Friday, August 17, 2012

Wait...Philosophy Matters?

    The joke about philosophy majors (and sometimes English majors too) is that they spend four years getting some really expensive toilet paper. While I don't think a philosophy degree makes good toilet paper, way too rough for my tastes, I've occasionally been known to poke fun at them with everyone else. It's usually because I don't think they're actually going to do any good with their degree, but here is not the place to discuss that.
    Instead of quoting dead guys at you (as fun as that is) I wanted to bring up a question that Christopher Hayes' new book Twilight of the Elites has made consider: how do we know what we know? This is an age-old quandary, addressed by the branch of philosophy called epistemology that deals with exactly that question. He argues that there is no way that we can be adequately informed on all every issue we must consider as voters. So we outsource the job of knowing to experts, like analysts and pundits and professors, because we don't have the time. Much like we do when we go to the doctor, we trust these experts because we believe that their status and degree confers on them authority that should be trusted.
Institutions like News Corp. serve us with information, its
up to us to decide if we are going to utilize it.

    It makes you consider how much you actually know and how much you trust experts to know things. There is no way for a single person to have the experience to know everything, so we trust how doctors to know medicine and our chemists to know chemistry and our bankers to know finance. And for the most part we trust these people. But when our faith in the institution they belong to fails, how do we continue to deal with the knowledge they used to present us with? We can go to the Internet, but what makes someone with a blog any more qualified than the discredited pediatrician to tell me if a vaccine causes autism? Nothing. It's all a matter of who we trust.
    I trust my mom to be correct when she tells me something about science less because she has a PhD in chemistry and more because she is my mother. That makes very little sense, but it works pretty well for me. I don't bother to double check her because of our personal relationship. A small fact about diet soda doesn't have too great an effect on my decisions. But what if we apply this model to politics, for example. Instead of trusting the media to inform us about candidates, because honestly they haven't had the best track record the past few years, we trust the people we know, regardless of their actual qualifications, to keep us properly informed about the presidential election. We don't bother to check their sources or seek confirmation elsewhere because we trust them. And they turn out to be wrong and we vote for someone whose positions do not line up with our own. Oops. And imagine a few million people do this. And suddenly we have a president who the majority of the country don't support. Double oops.
    So perhaps it's best we take a moment to consider our epistemology. If we don't trust the institutions charged with educating us, where do we place our trust? Why? And if we can't come up with a good answer, what do we do about it? Do we abandon the institution all together? Or do we try to fix it?

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