Pandemic epistemology

A bumper sticker I spotted back in the days when I used to drive around. I laughed out loud when I saw it.

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:

  1. observe the facts
  2. induce general hypotheses or possible explanations for what we have observed
  3. deduce specific things that must also be true if our hypothesis is true
  4. 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, but I can see they are also trying very hard to do it, 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. 🙂

14 thoughts on “Pandemic epistemology

  1. I’ve always been a fan of science, Crystal. It’s the old, given what we know, it’s the best information available. The objective is to continually challenge what we know and come up with better answers. Listen to the experts and make the best decisions you can. It becomes more difficult when experts differ, but the best approach is to come down on the side of the preponderant expertise. When 390 scientists tell you that global warming is real, and 3 don'[t, go with the 390. Still, for whatever reason, some people are going to go with the three. I also think that we have to go with trusted sources. And that the trust has to be earned. If someone lies 9 out of 10 times, I am less likely to trust that person. Good post. –Curt

    1. Yes Curt, you brought up a point I left out just because it was getting too wordy. When a source is proven trustworthy over and over, you can probably relax and just accept that it’s trustworthy the next time. It’s still good to test that source every now and then, over the years. And likewise what you said: a source that lies over and over becomes unreliable. Maybe that source tells the truth once in a while, but it’s not worth the effort, so I tend to disregard 100% that comes from that source. Trump is the example that comes immediately to mind.

      I agree with your appreciation of science, and with your approach, and I know myself to take the same approach. It’s just that I had not considered “why” before this. WHY do I think doctors have more authority during a pandemic than Rush Limbaugh? I started reading this piece by Feder and realized, “oh, I’m doing this stuff all the time. I already know this.” You say “for whatever reason” people aren’t going to listen to the experts. That’s the whole thing I think I figured out, at least for myself, that reason could be that they are not using the scientific method (what I have called critical thinking skills) when it comes to listening to advice. If people who say climate change is a hoax seem just as reliable as people who say climate change is a reality, then it’s because the scientific method is not being used to make that call. I’m sure I’ve got parts of this wrong, but for me it solves a mystery.

      1. Your comment reminded me of Rush Limbaugh telling people not to worry about coronavirus because it is only a cold. We can only wonder how many people will die because they consider Limbaugh a reliable source of news…

    1. Merriam-Webster says “Definition of epistemology: the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.” Feder says its the study of how we know what we know, and I like that. Based on this single chapter, which was sent to the class in .pdf form online, I am quite interested in reading the rest of his book. I love debunking myths.

      You may get into trouble for asking those questions, but you keep doing it. Why? Because they are very helpful questions! I’d rather come up against a difficult truth than be trying to make the right decision with bad information.

  2. I had some education on this during my journalism studies but then commercialisation killed even once respected media. Now money talks everywhere you turn and it’s really really hard to be sure of anything any more. I have an internal bullshit detector and quickly recognise it even between the lines, but they count on that too. My parents are a journalist and a PR officer and I learned from the source. They must be the only honest ones in their businesses. 🙂 I can see how penetration, glossyness, catchy titles, clickbait qualities easily persuade even intelligent people. And then there are soooo many more others. We are doomed.

    1. You make such a good point, Manja, to get at the subtleties of how hard it is to be sure in a world in which some corporations goal is to trick intelligent people. Thank goodness for your internal bullshit detector. I remember as a 5-year old watching a television commercial for laundry detergent. A lady washed two dirty T-shirts but one came out sparkling white and the other did not. I pointed at the TV and told my mom that we needed to buy the detergent on the right. Mom explained to me that it was all lies designed to trick people into buying detergent. This must have been a pivotal moment of my life! ha ha ha. I have never forgotten the astonishment that things on TV could be lies. Your parents must have helped you in the same way: start asking questions, little Manja! 🙂 You’ve heard of deepfakes, right? That’s the one that’s going to (and already has) caught up so many people. With technological advances it’s possible to use real footage from one person, drop it seamlessly into another film, and get expert voice-over. It LOOKS perfectly legitimate. But still, if it doesn’t seem like Obama would call Trump a dipshit in a public service announcement, it’s probably not true. My idea in this post is that people who see the hypothetical Obama video and get confused are people not comfortable with the scientific method.

      I don’t think we’re doomed! That’s why I love science. It’s just a matter of testing. So far I’ve done a good job of using my bullshit detector and following up on stories. I seriously love Snopes.com, who have never let me down when I’m trying to figure out whether something is true.

  3. Great article, Crystal. Sorry it took me so long to finish it and leave a comment. Been working at getting H’s birthday things taken care of and ran out of steam. I too have a good bullshit detector. I have hair stand up when I hear a truth that I didn’t want to know. When you lie to me, my gut hurts. I knew things before they happened because the energy of a lie is different than the energy of truth. Many out there have told the truth and it has cost them or will cost them. They are willing to pay the price to tell the truth. My dad always said “consider the source” and “take everything you read and hear with a grain of salt” That included the Bible. It was written by men with an agenda after all. It was not written by what we call God. I know for certain that this virus is different than most, it can be deadly and it’s not worth taking chances with peoples lives to ignore. I, personally do not get viruses because I believe I don’t. I also believe I don’t get colds. We are talking 25-30 years now. Sometimes if I’m not speaking my truth fully, I will get bronchitis to wake me up. I certainly don’t want to be a symptom free carrier either. It’s all about the energy. That is the age we are moving into from this one. For the most part, you can tell a politician is lying because their lips are moving. They have a track record of being divisive, defensive and deceitful. I always consider the source first then pay some attention to the science. You can twist the experiments to prove what you want the outcome to be as we all know from the thousands of drug ads flooding our screens. I know many that don’t believe global warming is an issue and digging out oil isn’t a problem. So the ice caps continue to melt and earthquakes happen frequently in oil fields. The science is there, the evidence is there. Mother Nature is pissed and has sent us ALL to our rooms to think about it. That’s my source. I like your new word. I’m always trying to learn something new everyday and consider it a win if I do. I know a lot but I know enough to keep asking questions. Never ass u me. Question EVERYTHING! Except your mother when she says do something NOW. It could be life or death. Ask later. 🙂 I’ve made this very wordy and probably not to the exact point. Sorry about that. Stay well, if you want to. 😉

    1. Ha ha! Marlene you are so great! I loved your wordy comment and I’m pretty sure I followed your meanings, though it’s probably because I know you and your powerful spirituality and your trust in the energy of the world. You do have a good bullshit detector, and you are choosy about who you like and who you get your information from. That’s a valuable skill and I”m sure it protects you. Also good tip about mothers!!! No joke!! Happy birthday H! What plans do you have? I know she appreciates her opportunity to be a recluse these days with total societal approval, ha ha. I FaceTimed my brother Ian for his birthday because his girlfriend was so heartbroken about not being able to plan a big fun gathering for him with all their friends. So during the call I expressed my sadness that he couldn’t go out. They both corrected me: This was Ian’s favourite birthday ever!! He’s an introvert and the big birthday parties are always for his girlfriend’s sake. Too funny.

      1. We did a very quiet day. We planned to BBQ but on opening the grill, found it to be rusted out and moldy. H is looking to see if burners can be replace less expensively than getting a new little one. I really don’t want a big one. It was E’s So I cooked indoors and we enjoyed a very quiet day taking a walk after dinner. My sewing friend and neighbor came by and sat 6′ away to give H a mini quilt she made. We had a glass of wine and chatted for a bit. I walk by her place on the mornings I walk to check on her. She comes out on the porch for a few then I go on my merry way. I’ll talk to anyone from a distance. 😉

      2. That’s great that your neighbor came by. I see no harm when you’re so careful. I also noticed in one of your posts that you mentioned talking to a friend on her porch. This is a good way to keep us interacting with each other. On my long walks I chat with everybody I pass in hearing distance. Usually someone’s out sitting on a tractor, brushing the horses, working on the fence, whatever. It’s safe to call back and forth. It’s nice to find these small ways to connect.

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