I know that this blog post will be old news to most of us, but I think it needs reiterating within the present context of my thinking – how do we find out what we believe in, or what are the methods of knowing?
According to Peirce (1877), there are three methods of knowing information, method of authority, method of tenacity, a priori method, and the scientific method. I will review each one of them, and consider how they impact us in our society today. I will consider the method of tenacity and the a priori method first
In both the method of tenacity and the a priori method, there is often no way to identify where knowledge of a belief came from, it just is. The fundamental difference is the willingness to change a belief.
In the a priori method, the belief is there because it seems reasonable and rational within the cultural context of the day. Our society has certain beliefs that we accept, without question, simply because our society holds to those beliefs. As an example, in our western democracies, we all know that democracy is a good form of government. We don’t question that belief, and it becomes one of the assumptions that we live with. It is reasonable, and we have no reason to question this belief. If asked, we usually have no idea where the belief came from, it just is. We accept it as a part of our belief system without close examination or consideration, we accept it before (a priori) really thinking about it. It is one of the beliefs that we simply have.
Like beliefs that could be classified as a priori, beliefs that fall under the banner of the method of tenacity don’t usually have an identifiable source. Method of tenacity beliefs are just beliefs that we acquire. How they differ from a priori beliefs is our unwillingness to abandon these beliefs in light of new evidence.
Beliefs that become method of tenacity beliefs allow us to live in a fixed world. A world that doesn’t change, and our beliefs reflect that world. For most of us, gravity is a constant that never changes. Through inductive reasoning, practised from an early age, we fix in our minds our belief about gravity. It allows us to contextualise our physical world, and we can be secure that our belief system, along with the fixed physical properties that our belief represents, will provide us with a stable world through which we can live and move. Evidence available from the world of advanced theoretical physics that tells us that gravity isn’t exactly what we believe it is has virtually no impact on how we live our lives in the physical world. It has virtually no impact on our belief in gravity and the pragmatic effects it has on our physical beings. Our belief in gravity is a fixed belief that we don’t change, and it allows us to live in a fixed and settled world.
An example of method of tenacity beliefs that are problematic are racial biases and bigotry. Although they allow people to live in a fixed and unchanging world, these beliefs are founded on falsehoods and cause no end of problems in our society. Because they are fixed and people refuse to change them, in spite of evidence, the problems that attend adherence to these beliefs can be extremely problematic.
One of the sources of problems with any false beliefs, but especially ones that are classified as method of tenacity beliefs, is that people seek out others who hold to the same beliefs in order to validate their beliefs. In this day and age, the internet allows people to gather in larger and larger clusters to support false beliefs, and keep their belief system protected from the inconvenience of evidence that might cause someone to question what they believe in.
The third method for us to consider is the method of authority. The method of authority encompasses the beliefs that we acquire because someone we trust (a trusted source) has told us about something. Most of the knowledge we have, and most of our beliefs, are acquired through the method of authority. Even our beliefs that we would classify as a priori and method of tenacity, are largely acquired because someone has told us the information.
When we are told something from a trusted source that we have no reason to disbelieve, we are acquiring information through the method of authority. Traditionally, the trusted sources in our society are parents, teachers, news sources, politicians, etc. More recently, the internet (surfing, blogs – like this one, facebook, twitter etc.) has taken on an increasingly important role as a trusted source. In the absence of an understanding of how to evaluate the veracity of a source, something that must be learned and practiced (can’t happen in our world of education, because there’s too much content to cover), we live in an age where false beliefs are accepted and incorporated at an unprecedented rate in the general population. Which brings us to the final method of acquiring belief systems – the scientific method.
The scientific method of acquiring knowledge (or beliefs) is really quite simple, even though it has become shrouded in misconceptions. The scientific method really involves four steps.
- Make an observation – measure something.
- Evaluate that measurement in light of what we already know about what you have measured.
- Publish your measurement and the evaluation that has been carried out.
- Listen to and respond to the feedback that you receive about the measurements that you have made and the evaluation you have published.
Simple really – measure, evaluate, publish, and then listen. This cycle of acquiring knowledge means that the community studying something will go through cycles of understanding, as they incorporate new findings into the communal understanding of something.
The scientific method works, and has resulted in a world that is awash with findings and understanding that have arisen through the scientific method of acquiring knowledge. This method can (and has) been derailed at any step. If the measurements are not precise, if an evaluation is biased or flawed for any reason, if the publication of methods and results is prevented (something that happens increasingly in the proprietary world of corporate or secret government research programmes), or if the feedback to the community is not incorporated.
In addition, the scientific method can be undermined if there is distrust in the method itself. Think about the popular (movies, books, magazines) portrayal of scientists. They are almost always negative, with the scientists portrayed as evil, stupid, or conniving.
In addition, in my last couple of posts, I’ve discussed the problem of the lack of ability to engage in deductive reasoning in the general population. What this means is that, even if someone really wants to look at the evidence themselves, for some issue, they are unable to follow the logic that leads to scientific conclusions. Because many (or most) conclusions rely on deductive reasoning to be able to follow the evaluation of evidence and background. Because we, as educators, have failed to teach people how to engage in deductive reasoning, we have cut the general population out of this process of acquiring knowledge and beliefs.
As a result, the primary method of acquiring beliefs in our society today is the method of authority. This means that individuals have no choice but to rely on a trusted source, and we (the educators) have not even taught them how to evaluate a source for veracity. Is it any wonder that we have huge swaths of the populace embroiled in scientific controversies for which there is no controversy? This societal problem must be laid squarely on our shoulders. We are 100% responsible, and, for the most part, have no intention of changing what we are doing to fix it.