we have experienced! How arrogant to believe that blacks are treated fairly by the justice system because it has treated us fairly! But truth is much bigger than our personal experience and it is very presumptuous of us to believe that we are the center of reality.

One fact is not enough. We need to determine truth based upon a universe full of facts.

Credentials matter. The logical fallacy argumentum ad verecundiam (arguing from authority) is when we point to the opinion of an authority as truth by virtue of their status. Logical arguments must stand on their own, and are not true because some third party says so. The problem with this in day-to-day life is that we aren’t all structural engineers, epidemiologists or climate scientists. I can’t replicate NIST’s analysis of the World Trade Center collapse, the CDC’s epidemiological studies of vaccinations or NASA’s climate modelling. So we have to rely on the opinions of authorities. But which ones?

I am an IT strategy consultant in the area of data governance. I spend hours of my life reading dry industry articles, watching boring webcasts, and talking to clients about solutions to their real-world problems. I have specialized because I have no choice. I can’t be of value to clients unless I have the deep knowledge and experience they require. They choose me over competitors because of my credentials and reputation, and as soon as I let up I will be unemployed.

I would never pretend to be an expert outside of my field. To do so would be fraud. And yet anyone with a laptop and wifi connection can advocate for any opinion in any field based on any rationale or none at all. And such is their right. But the Dunning Kruger effect is real. The more one knows about a subject, the more reluctant one is to make bold assertions.

Since I can’t be an expert in all things (I’m lucky if I’m an expert in one), I rely on experts in their fields. But never just a single voice in the wilderness. I look for consensus among authorities. Such a consensus among experts, if not absolute unanimity, exists for 9/11, the safety and necessity of vaccinations, and global warming.

There is an anti-intellectualism in the US and elsewhere that is 180 degrees in opposition to my view on authorities. It seems many people view expertise and education as invalidating their opinions. They believe that experts are somehow “in on it” as part of the establishment. And if many experts agree, then that is viewed as de facto evidence of a conspiracy. The anti-intellectualists are free to choose this as their epistemological foundation, but think about the outcome of this belief: they are forced to rely on those who know the least with opinions that have not been checked or validated by anyone else. They have chosen ignorance over knowledge. Such is their right, but it reflects more on their psychology, in my opinion, than on the subject they are debating.

Truth doesn’t care about us. The US has elected a President who was clearly unqualified, besides being a narcissist, serial sexual abuser and profligate liar. How could this happen? Trump told people what they wanted to hear. A large segment of the US electorate (although not a majority) wanted to believe that trade deals and immigrants have taken their jobs, that a wall would stop illegal immigration, that repealing and replacing Obamacare would give them better and cheaper healthcare, and that the preceding two administrations were “stupid” but Trump alone would solve all their problems. Trump told them exactly what they wanted to hear, and they believed him in spite of all the signs that they were being conned. Most of them still want to believe, even in the face of the gross incompetence of the Trump Administration.

But Trump was lying. (It’s unclear whether consciously or not; he may actually believe his own con.) We tend to believe things that we think should be true, or that we want to be true. But truth, whether in economics, climate, disease or foreign affairs, really doesn’t care what we want to be true.

No one can keep a secret. Lastly, so many conspiracy theories depend on, well, conspiracies. But any theory that depends on large numbers of people keeping secrets defies human nature. Maybe small numbers of conspirators, say a dozen or less, can keep a secret. But to fake the moon landings, or blow up the World Trade Center towers, would require hundreds or thousands of conspirators, any one of which could sell their story for millions if they came clean now. Secret societies controlling the world economic system would require participants in hundreds or thousands of investment banks, exchanges and regulatory bodies. The closest thing to a secret society I can think of are the Scientologists, yet we have hundreds of ex-Scientologists spilling the beans about Xenu, abuse and Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes. Humans are not evolved to keep secrets.

* * * *

So this is my epistemology, or at least part of it. I have not addressed my religious or moral epistemology, which would take another post or ten. Let me just say that once we step beyond the world of empirical facts we enter a completely different set of epistemological guidelines. But in the world of empirical reality, this is how I decide what is true.

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