I had a revelation yesterday that helps me understand a phenomena I’ve been witnessing as a reaction to news about the pandemic. It has to do with epistemology: how we know what we know. And it finally answers a question for me about why some people are left confused, lost, suspicious, and quite understandably panicked, when they earnestly try to figure out what’s happening with COVID-19.
This idea came slowly as thoughts percolated.
To begin with, I’ve been worried about a couple of friends in particular, who have expressed their distress on facebook. It is clear to me that these are intelligent people who are putting in legitimate effort to understand the threat, and can’t make heads or tails of it because there are so many conflicting pieces of information. These people aren’t sure how serious COVID-19 is, or where it came from, or what should be done about it, or how to protect themselves and their family, or whether the government is on their side (state and national – two entirely different questions), or whether to listen to doctors, and if so, which ones, and what the right thing is to do going forward.
I mean for real, imagine if it was you having all these questions left unanswered. You would be in distress.
With this worry in my heart, I was talking with my friend Will, who was discussing someone in his own life. In a topic wholly unrelated to the pandemic, Will observed that this person seemed to be taking in all news sources equally, and being unable to assign the proper weighted value, depending on what the news source was. The idea that there may be people out there with open hearts and minds that take in every piece of information and assign it equal value to all the others was startling to me, and it makes a lot of sense. Why not do that? I know I don’t do that, but it was easy to imagine that someone might. Who says one source has greater validity than another? I do assign more or less validity to certain sources, but why?
A week later I was assigned an article to read for one of my classes at school. It’s an exploration of epistemology, by Kenneth Feder (Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology, 2006). Epistemology is explored with regard to the scientific method, and specifically archaeology, since that’s the course I’m studying. Feder lays out some criteria for knowing what we know scientifically. For example, the first step is collecting information, either through our own experience or indirectly through others. He challenges each method, especially collecting information from others. Feder asks of these other sources: “How did they obtain the information?” “What are their motives?” “What agenda do they have?” “What is their source?” and “How expert are they in the topic?” When I come across any source that has an agenda (e.g. pits sides against each other), throws out astonishing facts without backing them up, or provides advice from a non-expert source…all those are discarded.
He then breaks down the scientific method through the lens of knowing things. “In large part,” says Feder, “science is a series of techniques used to maximize the probability that what we think we know really reflects the way things are, were, or will be. Science makes no claim to have all the answers or even to be right all the time.” In my own quest for knowledge, any source that proclaims its infallibility is immediately suspicious. I’m looking at you, God.
Scientific method requires these steps:
- observe the facts
- induce general hypotheses or possible explanations for what we have observed
- deduce specific things that must also be true if our hypothesis is true
- test the hypothesis by checking out the deduced implications
In my opinion, the testing is the part that makes this whole system brilliant. Test your hypothesis and if you can’t prove it, discard your hypothesis.
Example: 1) A dog attacked and bit me. 2) My hypothesis is that dogs are people-biters. 3) I deduce therefore that every dog, if given the opportunity, will bite me. This includes my friend’s dog Scout. 4) Scout was given the opportunity, but only licked my hand and wagged her tail. Unfortunately my hypothesis is wrong and I need to give it up completely. Even though my evidence is irrefutable because I experienced the bite myself, and the hypothesis is logical based on the facts, the test proved it wrong. Something about dogs and Crystal caused a bite, but that particular hypothesis was wrong.
A critical thinker will go through this process for every piece of information that comes in from every source. The scientific method may not be the only way to get at the truth of things, but like Feder said, it’s a way to maximize the chances that what we think we know actually turns out to be real.
Let’s get back to the pandemic.
So you’ve got multiple sources of information. You’ve got CNN, the New York Times, BBC, Yahoo News, Fox, Sean Hannity, Breitbart, the person with the Twitter handle @hotpocket69, your mom, your mom’s friend Dianne on facebook, Pastor John, your buddy Cowboy from deployment who you would trust with your life, the NRA, that NBA player who makes over $30 million, your co-worker Manny, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Trump, Bernie Sanders, your favourite late night talk show host, your cousin Daniel, the checkout lady at the Dollar Store, and your favourite musician who just live-streamed and also asked for donations to support the purchase of medical supplies. If you’re a critical thinker, you will question each one of these sources. NONE of them is automatically valid, whether they’re a blood relation, or rich, or famous, or typically make sense to you.
I believe that there are people who can figure this out on their own. I’m not being smug. I think it’s only a few of you.
In addition to those, I believe there are a lot of people who can learn it. I suspect I’m one of those who learned. These folks came across a wise person, or a book, or an experience that showed them the path, and they were taught to critically think. They were taught to challenge everything, and over time developed a knack for it. This definitely includes students (but not all of them!), who were intentionally pushed toward understanding this system.
As of yesterday, I had to consider that there are some people who have not yet had the chance to learn this strategy, or weren’t interested in learning it. And maybe if they never thought it was important to learn critical thinking before, now suddenly in the midst of a pandemic they need critical thinking skills, and they don’t have them.
I’m sorry if you read all the way through this and thought to yourself: duh, Crystal, it’s obvious that intelligent people who are capable of figuring this out are simply not figuring it out. Because I have been stumped, and now I think I understand. It wasn’t just that some people are smart enough to figure out which sources to listen to and which ones to ignore, and the rest of the people are dumb. I can see that there are also smart people trying very hard to figure it out, and still not succeeding.
What’s my take-away from all this? 1) The reason it’s so easy for me to pick and choose which information sources to trust must be because I have learned critical thinking skills and I am comfortable with them. 2) My friends that I mentioned at the top probably ARE as intelligent and earnest as I suspect they are, even though they are struggling with something that I am not struggling with. 3) Epistemology is a cool word!! I just learned it yesterday. 🙂