Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How do we know what we know.

How do we know what we know? Or more importantly, how do we know what we believe is true?

I know, for example, that the sun is 93 million miles away and it’s light, in for form of photons traveling at 186,000 miles per second, take about 8 ½ minutes to shine down upon me. Yet I personally do not have the tools nor the means to measure the distance of the sun to me. Neither do I have the skill to independently confirm the velocity of photons which themselves are infinitely much too small for me to see.

Now add to my body of knowledge the theory of biological evolution, plate tectonics, atmospheric pressure effect driving the weather and neurobiology in controlling brain-mind function. Few of these facts have I had the opportunity to personally test and evaluate. With one exception: The Law of Gravity – THAT, I have personally validated as a sport skydiver.

These are all principles that have been made known through the only real means we have of understanding our natural world – Science. But still, occasionally people bring into question; how do we know that the things scientists are telling us are true? After all, there are people in science who would have us accept that aliens from other planets are abducting our sleeping citizens and subjecting them to horrid experiments, that strange ape-like creatures live in our forests, and that we can communicate between each other with only our minds. We witness people who apparently communicate to the deceased or are informed that inoculations against common diseases cause autism. How do we sort out which knowledge about our world to accept or reject?

One method is to ask if the explanation makes sense – is it plausible? Initially the conclusions regarding biological evolution were based strongly in the morphology of living things. Over time better technology further confirmed the lineage of species through examination of their DNA. Many non-scientists have noted, when looking at a globe, that the continental shapes appear to “fit” like puzzle pieces. Later undersea mapping clearly showed that at one time they actually did.

When presented with this sort of data, it is reasonable to accept this information as the most likely fact. Our casual observations match the suppositions; they pass the reasonableness test.

Then there is the acceptance of consensus – confirmation of reported facts which are checked and rechecked independently Experiments are conducted and refuting arguments tested. Most importantly, no fact is sacred nor above being questioned or tested. This allows our knowledge to adjust and improve in the light of newer and better information.

Some religious positions accuse science of being just another form of “belief”. But scientists don’t “believe” in evolution, gravity, continental drift, neurophysiology and all the rest – the scientist TRUSTS these things are true and correct because they have been independently demonstrated time and time again.

Trust
is differentiated from belief in that trust is “earned” – trust is built upon experience over time. We know that an object dropped from a height will fall downward just as we are confident in the fidelity of our spouse because of our history together over time. Experience, repetition, validity, dependability are forces involved in the building of trust. These experiences applied to the natural world cause us to illuminate the darkness and lead us to understand how it works. Science is not a body of knowledge; science is a way of thinking.

Conversely, belief requires only blind faith. Belief does not need substantiation, verification or a basis in any form of reality. Belief comes from the desire to accept that which we wish it to be. Belief needs nothing than itself. As Carl Sagan said: “You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe.”

It requires more work, more effort to know something than to believe something. There are many barriers and pitfalls on the road to knowledge. Our perceptions can deceive us, our internal biases can lead us astray, we can make mistakes and we can sometimes intentionally fudge. It is a fact that we are imperfect beings, which is all the more reason to question, experiment, prove and verify.

I fear this country is potentially wavering on the brink of a new Dark Ages. In an era of now unparalleled scientific and technological advance greater than man has ever known in all history, the most powerful nation on earth is yielding to dangerous mindsets of superstition and belief. Our standing as a beacon of innovation and discovery in the world is slipping; America is now among lowest of the civilized nations in acceptance of biological evolution and in teaching our populace science and math. It is not possible to retain our standing on the globe and insist on remaining ignorant.

The belief that ours is still the greatest nation on earth may be one of the most widely held myths we hold today.

13 comments:

The Mother said...

We can hold some optimism in the fact that irreligiousness is rising in the US, can't we?

You put your finger on the problem: It's a lot harder to understand than to guess and believe. It takes effort and time.

The payoff might even be unhappy. You have to give up treasured worldviews. Being right may not necessarily be all it's cracked up to be.

And yet...

Being right, understanding truth, is the only thing we really have in this world. All else is illusion, even if it does make us feel good.

GutsyWriter said...

I think there are many things happening to the U.S. at the same time. There is a general feeling that things are not what they used to be, whether standard of education, attitudes, lack of enthusiasm, a different population with perhaps less ambition, etc. I think we all realize that we're in a changing world, and unsure of where we're heading.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Yeah, but how many people who accept the theory of evolution can cite any evidence in it? Being unsure is a more scientic attitude than than accepting stuff on trust and Iceland is too far north to b the greatest country in the world.

Penny said...

We don't know whether most of what we know is actually true. We rely on those scientists to tell us, and we trust them, most of the time, because we can't do otherwise realistically. Sure, if there isn't scientific consensus, or what they're saying seems wrong, we have to do some work. Most of us don't have enough time or inclination to attempt to check everything though, we just have to absorb what we saw on the news this morning and "trust" it's at least mostly true. This is where a healthy dose of skepticism is useful of course. Ernest Hemingway once said that the purpose of education was to give young people a fool-proof, built-in crap detector.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dr. Mom The rise of the non-religious is encouraging however there is little in the way of continuity among them; we tend to remain individuals whereas the religious are organized and united as a social and political force. Still yes, the trend is encouraging.

And yes, I would rather deal with the realities than find comfort in a myth.

Gutsy Indeed, many (including me) find the changes happening here quite sobering. Are we expecting to return to an economy that was built on easy credit and borrowing? Because that is what fueled the most recent spurt of economic growth and (surprise) it was not sustainable. Scary times still ahead.

Bananas I refer tongue-in-cheek to our's being the "gratest nation on earth". A recently published book titled "We're number one" listed statistically how America is first in teen pregnancy and abortion, highest medical costs and the most percentage of our population in prison. And, of course, we execute our criminals as does Iran and China. Our arrogence as a people often blinds us as to what our true potential could be would we not let our idology instead let us believe.

As for evolution, I watch our Conservative party and conclude that reverse-evolution is happening. Our Republicans are wading back into the swamp pointing the way we should be going.

Penny Hemmingway was right but only if our educational system teaches people how to "think" critically. The trend in this country is to teach in order to pass standardized tests. And there is great pressure to teach religious dogma as science here - it is a continual battle.

Rain said...

It does seem we are sliding into a time where ignorance is considered a virtue. I don't know how that happened but it serves a certain group quite well that it be so.

Orhan Kahn said...

FFS, why is Turkey on the bottom!? Maybe the question wasn't presented to the Turks properly. And its funny to not see Australia on the list anywhere. We just don't matter :(

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain It would seem so, particularly if the main criticism against Obama is that he is an "intellectual".

Orhan Take heart, they probably didn't need to mention Australia as you already have named a city after Darwin.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Soon we will return to the notion of the world as flat, given our rate of regression. We are not who we once were and need to make appropriate adjustments. We cannot survive on faded glory. Becoming more ignorant is not going to turn the ship around.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn You said it accurately and succinctly.

secret agent woman said...

People are just not taught to think critically. About much of anything.

TechnoBabe said...

If as you say belief requires blind faith then I am a non believer. In my life there is not blind faith in any thing or any one.

Robert the Skeptic said...

SecretAgent I sometimes wonder if critical thinking can be taught or it is an ingrained personality trait. In talking with others, like me, many recall questioning the established "wisdom" at an early age in spite of being coerced to conform. Worth pondering.

TechnoBabe This is a good thing, it means you view the world with your eyes and mind open.