Knowledge and Your Future

Posted on 27 April 2016

People seem to think of knowledge as something pure: something that can be stripped of subjectivity and bias. Some people also seem to think that certain individuals are capable of stripping themselves of subjectivity and bias.

In fact it is important that we remain just as skeptical of skeptics as anyone else. This becomes particularly important when key political players are consulting with think tanks and “knowledge actors”. Politicians do not have the time to understand in depth every issue upon which they vote. When their decisions are swayed by a knowledge actor, our future well-being is on the line. Absolutely we should be questioning these researchers. I’m not talking about a perverse questioning that speaks more of fears and agendas, but thoughtful in depth questioning that ensures we are shaping a future worth living in.

At a university level departments that understand their duty of care when it comes to research emphasize the importance of four questions.

What do we know? (ontology)

This is not simply about previous assertions of knowledge. Previous assertions are always up for debate. This is about questioning the very nature of knowing.

How do we know it? (epistemology)

When working in any form of research we are going to come to our questions using a certain structure for understanding that is in itself reflective of a worldview. For instance we can ask a question and for whatever reason choose to justify an answer to that question by either 1) seeking to disprove the answer and see if it withstands the scrutiny, or 2) prove the answer by gathering sufficient evidence that by its weight we are willing to accept the answer as true. This is the difference between “guilty until proven innocent” and “innocent until proven guilty”.

When written in this manner these methods may appear to be free of personal bias, because I am not using emotive language. This does not mean that emotion was not engaged in determining a position. After those emotions have been processed through cognition, the results made it possible to express these positions in a barebones manner. Emotively I wish to live a life free of suffering. Intellectually, I have decided that the best way to achieve this is to ensure universal wellbeing, which would of course include myself. When one criminal commits one crime, I want that crime to be stopped. However when a government commits a crime, it may cause the suffering of many innocent people. In terms of keeping suffering to a minimum I choose the position “innocent until proven guilty.” This seems logical, it starts with who do I fear most?

In universities it is accepted that you will have a bias. What is important is making sure that your bias is transparent. In that way people can look at your research and determine how to weigh your results, selecting what they think might be worth further investigating and leaving behind anything they think may be too coloured by your position. You are not discounted for your position, you have simply agreed that we will all be open to further debate.

By what means will you be gathering/creating knowledge? (methodology)

Again, transparency is critical to ensure we are confident of the results. Did you use quantitative methods (e.g. counting shells and producing statistics)? Did you use qualitative methods (e.g. interviewing subjects, relying on expert testimonies, etc)? If you are doing a study on the health of the oyster population: where did you sample your oysters, how many did you sample, did you count live or dead oysters, did you disturb the oysters in any way in order to count them? Similar questions need to be answered for qualitative research: who did you interview, who are you quoting, how many people did you consult, under what conditions, etc?

What are the consequences of gathering knowledge in the selected manner and the results of your research? (ethics)

This is not an inconsequential part of research. We do not research in a vacuum. What we do and what we present to the world has consequences. This is where it can get particularly tangled with politics. After the horrific experimentation on prisoners in the death camps of Nazi Germany, many researchers decided that the means do not justify the ends and that the knowledge gained by malignant methods could not be used. Therefore, any results Josef Mengele came up with working in Auschwitz must be discounted until such time as someone can find an ethical means by which to gain that knowledge. It is assumed that if we are smart enough to come up with the answers, then we are smart enough to devise means by which those answers can be found without causing the suffering of living beings. Just as critical is considering the ethics of creating certain knowledge, such as how to commit genocide on an entire species of animal through a particular chemical or biological solution.

There is no such thing as knowledge for its own sake. It is a myth to think knowledge is a higher value than the humanity that created/discovered that knowledge. It is a myth to think that the emotive process can be separated from the cognitive process. Objectivity is a myth. It is a myth to think that certain fields of research are above reproach because they are “evidence based” when both the evidence and the conclusions will always be up for debate because we are not omniscient beings, every single human being is limited and therefore our answers will be limited. Assuming knowlege workers are above personal bias, particularly those in science and technology, is a myth clung to by people desperate for certainty and sources of absolute authority.

The scientific method is an amazing tool, and to be respected. But it is a process not an absolute.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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