Trust and Knowledge
Dear Group, How do we know what we know? Most of us would say we “know” the world is round as scientific truth. Almost none of us have done scientific experiments to prove the earth is a sphere. We “know” the earth is spherical because we trust those who suspected the earth was round, assembled observations and did investigations like Eratosthene’s experiment and calculation of the earth’s circumference in the 3rd century BC. Eratosthenes was certainly part of the Greek elite of the time. In light of current events one wonders if his motivation for doing his famous experiment was questioned in an effort to undermine his work. (According to the wikipedia article Eratosthenes did have critics.) The concept of a spherical earth was accepted gradually by humankind over millennia. Today the vast majority of us trust the honesty, the motivation, and the reporting accuracy of those who developed the concept of a spherical earth. Our modern way of thinking about time zones, NASA photos from space, and the movement of the sun are all based on trust in the people who developed the theory. Most of what we “know” is based on trusting other people. That is who we are as a species. If we are taught or come to doubt the motivation of a group of people or institutions, that is, if we lose trust, nowadays there are slickly presented alternatives only a few keystrokes away. For example, check out this page from the Flat Earth Society website, an interview (and transcript) with one Mr. Sargent. His “favorite proof” of a flat earth includes a dismissal of NASA photos, implying NASA is part of conspiracy to make us believe the earth is round. A high school classmate of mine became a fundamentalist Christian preacher. His wife (possibly even more fundamentalist than he) insisted to me in the course of a discussion, “Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source.” She was unwilling to consider with me the references present at the end of any good Wikipedia article, so she was effectively saying, “It is all suspect, all unreliable.” Her only trust is in the Holy Bible or, better said, the interpretations thereof made by people she trusts. Spend a few minutes with a search “How old is the earth?” on Google or DuckDuckGo.com. You’ll quickly discover online groups not only offering slick presentations attempting to refute the overwhelming scientific consensus of around 4.5 billion years, but even groups actively debating whether the earth was created 6,238 or 6,106 years ago (or some other similar number). All this is presented in glossy format and at minor expense. Add a whiff of conspiracy theory to taint the trustworthiness of centuries of scientific endeavor and you are on the way to unmooring a susceptible person’s thinking, to separate off a group smugly dedicated to a completely different worldview. Of course Trump is the conspiracy theorist in chief, so much so that his bid for the presidency was founded on his promotion of birtherism, the idea that Barack Obama was ineligible to be president based the location of his birth. Almost daily he promotes “deep state” conspiracy to instill distrust in any institution that opposes him. Promoting distrust by pushing conspiracy theories is not just a Washington, D.C. phenomenon, it is endemic to eastern Washington politics as well. Matt Shea (R-WA Legislative District 4, City of Spokane Valley plus) is a flagrant promoter of conspiracy theories, even serving as a speaker at The Red Pill Expo (See Matt Shea and the Red Pill). He uses conspiracy theory to break trust, to separate, to insulate from reality his followers fearful of “gun grabbers” and dedicated to hyper-“Christian” State of Liberty cult. McMorris Rodgers and Sue Lani Madsen (conservative guest columnist for the Spokesman), both insert references to George Soros in speech and writing, a way to discredit and promote distrust in Democrats and liberal causes by posing Soros as the evil puppet master of whose manipulation his subjects are unaware. Notably and ironically, McMorris Rodgers, sometimes in the same discourse, will claim she wants to "restore trust in government," I guess she means government by her Republican Party... The promotion of dismissal and distrust, distrust in government, higher education, the media, and the legal system is a political tool honed by Gingrich, Limbaugh, Prager, and a host of other right wing personalities over several decades. Trump by his very nature, has taken this tactic completely over the top in his pursuit of power. By so doing he has highlighted the danger and depravity of the tactic itself. When allegiance requires acceptance of “alternative facts,” the belief in which is dependent on distrusting reality, we’re in trouble, we’re drifting into cult territory. Keep to the high ground, Jerry P.S. The study of how we know what we know is epistemology, a branch of philosophy. The word is not new to me but I understand it’s application far better after listening to a podcast interview from Chris Hayes’ “Why is This Happening, entitled “The Information Crisis with David Roberts,” It is well worth the time spent to listen to the podcast. There is also a transcript. This podcast helped congeal many of the ideas expressed above.