In a preamble to this topic, I set forth some important caveats. I may have some more when I am done. In this post, I aim to set forth my basic principles and practices for drawing as close as I can to ‘knowledge.’
1. Have as few preconceived notions as possible, and be aware of the ones that you have. The universe is a big place, and the earth fairly large, too, relative to your own experiences. Be as skeptical of your own apprehension of reality as you are of others. Many people trust that they OF COURSE are able to process reality, but one flawed assumption can send their whole epistemology careening into the ditch. That is to say, until reality breaks in.
In the legal field, there is the concept of ‘fruit of the poisonous tree,’ which refers to evidence gained illegally. In other words, you may gain evidence that exonerates or convicts, but it is inadmissible because it was gained improperly. A similar idea is in view here, except that the ‘evidence’ you gain, or better yet, your interpretation of the evidence, may not be valid and genuine at all, because you started from a false position. Think of it like fouling up a math problem early on, and not detecting it until much later.
It is hard work gaining knowledge as it is. Having to backtrack through the steps to figure out where you made your mistake in the first place is work you don’t want to have to do.
A good example of a flawed assumption that colors all that follows is the presumption of atheism.
2. Make sure you are using the right tool for the job. Remember the boiled woman from the preamble! If you are trying to gain knowledge about the physical realm, then the scientific method may very well be the way to go. If you are trying to gain knowledge about a past event, the scientific method, along with a variety of methods applicable to historical scrutiny will be in order. If you are trying to determine if Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a fine play, you will need different methods. If you are trying to determine if your wife loves you, or if you love your wife, an entirely different set of tools is necessary. Sometimes multiple tools are appropriate. Think it through.
3. Read widely and study. I finish off about a book a week, mostly non-fiction. I read a variety of websites almost every day. I don’t necessarily count any of that as ‘knowledge’ but it does help expand my experiences vicariously, as it were. By having this expanded framework, it becomes more practical to sort out the wheat from the chaff. One does not have to form judgements from what they read–in fact, I would urge that one does so gingerly, provisionally, and tentatively. On the other hand, if it is a topic that you feel important to render a judgement on, then you should dive even more deeply into it. These kinds of things take time and energy… that’s why most people don’t do it.
4. Read those you disagree with widely. I have far more books on my shelves written by atheists, Darwinists, Buddhists, and the like, than I do of Christians. Besides offering a corrective to any flawed assumptions that I might have, their different perspectives will often help bring out other relevant points to consider–or reject. I mentioned the presumption of atheism above. It turns out that many of atheism’s best ‘arguments’ actually hinge on their assumption from the beginning that atheism not merely is true, but must be ASSUMED to be true. Well, obviously if you assume atheism is true and then evaluate evidence in light of the assumption that atheism is true, then you are going to conclude that atheism is true. Duh. However, one might not ever discover this chain of reasoning back to the first principles if one does not read their entire argument.
It does not just apply to these philosophical issues. As someone with a distinctly conservative-libertarian bent, I am interested of course in reading essays and news articles that reflect my position. However, I like to read the Huffington Post, Salon, and Politico to hear what else is being said–for myself. I also read the New York Times and that other rag, the Washington Post… but I wouldn’t say I like it. 🙂
I read once that conservatives are more likely to read liberal material than liberals will conservative material, and that definitely fits my experience. Many people who reject Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have never watched or listened to them, for themselves. They rely on fellow liberals to represent conservatives to them. That’s a recipe for epistemological disaster. Liberals had a great big taste of the kind of disaster that awaits them for behaving like that in the election of Donald Trump. They could not understand how he could become the GOP candidate, let alone win the election, and frankly even to this date they seem ignorant. If they are aware of the concerns of those who voted for Trump at all, they are smugly dismissive of them. Since this attitude and approach is persisting from the left, expect more disasters to come.
5. Primary sources are to be preferred, whenever they can be gotten. This includes the idea of performing experiments yourself, when it comes to exploring the physical universe. Practically speaking, of course, one cannot do this about everything which we think we ‘know.’ We rely on secondary sources, or even tertiary sources, for most of it. However, the more important something is, the more you should seek out primary sources. That is to say, original source documents, journals, diaries, government documents, direct observation, etc. Referring to secondary sources can be helpful because they might bring to light other primary source material which might be relevant, but in my experience, after one has spent days, weeks, or months delving into something, more and more flaws appear in the secondary sources.
For example, I started the website www.eugenics.us to post my research into the eugenics movement of the early 20th century because it was clear from reading some of the important secondary research that many extremely important facets of the eugenic mindset were overlooked, understated, ignored, or forgotten. I’m not necessarily knocking them, as one has to make choices on what one presents, if one is not going to present everything. My point is that a look into the primary sources yourself will not only give you a broader feel of the reality of things, but will also put you in a better position to test the reliability of secondary and tertiary sources. (In my experience, most secondary sources on eugenics are fairly decent, but the tertiary sources are rubbish.)
6. Corroboration is essential. If you only have one account for something (eg, cold fusion), and/or cannot duplicate it, then one must be cautious about whether or not something counts as ‘knowledge.’ Here is a good segue into the topic of ‘fake news.’ If only one outlet is reporting something, and references an unnamed source or sources, and no other outlet is reporting it–or the other outlets are only reporting that some other outlet has reported something–red flags should go up. Our contemporary society will insist that you draw a conclusion from this single source. You must either accept it or reject it, or else you are a bad citizen! Don’t fall for this trap. Remain agnostic until better evidence surfaces that can be substantiated.
Of course, it might be that the single source you have is one that you have previously determined is generally reliable. Of course, that judgement depends on having subjected that source to some kind of scrutiny at some point. Hard work!
It is worth mentioning that when you can get corroboration through different strands of inquiry, all the better. Can you back up a witness testimony with physical evidence? If so, you’ve not only solidified that particular point, but you’ve also provided yourself with non-arbitrary justification for assigning that witness extra weight.
7. Indirect Corroboration. I’ll talk more about this when I talk about detecting ‘fake news.’ Corroboration is very important, but precisely because it is important, nefarious parties might work to contrive the ‘corroboration.’ It may not be as malevolent as that. A person telling a story may have a subtle inclination to speak well of some people and poorly of others, which even they may be unaware of. One of the ways around this problem is to give weight to items which are outside the scope of their attention or their purpose for writing. They might taint stuff related to their purpose in the area of their direct attention, but the items that the source himself deems unimportant are less likely to be contrived.
For example, if you are assessing an account of a famous battle as told by one of the participants, you might suspect a slant regarding the battle itself–but he is not likely to lie about growing up in Kansas. Where he grew up is likely immaterial to the account of the battle itself, and probably not something he cares about at all. Its an incidental, ‘throw away’ detail, which nonetheless can be useful in determining if the source is credible. Or, if your goal is to learn stuff about Kansas, since this source’s remark is ‘off hand’, not meant as a defense or attack on the state itself, this source’s statement on Kansas can be given more epistemological weight than, say, his statements about his conduct in the battle. The statement about Kansas was otherwise inconsequential–but precisely for that reason, gives information that is potentially of consequence.
8. The criterion of embarrassment. Whether its in history or in today’s newspaper, the criterion of embarrassment is a very nice and efficient way to determine if something is (more likely to be) true. It is very easy to understand: people don’t like being embarrassed or humiliated, or having their perspective undermined, and would prefer not to give justifications to others for ridiculing them. So, if X hates Y, but nonetheless concedes something nice about Y, that ‘something’ is probably true. If X loves Z, but nonetheless acknowledges something less than flattering about Z, that ‘something’ is probably true.
In the above example (in #7) of the Kansas soldier, if he behaved poorly in the battle he described, and he is ashamed of his conduct, or not as glorious as reported, etc, his statements are probably more reliable than if he was tooting his own horn. We have a real life example of such testimony.
So it is that it is generally the case that one is more likely to ascertain true things about liberals and conservatives (for example) by giving more weight to the things they concede or acknowledge that undermine them, then the things that flatter the people or events they support. Yet another reason to read broadly, and read things you disagree with.
One last thing, and then I need to wrap this up for now.
It’s “ok” to not know something. It really is. What is not “ok” is to paper over your ignorance by regurgitating headlines and tweets. Don’t do it.