Speaking of what we know

by johnmccreery

Phil Hoskins, writing on Capital Hill Blue, says,

I especially say this to all those who have been granted some kind of position of authority — whether the Pope, the President, politician, corporate officer, therapist, labor boss, media pundit or mug sitting at the bar mouthing off about something. You cannot possibly know what you claim to know. You cannot possibly know what would happen if we all agreed with everything you say.

Uncertainty is the most fundamental principle of what we call reality. Yes there are conditional truths, working assumptions, viable theories. But there is nothing that is as certain as would support the way many of us behave and speak.

The odds are overwhelming that you and I are wrong about most if not everything. Frankly I think that is a good thing, something to help keep us sane, to relieve the burden that certainty imposes upon us.
Back in the day we used to say all this with the simple phrase “lighten up.”

One of the sanest things I’ve read in days.


8 Comments to “Speaking of what we know”

  1. I often think about how hard it must be for my colleagues who have adopted the omniscience model of professorial authority, how carefully they must defend against any possible disconfirmation of their magisterial expertise, how anxious they must be in any social setting they cannot completely control. As exhausting as I find the continuous ambiguity of human contact, maintaining the illusion of certainty seems more tiring still.

  2. Oddly on-topic, I had to laugh – I just saw a flyer for our campus ‘Spring Fling’ in which the spellchecker decided to call the big inflatable amusement installations (water slides, that kind of thing) “Giant Infallibles.”

  3. On the other hand: while a healthy acknowledgement of the uncertainties that attend our opinions and activities is to be commended – humility in this area much preferable to a facade of omniscience – it’s also the case that actually knowing stuff is not, in most circumstances, an unachievable goal, and is generally well worthwhile.

    Giant Infallibles is great, btw. Good name for a philosophy textbook.

  4. For sure. As an example, I have a student right now (or rather, one who has voiced this thought) who asserts that global warming is a matter of opinion, since scientists disagree. Well, as Moynihan says everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. And regardless of our opinions on the matter if the climate is in fact changing the heat will get us all in the end. This being the case, ‘it’s just a matter of opinion’ is a remarkably unhelpful approach to a possible cat ass trophy. As you say, actually knowing stuff is in this case not only achievable and worthwhile but pressing.

    But this raises a further issue. Climate science does not produce certainty on a religious model. It produces robust forecasts of probabilities. So no responsible scientist would say that for sure we know the climate’s going kablooie; it’s just much more likely than not, which in forecasting terms is pretty solid. Where does knowledge become actionable in that gray area between mere opinion and revealed Truth?

  5. Yes, global warming is a really interesting case study for these sorts of meta-theoretical issues.

    The “it’s just a matter of opinion” response is interesting because of the ways in which it’s right. An opinion is only discernible as fact because of its relation to a heap of other opinions, pieces of information, and social norms; when holding up an opinion as a fact, one is really advocating membership of a particular normative community or set of communities. One of the features of the communities oriented around scientific endeavour, is the sharp distinction often drawn within them between the results and practice of science and more directly political or social claims / activities. A delicate line has to be walked, then, by advocates of the legitimacy of scientific knowledge – on the one hand, sharply distinguishing between scientific matters and more directly contestable political or social issues; on the other hand advocating membership of a normative community that itself draws this distinction – which advocacy can only be engaged in (and understood) through overtly political and social means. Failure to correctly walk this line accounts I think for at least some of the difficulties generated by stuff like ‘Climate Gate’. (Not that I’ve put the issue very clearly or fully myself, here.)

  6. Where does knowledge become actionable in that gray area between mere opinion and revealed Truth?

    Yes. A little while ago I thought I’d take a look at the literature on the economics of climate change – I was hoping for decent discussions of the pros and cons of different policy instruments. There’s plenty of stuff like that (I hardly read a word of it, so don’t quiz me!) – but I was mainly shocked by how much of the ‘economic’ literature on AGW is doing the sort of stuff I tend to associate with moral philosophy: I mean discussions of how much the lives of future generations should be ‘discounted’ relative to our own, when we weigh the probabilistic costs and benefits of action or inaction, etc. This sort of stuff, it seems to me, can be useful in grounded and specific situations (usually where there are easily measurable and manipulable variables to play with): if a technocrat is making a policy decision, I’d rather it be informed by some kind of cost-benefit analysis than not. But as a guide to making more broadly political choices – what do ‘we’, as a society (or, more likely, what do the ruling elite of our society) consider worthwhile – this approach seems limited, to me. I don’t think it shows much awareness of how these sorts of decisions actually get made.

    I know almost nothing about the field, though, unlike you, so many grains of salt.

  7. By the way – completely off topic – apologies – but if you haven’t seen it I thought you might be taken by this example of Goffmanian problems with front-stage / back-stage impression management in the UK election campaign.

    One interesting aspect, I think, is the 40 minutes the British media spent broadcasting live footage of Gillian Duffy’s front door, while Brown was inside apologising. My thought: the front door is one of the more notable and socially stable boundaries that separates front stage from back stage interaction spaces (in UK society). Since the ‘gaffe’ was in the transgression of this boundary – the making public of back-stage talk – Brown’s identity-repair-work had to straddle this boundary, while also attempting to re-establish it. So Brown very publicly engages in a private interaction, and the media, reversing its earlier role, broadcasts not the interaction, but the boundary that prohibits them (by newly re-asserted social convention) from doing so. The door’s unresponsive blankness becomes the main focus of political interest in the UK for more than half an hour. Who says objects don’t play social roles?

  8. I may not know much more than you, but fortunately I’m a big fan of salt. Otherwise I agree with all you say. I guess I think there’s often a point where we come up against how much morality we can afford (more on this in a post in-process), but leaping to cost-benefit seems limited to me also. Then again, I find most cost-benefit analyses unhelpfully truncated on both sides of the equation.

    The Brown gaffe hasn’t made much ripple over here, although I got the skinny on BBC-Am. I very much like your Goffmanian/Latourian analysis of the coverage!

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