How We Know

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 charles_sanders_peirceinformation, 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.

  1. Make an observation – measure something.
  2. Evaluate that measurement in light of what we already know about what you have measured.
  3. Publish your measurement and the evaluation that has been carried out.
  4. 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.


4 thoughts on “How We Know

  1. Hi Jesse, Interesting. While there may be several ways of knowing things, sometimes one of these is skewed to support another. For instance, persons with religious convictions will believe their leaders, doctrines and scriptures by method of authority. Those who do not hold religious convictions often disbelieve the claims. Interestingly, ‘scientific proof’ is often quoted to disprove the claims, but that ‘scientific proof’ is often theory supported by the ‘authoritative’ views of scientists. Yet in the case of eg discussion of intelligent design, scientists have to keep very quiet about their views if they wish to retain their status or position. As a consequence, the scientific literature becomes skewed. (For example see Michael Behe’s analysis of the literature on what experimentation has actually been undertaken to prove or disprove biochemical evolution in ‘Darwin’s black box – the biochemical challenge to evolution’. The real nub of the question is often avoided in experiments as it is considered taboo by many scientists for fear of ridicule by those ‘in authority’). Interestingly Richard Dawkins now supports artificial intelligence on a biochemical front and I have seen an interview where he maintains that more advanced intelligence (which he maintains are aliens) probably seeded this earth with DNA.
    So, I am not always convinced by scientific claims. The questions asked are not always the most pertinent ones, or the experimentation undertaken cannot always fully answer certain questions so inferences are made.
    For instance, while doing much broader research I was told that it was always assumed that Nautilus had two pairs of gills as a vestige of their ancestry from the Ammonites (apparently this is what it says in the text books). The studies I had undertaken on Nautilus (and yes published the findings) showed that they needed both pairs of gills. When questioned, I pointed out that they probably live in oxygen minimum areas of the oceans (where fish can’t out compete them). The following year my supervisor took water samples at the depths where he had caught the Nautilus and found the oxygen levels were pretty low! In my opinion it had not taken rocket science to make the correct deduction yet an incorrect one had been embroiled in the literature because it supported the accepted theory.
    It is also disturbing when scientific data is manipulated to support a particular theory. Data put forward by the IPPC has often been so reworked and filtered that it is hard to see what the facts really are. This particular one is disturbing as human induced climate change is heralded as a preeminent cause of concern to mankind today, yet there appear to be as many scientists who disbelieve it as believe it.
    I recall a book called ‘how to lie with statistics’ the art of which politicians have often perfected. Yet why do scientists also get embroiled in trying to prove their pet theory? Is it human nature? Is it driven by where the next grant will emanate from? And this even appears to extend to whether an editorial board will accept or reject papers.
    So, coming back to your point on how to engage the general populace. That’s a difficult one. They are often subject to biased reporting by the media and conflicting views from supposed ‘well respected scientists’. They need to be taught the facts, and given theories which are clearly stated as that – theories. It is up to them to make up their own minds. Many, many individuals are perfectly capable of working things out, if they are interested enough in a subject!


  2. Clare,

    Your comment largely addresses the method of authority and highlights the need to be careful who we look to as a trusted source.

    I would like to comment on two of your points specifically.

    The first has to do with climate change. You state that there are many scientists that disbelieve in climate change. Just because someone has a science background does not make then a scientific expert in the area. The most in-depth analysis of the scientific debate, to date, has shown that when scientists who study climate change, as a subject (as opposed to a nuclear physicist) and would be considered the best when it comes to being a trusted source, are 100% in agreement that there is climate change, and it is man made. Economists, politicians, and other non-expert scientists are the “trusted sources” that most of the public choose to follow, because to believe that climate change is happening will seriously effect our way of life.

    The second point is your last one. There is good evidence that the number of North Americans who can engage in deductive logic is not that high, and is falling. This is the fault of our measurement-obsessed education system (my area of expertise) that works on the model of memorize and regurgitate as learning. There is no room for teaching people how to think (deductive logic), and fewer and fewer can actually do it.

    Inductive logic comes naturally, based on the way the brain works. Deductive logic, which is the basis of most scientific theories, must be explicitly taught and learned. If a person has not learned to use deductive reasoning, all the data and evidence in the world will not convince them of anything. They are incapable of following the logic that leads to the conclusion that the data supports until they learn to think in that maner.


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