Now that it’s fairly easy to look things up on the internet (i.e., most of the people you know stopping a conversation dead in a restaurant to look up some trivial, unnecessary fact), why do people believe so many things that are wrong? I read an article this past week talking about why, and the article used as a context the shrieking psychotic clusterfuck that constitutes contemporary American politics. From the article, we can see that instead of reacting to politics by saying “Aaaaaaaaah!!” and banging our head on the wall, we can instead say “What is the foundation for other people’s knowledge?” The origin of knowledge is called epistemology, in case you wanted that word.
Some interesting examples of alternative facts were in the article. Why do some people believe we need to spend billions of dollars to build a wall on the Mexican border, when illegal immigration has gone down, more people are returning to Mexico than are coming here, and most illegal immigrants work hard and add to our economy? Or why do so many people oppose eating genetically modified organisms when there is no evidence that they are harmful and the potential benefits are so huge, such as nutritional benefits and using fewer pesticides?
Why don’t we all just seek out real facts to the best of our ability, and go with them? Before I proceed with the factual part of this discussion, I have a philosophical answer: we don’t necessarily like facts. There’s a Russian proverb that says something like “would you rather be happy or would you rather have the truth?” Umm, let me think a minute.
Part of the truth is that none of us are walking around with pure facts, the way we think we are. But I want to make a point here first, so let’s consider an important question: how do you know the earth is round? Did you personally fly or sail around it? If you did, fine, but most of us did not, and yet we still think it’s round. We have trusted people who did fly or sail around it to tell us. We know it is round because of language.
But Ah! some will say, now we have photographs from space, and we can look at it and see that it’s round. OK. I’ve attached a space photo of the earth to this blog entry. Look at it. Now look out the window. Looks the same, doesn’t it? The only way you know that’s a photo of the earth is because someone told you. You know it because of language.
So follow this chain of logic for a moment: (1) much of our knowledge—like the earth being round—comes from communication, (2) most communication is through language, (3) and language is inherently rhetorical. Therefore, much of our knowledge comes from a process that is not based on pure reporting of truth, but rather it’s a process that is shaped by attempts at persuasion (i.e., rhetoric).
One of the basic aspects of rhetoric is that the person using language must be trusted by the audience, or no communication will take place. As I would sometimes tell my students, at the moment you start to speak, in terms of being trusted, what you actually know doesn’t much matter. It’s what the audience believes you know that matters. If they trust you, and if they think you know what you’re talking about, they will listen—whether those things are true or not.
Over time, you may change what the audience believes about you, and you may affect how much they trust you, but at any given moment, what the audience already believes is critically important as to whether it’s possible for communication to take place.
Our use of language has a profound effect on what we think we know. And whether we seriously look for true information, judging and considering our sources, looking for verification of facts, or whether we just lazily wash along in the river of what our friends believe, our knowledge is not just about what we know, but about what we choose to believe. “Knowledge” is less about truth than about belief. We have caught some fish from the river, but there are others that swam away without us knowing about them.