Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, May 09, 2021


There are many important things that I know to be true to a moral certainty, that many other people do not believe. I could call these people misinformed or ignorant, but they are just as certain that they are right and I am wrong. There are also innumerable matters of which I am uncertain, but other people do have definite beliefs about them that I know to be wrong.


This is a knotty problem indeed, because convincing these people that they are ignorant or misinformed is nearly impossible, and they will certainly never convince me. So the urgent question is, how can I be so certain about these controversial matters? This is the subdivision of philosophy called epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge.

First I need to say something which is difficult for some people to hear: my personal history shapes my beliefs and gives me confidence in matters which as far as I'm concerned should not be controversial. This is difficult because I seem to be claiming a category of elite status that many people resent. Specifically, I grew up in a family of highly educated people, and I went on to get an expensive education of my own in highly selective institutions, specifically Swarthmore, Tufts, and Brandeis. I have a M.A. in environmental policy, which means I have taken graduate courses in biology, politics, economics and public policy; and a Ph.D. in social policy which means I have taken graduate courses and passed qualifying examinations in economics, political science, and sociology. I have extensive training in statistics and causal inference, research methods, and scientific writing. I have subscribed to Scientific American since I was 13 years old. I read JAMA, the New England Journal of Medicine, and BMJ every week. I read the New York Times every day (and usually yell at it),and I subscribe to other magazines which I won't bother to list and I read 30 or more books of history, science, and sociology every year. I have more than 50 peer reviewed scientific publications, and additional book chapters, non-peer reviewed publications and reports, conference presentations, and other scientific production that goes on even longer.

I'm not bragging. This means I have expertise in certain areas, but I still have to trust and admire the expertise of automotive technicians, medical technologists, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, chefs, farmers, and a whole lot of other people who know how to do things I can't do. I don't try to tell them how to do their jobs. I also don't know a whole lot about, for example, physics and cosmology. I trust physicists when they say the universe is about 13.8 billion years, and I trust astronomers who say the earth is about 4.5 billion years (depending on when exactly you think the thing became enough like the rock we know and love to merit the name). 


Why? Because I know they have gone through a process similar to the one I went through, concerning a different area of expertise, to gain the kind of knowledge they promulgate. and I have read enough about how they come to their conclusions to see that it's consistent with areas in which I do have substantial expertise, it's internally consistent, and there is a professional culture of skepticism, mutual criticism, and caution in drawing conclusions that makes them credible. And I can see that the theories of cosmology, geology, and evolution are mutually consistent and can plausibly explain the world around me. 

When it comes to current events, I trust information sources that also trust scientific expertise. And I trust sources that provide information that is internally consistent, consistent with other observable reality, and logically presented. I trust sources that correct errors when they do (inevitably) make some, and that are able to separate information from analysis, to the extent that is possible.  I didn't personally count all the ballots cast in the 2020 election, but based on my knowledge of the world, and how elections work, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Joseph R. Biden won the presidential election by approximately 7 million votes, and that it was a fair election, and the vote count was honest and accurate. This is a fact, not merely an opinion. The sun rose in the east this morning (or more accurately the rotation of the earth brought it into view above the eastern horizon), and Joseph R Biden was elected president in a free and fair election. These assertions have equal epistemological status. They are both as knowably true as any assertion can be. 

And you know what else? Ted Cruz, Kevin McCarthy, and the 147 House members who voted not to certify the election results know it too. They are liars. To be continued.

Note: Yes, everything is public health -- guns, education, transportation, poverty, pollution, you name it, all public policies involve public health,

Nobody lied about the Gore/Bush election. There was legitimate controversy. Once the Supreme Court ruled, Gore conceded. There is a legitimate question about whether the SC ruling was correct, but nobody told lies about what had happened. Same with Stacy Abrams. There is no comparison whatever. So shove it.




Don Quixote said...

Yes indeed, they do know it. That is why their mendacity is so shocking. I recall when our country first attacked Iraq, in 1991, and a decade later attacked it again under the first sociopathic idiot’s son. The Republicans began to use a specious kind of “reasoning,” wherein they find one source or report that says something they want it to — in this case, lies about so-called weapons of mass destruction — even if they have to pay that source to say these things, which I happen to know they do when necessary, through inside sources — and use that lie to discredit the overwhelming preponderance of truth. Along those lines, I noticed that it is impossible to call Mitch McConnell‘s office and talk to anyone or leave a message, because they make it impossible to do so. Of course, they don’t care what anyone thinks. McConnell just cares about what his donors tell him to do. So I went online to their website. In efforts to promulgate the lie that the affordable care act is somehow not a positive or helpful thing, his website asks for “Your story about Obamacare.” So I typed in my story, telling how it was great to be able to afford health care because of the federal subsidy I got, and that Republicans began to gut the law, making individual plans unaffordable. I then proceeded to tell Mitch McConnell that he is an unmitigated asshole. In my opinion, anyone who propagate lies which they know to be untrue is an unmitigated asshole. By that admittedly subjective definition, all Republicans in the United States Congress are unmitigated assholes.

Cervantes said...

Well, there might be a couple of exceptions. But generally yes.