Everyday Epistemology #2

(Second post trying to figure out how to figure stuff out - or something like that.)

I know this nice young woman with an improbably exotic name who is a fan of Libertarian Ron Paul. A few months ago she expressed concerns about pressures to force her children to have the H1N1 vaccine. She cited experts whose views contradict the establishment opinion that the vaccine is a good thing. We are not close friends so I don’t know if Libertarian principles influenced her opinions but based on what she wrote in FaceBook I’d guess so.

I also “know” (in the cyberspace sense) another nice fellow who owns a liberal political blog. He writes a lot so I can’t find the particular post, but he said something about “anything being possible”.

Then there is the debate over climate change which is now heating up (having never cooled down) at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. The proponents and deniers of global warming/climate change are trotting out the same old arguments, citing the same old experts.

So, you ask, “What’s your point?”

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious. Stuff has gotten out of hand. It’s too hard to figure out. We often have to depend on experts; but, we don’t know which experts to trust. And sometimes to defend an unlikely position or just because we don’t know, we’ll proclaim “Anything is possible.”

It’s bad.

I think (for what it’s worth) that this is THE issue of our age. It’s not the questions we ask but how we figure out the answers.

People being people, this has always been a problem. However, I think it is worse today because so much is so complicated. Many of our questions are linked with technical issues about which even the experts disagree. The layperson has little hope of getting much more than a superficial understanding and that often comes from biased sources. What seems reasonable and true often isn’t.

So what’s a poor truth seeker to do? Other than be aware of the problem and sensitive to bad thinking (ours and others) I am not sure. However, I have written some things which may or may not be helpful.

The Freedom vs Fairness blog tries to tease out the roots of political biases. Although my liberal bias certainly shows, I think the underlying premise is correct - that liberals are more motivated by issues of fairness and that conservatives are more motivated by issues of freedom. Knowing where arguments are coming from might promote not only understanding but sympathy - maybe even empathy. Since doing these posts I am less likely to dismiss conservative positions out of hand.

The Nassim Taleb Black Swan post in the Book Reportz blog (better yet, read his book) examines wrong logic and the way of empiricism. In the interest of explaining the black swan phenomena, he rips apart all kinds of faulty thinking.

Regarding the problem of finding experts, consider these posts in Tom’s Topical Topics blog:

Everyday Epistemology # 1

Getting Ready For The Great Climate Change Debate


I try.

1 comment:

Chuck said...

Dead on. It's one of the reasons opinion polls often make no sense. People are bombarded with so many one sided facts half of which they don't understand. I don't ever remember living in a time where politicians so often resort to distorted "facts" to attempt to sway voters. I don't think this is a healthy situation but I see no way to fix it.