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.