What can I know?
Why am I here?
What am I?
How should I behave?
What is to become of me?
I recently started reading a book by Dr. Christopher DiCarlo on critical thinking. I try to explain the topic before giving the title because it could be misinterpreted, “How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions”. So far the book is interesting and the author’s lighthearted approach to the difficult subject is a big plus. (Coursera’s class Think Again: How to Reason and Argue takes the same approach) DiCarlo starts off with these questions because to “know thyself” is basic to understanding why we believe what we do.
So to answer the first question, what can I know, what can we be absolutely, positively, 100% sure of, the simple answer is – not much. While studying history I came to understand that everyone is biased, everyone who writes anything has some bias that may or may not affect what they are writing. In addition there are more records in archives than any one person can look at in a lifetime. Our ideas about what happened in the past is constantly changing, usually improving, as more data on any given subject is found. Not all the new data comes from archives, some comes from research done in fields outside of history. Science sometimes explains what the written records cannot. So, we can’t know anything we read with absolute certainty.
If you watched the television program House you know that, as Dr. Gregory House says, “everybody lies”. Thanks to the same biases that prevent us from being sure of anything written we are unable to trust anything anybody says. I have never heard anyone say anything bad about my mother but is she said that she read my blog and loved everything I wrote I am not sure I could believe her.
Have you ever seen a magic act? If so then you understand why we cannot believe everything we see. But what can we “know”? Math? Is 2+2=4 even if your name is Winston Smith and it is the end of the book? I think so. II and II is IIII. But statistics are math and everybody knows that as Mark Twain said there are, “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” so how can we trust math? Back in 1954 Darrell Huff wrote a little book filled with a lot of silly little illustrations titled “How to Lie with Statistics” in which he demonstrated that lying statistics are designed to do that. Sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally. If you asked dentists “do you recommend Crest toothpaste? it is a leading question. If you do it at a Procter & Gamble shareholders meeting it is downright dishonest. If you announced that Mitt Romney was going to win the last election after polling subscribers to the Wall Street Journal your math was not your problem, you “random sampling” was.
We can trust mathematics and math based science that offers reproducible results but there is one more hiccup. As much math as I have studied, and I have taken a lot of math classes, that was years ago and I have forgotten or misremember much of it. So how can I know if the math I am seeing is accurate or error filled?
There is the real problem, none of us are experts in everything. We have to carefully evaluate our sources of information against our own standards for truth. Personally I want my facts as close to the truth as humanly possible. Which is why I am reading yet another book on critical thinking skills.