Social Knowing I

Randy Westgren raises an important issue in a comment to a recent post. “How is it that a group shares knowledge?” he asks. I want to try to answer this question in way that transcends (or perhaps just sidesteps) longstanding disputes, both among so-called “analytic” philosophers themselves, and between the analytic and so-called “continental” schools.

I sometimes think I’ve solved “the problem of knowledge” completely. But I’m well aware that I did so at the cost of stepping outside the bounds of proper philosophy. The point, of course, is that no matter how much doubt a philosopher is able to occasion, people know things anyway. They come to know things all the time, and, yes, they sometimes share what they know with each other. “The problem of knowledge” may persist in theory, but it is obviously solved in practice every day. How, Randy asks, does this happen?

He is rightly worried about the state of “scientific” claims about the ordinary lives of people. His friend Brian Wansink has been severely criticized, not least by the always trenchant Andrew Gelman, for deploying dubious methods of analysis in an attempt to qualify his ideas about what causes us to eat more or less healthily with “science”. Many of these ideas sound reasonable, and Wansink himself seems like a sincere and intelligent person. So there is a certain measure of sadness in seeing his work, as Randy puts it, “tarred and feathered”.

“Wansink may be right about many things that he shares with his audiences,” Randy reminds us (both Andrew and I have said similar things), “but his statistics-based accounts do not warrant justified true belief. Likewise, the brickbats thrown by statisticians are not sufficient to count as justification that Wansink is wrong about everything.” So where does that leave us? What are we, finally, to think?

I’ve long wanted to answer this, not so much for use by “the man on the street” (who might be looking for dietary advice) but by students and researchers at universities. What is a good way to come to know things in an academic setting? Over many years, I’ve come to settle on a three part definition, which includes both individual and social competences. At the end of the day, being “knowledgeable”, i.e., having the ability to know things, is the ability to (a) make up your mind about something, (b) speak your mind about it, and (c) write it down. We might say that knowing something, at least at a university, is a philosophical, rhetorical and literary competence.

Randy rightly mentions “justified, true belief”, which is the core (or beginning) of most philosophical definitions of knowledge, mine included. And here the Wansink case puts us in a kind of bind. Many people (including some of his critics) believe Wansink at some level. Smaller plates mean smaller servings which means fewer calories which leads to weight loss. Moreover, people of course believe these things because they think they are true. And they may in fact be true. (We don’t know that they are not true at this point.) So what they are arguing about is “justification”, the validity of the reasons that Wansink offers to believe something. We seem to be justified neither in believing nor not believing.

But we can ask ourselves another question. It’s one that has less to do with how we make up our own minds and more to do with how engage with those of others. Am I able to hold my own in a conversation with other knowledgeable people about healthy eating habits? If Wansink can do this, I’m going to let that count in his favor, even if his justifications don’t always hold water. (Boxers can “hold their own” and still lose the fight.)  Now, during the discussion, there was some question about whether Wansink was engaging in the debate in a knowing or hapless way. But I think at the end of the day, he found his composure. He acknowledged the criticism and seems, now, to understand it.* I have gained some respect for him throughout this. (Having Randy Westgren vouch for you, of course, also helps.)

Finally, we ask whether Wansink is able to compose coherent prose paragraphs about his subject in a reliable manner. This I think he has demonstrated as well. So I want to say that Wansink, however wrong he may be, either in his methods or his conclusions, is a knowledgeable food scientist. This judgment is not a trivial one, I want to stress. I have elsewhere been trying to engage with social scientists on other matters and have found them completely unwilling or unable to discuss their research sensibly. These people have led me to conclude that, however right they may ultimately be, they are not actually knowledgeable. They lack the ability to actually know the things they happen to believe.

The reason for this is that they have not mastered the social situation of knowledge. They hold beliefs that they are unable to share as knowledge. It is very important for scientists and scholars to develop this ability to share their thoughts and beliefs in such way as to contribute to the shared project of knowing. And that’s certainly an ability that I am here to help scholars develop.

Thanks, Randy, for the opportunity to try to hold my own with a knowledgeable person on this. It makes my work stronger. More later. (I think there’s a part II in me.)


*Update: I’m not so sure about this any longer. I had not been following the discussion closely enough it seems. Andrew summarizes the strange communication here.

2 thoughts on “Social Knowing I

  1. I like the approach of taking the notion of ‘knowledgeability’ beyond some sort of correspondence-based justified true belief in general. But I’d say that it can still be applied in the right context.

    There are two problems I see with your heuristic:

    1. Elevating communication over rightness will put hyperlexic cranks and conspiracy theorists on a par with people possessed of a basic expertise – ability to make useful predictions and retrodictions. I think it is important to acknowledge that conspiracy theorists are often incredibly knowledgeable about their subject as are experts in alternative medicine and astrology. And their knowledge is not of some different hermeneutic order from that of Nobel prize winners in physics. But they operate in contexts where their knowledge does not bring them the universal esteem and credibility (ie claiming to transcend their communities of legitimacy) that the sort of knowledge Wansink and others like him make claims to.

    It is here (internally to the context rather than with universal validity) where the heuristic of ‘justified correct belief’ takes precedence. Whether Wansink and Cuddy and others are right or wrong is irrelevant. What matters is that their belief is not justified within the context in which they claim justification for it. From the perspective of tenure, prestige and peer review they are frauds and they deserve to be treated like such. They have learned to game the system – corrupted by generations of those like them – arrogating to themselves supposed virtues that have now been revealed as fraudulent. The fact that they have deluded themselves in the process is irrelevant. They are the Bernie Madoffs of science. This is not at all related to whether their knowledge is right or wrong. In fact, it is possible – given the heterogeneity of the population, the randomness and variable effect sizes – that both their claims and their opposites (as Gelman points out) would make for good advice. And if Cuddy or Wansink set themselves up self-help gurus selling bigger plates and power posing, you’d find me defending them against the rationalist debunkers. They’d just be a part of the wider social hermeneutic patchwork that covers popular science, horoscopes, religion, soup for the soul, and myriad other such lenses we put on to make sense of our existence. But they are not. They claim to be better than all of these others because they are ‘scientists’. Instead, they’re frauds who are contributing to the further corruption of the system they claim to love above all else – aided by idiot press releases from their PR departments. So I might take on board Wansink’s suggestion of where to sit in a restaurant or how big a plate to put my food on as something to try. I do that every day with other aspects of my life. But I think he should not have a job at a university deciding over tenure and degrees of others. He’s a nice guy, and he’s not stupid, but he’s in the wrong occupation. He should be a motivational speaker or guidance counsellor living off word-of-mouth recommendations.

    2. Your points 2 and 3 take the ability to hold one’s own in a conversation and write something down out of the context you try to put them in. I often see this in plain English advocates who take a communication carefully composed by a practitioner in a field for others in the field and castigate it for not using plain language. But this practitioner language is perfectly clear to others in its own context and developed out of continuous refinement of the so-called ‘plain’ language. I think this applies to the notion of ‘sensible’ discussion. Maybe some things in the social sciences are impossible to communicate outside of the confines of its own language without translation. So perhaps what you take as insensible communication is just a poor ability to translate. The sciences seemingly have an easier job here but still manage to fail.

  2. These are good points, Dominik. Some quick replies.

    1. My three heuristics are not to be taken one “over” the other. My recommendation is make all three *necessary* conditions of knowledge. A truly knowledgeable person is some who can make up their mind (form a justified, true belief) AND converse intelligently about it AND write it down.

    I think you are entirely right to say that “conspiracy theorists are often incredibly knowledgeable about their subject as are experts in” but its only within a subset of their ideas that they master all three competences. And those ideas are usually perfectly uncranky. It’s the way they combine their knowledge with their mere opinions that reveals them to be kooks–they slide from knowing what they are talking about, to talking out of their hat. My criteria, I dare say, are able to distinguish these modes of talking

    2. I didn’t mean to leave the impression that you have to be able write down what you know “out of context”. The sort of writing I’m thinking about is “academic” in the sense that you write down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. That is, scientific language is fine. Incomprehension by laypeople is fine too.

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