The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).

Come back Jon Stewart!

By the way, I’m enjoying the crap out of John Oliver’s righteous indignation, but the truth is he’s probably doing more harm than good. Oliver panders to his dedicated fan base. Jon Stewart held his audience to a higher standard. He was biased, but he didn’t let his side get away with sloppy thinking.

Also by the way, Malcolm Gladwell had a nice episode that (if I’m remembering this right) nicely reflected the sort of ideological pluralism that Jonathan Haidt promotes. A recent video of Haidt has prompted a lot of my recent thinking on this issue.