"How" do We Know?

Last week I wrote about the state of general scientific literacy among the average person. Essentially I was making the argument that we’ve developed a tolerance for our ignorance of some of the more established technologies, which we use on a daily basis. I cited examples like the toaster or our computers.

I got a few comments and as I thought about them I realized I wanted to write a sequel post.

I want to talk about how we get our knowledge. How various societies around the world and throughout history gather knowledge tells a lot about how those societies function. Therefore, we can learn about ourselves by being self critical about where we get our information.

You might ask, but haven’t we always gotten our information the same way? What could have changed over the years? Well, that’s true. Biologically we’re the same as we were a thousand years ago. But our methods have changed in many ways. For example, is knowledge discerned by divination? Is it transmitted or taught orally? Is the knowledge segregated to only certain elements of society? And let’s not forget; who has control of the information – men/women? religious figures?

The implications of how our information is learned are directly related to what we know. If we determine that only a certain group of people have the right to certain information (say refrigerator repair) than we can assume that not only is the average person ignorant of how their refrigerator works but they discouraged or even prevented from learning.

But what about us, right now in the year 2010?

I think the middle ground between me and my commentators would be that we have seen a dramatic decrease in multi-disciplined knowledgeable people but that’s the result of a surge a technological prowess of our civilization as a whole.

The first point in there is about non-specified knowledge. Someone who is knowledgeable in many different fields is often called a renaissance man. Ideally a renaissance man, or polymath, would be informed on a wide range of things: history, science, music, languages, and athletics. The term originated during the Renaissance obviously but even then there were some detractors that said no one can truly be an expert on such a wide range of topics. What it boils down to, they would argue, is one turns into a Jack of all trades. Such a person would be knowledgeable of many things but wouldn’t excel at any particular field.

The term has nowadays even developed a negative connotation. You might even refer to someone like that as a “know it all.”

Since then, we have begun to specialize in our knowledge. This is a good and necessary thing. We don’t just say “I specialize in history” or “I specialize in science.” The field of science is so huge and diverse that it would be simply impossible for someone to be an expert on everything. Physics, chemistry, zoology, biology, micro-biology, immunology… and on and on.

The problem, as I see it, is there can be too much specialization. In my time in academia, history in particular, we are encouraged to specialize to an extreme degree. One might study Canadian history, but focusing on twentieth century Canadian history, with empathises on western Canadian twentieth century history, documenting the later developments of pacific logging in twentieth century western Canadian history. What’s easy to forget is that while specialization allows for experience, that expertise still requires a thorough understanding of the whole.

A huge problem with this is that it requires so much streaming you practically have to make up your mind by the end of Secondary School what you want to do for the rest of your life.

The second point to address is the rapid development of technology. We have computers, smart phones, microwave ovens, electric can openers…the list goes on. And we have a society of experts on very specific things. So you have computer experts and microwave oven experts and so forth, but less people who are say experts on smart phones and toasters.

So how do we get away with that? And what I mean by that is how do we maintain some measure of control over our lives when virtually everyone in the country owns a refrigerator but only small fractions actually know how they work? Isn’t this a recipe for disaster? Well maybe during the zombie apocalypse. We seem to be doing okay now.

So what is my point?

We’ve created a society where our technology has changed the way we learn. Not only that, our technology has changed why and how we learn something.

We live with technology that literally puts information at our finger tips. It is nothing short of a revolution created by the internet that each one of us can find information in a way that was unthinkable a generation ago. With the advent of the internet, barriers to knowledge of all sorts are falling down; distance, language, scarcity.

This is of course great news. But the downside is something we skeptics have lamented. We live in the age of Wikipedia. Anything and everything can be google’ed and there’s bound to be a yahoo answers entry for any query. In short, anyone can feel like an expert with just twenty minutes of internet research. We are free to become specialized experts at later developments of logging in western Canada blah blah blah, because anything else we could possibly want to know is waiting for us on a wiki somewhere.

Skeptics bemoan the fact that any celebrity can think they’re an expert on the immune system because they did “research” on the internet. Our rallying cry has been to “trust the experts: doctors and scientists” but in today’s age, everyone considers themselves an expert.

I have to admit I’m often startled by how comfortable people have gotten at not knowing things. Some of my friends can’t name the province immediately to the east of British Columbia. If you were to press them they would pull out their smart phone and google it.

I’m the first person to praise my iPhone tricorder, but is this instant access to information turning us into Jacks of all trades? Is that why specializing in Canadian history isn’t enough? Has Wikipedia taken all the work out of researching just plain old Canadian history?

I seem to be asking more questions than I’m answering.

I think as skeptics we should be very very happy that we live in an age where information is so freely available. Humans have never had such access to knowledge in all our history, but as skeptics we should be critical of the application of this proliferation of knowledge. I guess what I’m saying is we should be skeptical of how we get information, too.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.