Our Belief of Knowledge

We are living amid a pandemic, political opposition, and a cry for social justice.  The air is filled with fear, ignorance, and impenetrable beliefs coming from every angle.  We don’t understand each other.  At the same time, if we look deep enough, it seems that most people can feel some connection to others in the way that we are all humans.  It is odd though isn’t it, that we don’t understand each other, yet we know that we are connected to each other in a deep fundamental way.  Or maybe the deep connection of being human is just mumbo-jumbo to you, maybe you find it too difficult to see past someone’s beliefs in the current climate.  Maybe you think that someone who supports Trump is clearly an alien, or someone who is against abortion is just a worthless ant.  Though I don’t think ants are worthless, and regardless whether you feel the deep human connectedness, I think we can say for certain that we do have one thing in common; we have beliefs. 

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

It is important, always and especially now, that we think a bit more about the beliefs that we have.  That we think about what we are (or aren’t) fighting for.  That we think about the things that made us stop talking to our friends or families; the things we stand up for in our lives.  To some extent, the things that make us who we are.

To start at the beginning, we ask ourselves where our beliefs come from, and without going on a philosophical tangent, the basis for our beliefs is knowledge.  We learn things from experience, school, friends, family, research, the list goes on; then we take the things that we learn and form opinions about the world. 

To quote Oxford Language, the definition of knowledge is:

  1. facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.
  2. awareness or familiarity gained by experience of a fact or situation.

Though the dictionary definition can provide us with background, the question still remains how we acquire the facts, information, and skills – what is our experience or education, and what do we really remember about these experiences or education?  As we dig deeper, and ask ourselves these questions, it can become clear that on our own (as individuals), we really don’t know much.

As Daniel Boorstin said, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge”, meaning we don’t know much, but we think we do.  The article “Why We Believe Obvious Untruths”, by Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman published in the New York Times explores this topic, stating, “On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.”  The article digs into the truth about what we know in a thought provoking yet research-oriented way, and I recommend reading it if you are interested in the scientific proof of these statements.  The point that I would like to extract however, is that “Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared.” 

Knowledge is generated by our communities through collaboration, and it is through collaboration that ignorance can sometimes be formed. To quote the article once more, “One consequence of the fact that knowledge is distributed this way is that being part of a community of knowledge can make people feel as if they understand things they don’t.”

In a way, it is beautiful how the world has collaborated to obtain the knowledge we have thus far; we created modern agriculture, the internet, and sent people to the moon.  Under the beauty though, there is room for thought on how our collaboration is occurring in the current world, and how it is impacting our belief systems.  I probably don’t need to explain how we are collaborating with each other on a day to day basis, as you are probably doing it right now (or you have done it at some point today).  To no surprise, much of this collaboration occurs via social media, and this is where I would like to provoke some thought on how we are sharing information and what information it is that we are sharing.

Social Media Collaboration

As of 2019 in the U.S., 72% of adults use social media.  Facebook is the most popular of the various platforms, where 74% of its users interact on the platform daily, and images are the most popular thing to post (followed closely by updates, videos, and opinions).[1]  I think we can agree that this is a significant percentage of people, and therefore a major source of collaboration between those people.

Having agreed that collaboration with others is a large source of our knowledge, and having agreed that social media is a major source of collaboration, we can now come to the conclusion that the way and extent to which we use social media influences our knowledge and beliefs about the world.

Let’s get into some examples – We see our friends, families, and/or favorite celebrities posting images and opinions about global warming, or the black lives matter (BLM) movement.  Just seeing these posts influences our beliefs in these topics.  If we narrow the example down to opinions (whether through the form of images, memes, comments) posted which portray  how plastic straws are bad for the environment because they cause global warming (or which portray how people who think plastic straws are bad are stupid – pick your side), upon seeing these posts our brain says: “If all of these people are posting about how we need to stop using plastic straws to stop global warming, then it must be important.  I will stop using plastic straws, and I better post about it too.”  Even if we don’t have those thoughts consciously, our brains are still processing in this way.  This example may seem a bit exaggerated, and maybe it is to some extent, but if we asked everyone who believed in global warming (or who posted about it on social media), a very small number would be able to explain the science or statistics behind why plastic is causing global warming (or why it’s not – again, pick your side).  I can tell you from experience, that I have picked my side (for those that care, I do believe in global warming), yet I would struggle to provide the scientific process of how the breakdown of plastic causes changes in the weather patterns.  What I can tell you is that carbon dioxide is involved, and that I will be spending the time to learn more about it in the near future so that I am not without a supported belief.

The point here, is that we don’t have enough supporting data before we post an image, announcement, or opinion on a topic, yet we readily form a belief about the topic without this data if other people in our community have such a belief.  So then, what is enough supporting data?  And at what point are we allowed to form a belief before posting about it? 

Unfortunately I don’t have the answer as to when you have enough data or knowledge to form a belief, nor can I tell you where to obtain your knowledge or data (since we know humans produce data we also know it can be flawed or skewed).  My hope, however, is that these are things that you will think about.  That next time, before you make an opinion-oriented post, you will spend a few minutes thinking about how you formed your opinion.  Maybe you will even take the time to research the topic, or better yet read a book about it; I hope you will search for the source of data before the opinion evolved (in my example: research the cause of global warming and know all of the argumentative viewpoints).  Think about posting your source of research along with your commentary or image, and maybe others will get the picture and join along, and we can all help each other to become better informed about these things that we are so passionately supporting. 

For extra credit, think about taking the time to work through all your core beliefs.  Research, read, engage yourself.  Maybe you will find a new passion or have a change of heart.  Or maybe you will begin to question everything and fall down the Socrates rabbit hole; I can only hope that my words could have such an impact on someone someday.

Further reading: Phillip Fernbach, the co-author of the article quoted above, wrote a book titled The Knowledge Illusion exploring further the idea that we don’t really know as much as we think we do.

[1] According to a PEW research center survey conducted Jan. 8 to Feb. 7, 2019.


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