Epistemology: The Power To Know

Epistemology: The Power To Know


Leonard Zwelling


I have been thinking about this one for weeks now.

In the Age of Trump, how can we know the truth? How can anyone know the truth? What is the truth and how do we determine its validity?

I never thought this would be a problem. Throughout my life, I thought that I had discerned where the truth came from. First, of course, it came from my parents. Until, it didn’t. Once you learn that they have been concealing dirty little family secrets (e.g., I had an uncle who went to Sing Sing for tax evasion), you realize that parental word of mouth is not a reliable source of the truth. And your family? Well, they’re not exactly Encyclopedia Britannica.

Then, of course, there are your teachers at school. You know the ones. The ones who told you Columbus was a hero, that states’ rights was the real cause of the Civil War, and that Americans landed on the moon. Oh, wait. That last one is true. I saw that on TV. But is that the yardstick by which we measure truth? What’s on TV? Not any more. And it sure isn’t Facebook. Once people started photo-shopping their lab data and college applications, screens became unreliable sources of accuracy. The web is not the Oracle of Delphi, let alone Merriam-Webster.

You get my drift. How do we know what we know and how can we be sure it is true? Does it matter?

I can answer that last one. It does.

Americans and many other people around the world go to the polls and vote. They vote based on their beliefs about candidates and issues and those beliefs are formulated—how? Are the beliefs based on knowledge? Hard facts? Data? Provable information?

In America, right now, it seems that there are two opposing camps around which opinion, not fact, is coalescing. Maybe, it’s three.

First, there are the lefties. The followers of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and AOC who believe that the U.S. is basically corrupt, dominated by the moneyed class and out to get the little guy. As usual, there’s some truth in that as a very few number of people control much of the wealth of the nation. But is, as Bernie says, a revolution needed or just a revision of the tax code?

Second, there are the Foxies, those who tune religiously to Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and all things Trump. They believe that the current president is just what the doctor ordered after those eight years of Obama. Except that the economic recovery occurred on Obama’s watch, after George W. made a mess of it, and Trump is taking advantage of what his predecessor did. OK, fair enough. Presidents do that.

The third group is everyone else who is trying desperately to figure out what the heck is going on and is being flummoxed by the other two groups.

If you are in this third group, as I am, it is a frustrating time of oversaturated information, much of it terrible and untrue. (It was the Russians; no the Ukrainians; maybe the Elbonians). The news media, including The NY Times can be unreliable, although the Times tries to get it right. So do the cable shows but both MSNBC and Fox hype up stories before they are certain of their veracity. Finally, just trying to figure out who fiddled with the 2016 election and at least preventing that from happening again is a chore. If, as most experts think, it was the Russians, did they really select Trump for us or did he win fair and square? And what the heck is fair and square?

So the point of this blog is just that you might consider questioning every assumption that you build an opinion upon (including what you read here). Try to get your information from multiple sources and make at least one or two of them be on paper and not from a screen.

How we know what we know matters. We are all subject to manipulation by those who would have us believe things that would benefit them, not necessarily benefit us. The current President of the United States is a master of misdirection and conveniently forgets the names of those with whom he has plotted to get what he wants. Rudy, who? Prince Andrew of where?

Beware of Congress on both sides of the aisle. Both parties have lied to get what they want.

Go forward with doubt, but do go forward. And as for more local matters, ask about those, too. I am still not sure why the Chinese faculty members were fired or why CMS audited MD Anderson. Are you? If you are, let me know, but don’t be surprised if I doubt what you tell me.

After all, do you believe me or your lying eyes?

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