three big questions relating to knowledge

I know that the sky is dark and wet today because of input from my senses to my brain. But I know that the earth moves around the sun and that the earth is warming because people have taught me. My sources didn’t use their own senses to learn these things by themselves; they, too, were taught by people–usually mediated via texts or images. This communication often takes places in organized venues like classrooms, books, and newspaper articles. In short, most knowledge is the output of institutions. In turn, institutions are organized, funded, led, regulated, rewarded, interconnected, and governed or self-governed in various specific ways.

I am interested in the following big questions about the social aspect of knowledge:

  1. Knowledge/Power: Because knowledge comes out of institutions, it is naive to think that we can know important truths without the influence of power. At the same time, it is possible to learn truths that are inconvenient to the powerful. Discoveries sometimes alter the distribution of power. And power is not necessarily bad: a democratic people exercises appropriate power when it decides to pour resources into a particular kind of medical research. We should be glad we have capacity to understand our world, and “capacity” is almost synonymous with power. Yet power is not innocent. How does it structure knowledge, and how should it be configured?
  2. Facts/Values: The Logical Positivists held that there were facts, which could be demonstrated; and there were values, which were mere matters of opinion. This distinction is still widely taught and believed, even though it has been shredded by a century of criticism from various angles. The facts we know result from our choices about what to study, which are based in values. It is very hard even to state a factual claim without also making value-claims, if only because the names we use are often loaded. The domains of fact and value are so interconnected that it may be impossible to distinguish them, yet people mix them up in harmful ways, e.g., by claiming that pro- and anti-vaccination positions are equally valid (because they both reflect values), or that police shootings do not exhibit racism because Blacks are not more likely to be shot. What are good ways to bring facts and values together?
  3. General/Particular: We cannot truly grasp the idea that the earth is warming without understanding abstract ideas like the carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect, not to mention more fundamental abstractions like temperature, change, and the idea that the earth is a sphere in space. At the same time, we cannot develop abstractions like the carbon cycle without lots of concrete data. Especially when we are studying human beings, generalities are problematic because they cover up individuality and particularity. But there are no particular facts without more general frameworks. How can we wisely combine the general and the particular?

See also: the progress of science; vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; mixed thoughts about the status of science; what must we believe?; new special issue of The Good Society on reintegrating facts, values, and strategies; etc

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.