Uncommon Common Sense – June 2011


By Bill Frayer

What You Know May Not Be Correct!


I recently came across the following quote from the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell: “The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the cooperation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects arouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.”

This statement is worth rereading and thinking about (with apology for its dated, sexist language). For it is a good description of what ails us. People believe things without reason. They do not consider what they believe to be the least bit uncertain; they reject what is unfamiliar or new; and they hold onto their beliefs in spite of any contradictory evidence.

Any knowledge, any belief, must be subject to some doubt. Our ability to know things is limited, so the evidence upon which we base our beliefs is, by nature, imperfect. Those of us who believe that global warming is caused by human action, despite strong evidence to support this assertion, must remember that we could be wrong. Certainly, those who believe otherwise, on less evidence, must also harbor some intellectual humility.

Medical researchers run into this problem all the time. A recent study has pointed to the possible risk that taking calcium supplements might cause heart attack or strokes. Wasn’t it accepted that calcium supplements were safe and helpful? Of course, in medical research there is always doubt. It took years of replicated studies to arrive at the overwhelming probability that cigarettes cause lung cancer.

On an everyday basis, how often do we believe something is true when we cannot know for sure? We believe it is safe to live in this area of Mexico, yet we cannot know that drug violence will never dramatically affect this area. We may want to believe that IMSS will provide sufficient medical care if we encounter a sudden medical emergency, yet most people know little about the inner workings of the IMSS system. Of course, those who believe that IMSS is an inadequate system may also be basing their opinion on speculation, not knowledge. Most of our knowledge about IMSS is based on anecdotal evidence.

Most knowledge, of course, is infused with some degree of doubt. We must, therefore, bring some humility to our opinions. The problem is, once most people have formed their opinions, they tend to believe them without qualification. I think this tendency is part of human nature, but it can be dangerous. By realizing all knowledge has limits, we can keep our opinions conditional, and keep our mind open to new evidence.

I used to teach critical thinking. My wife sometimes suggested that my tendency to suspend judgment made me “wishy washy.” Perhaps, but I’d rather not draw a definite conclusion about something, especially something important, without sufficient evidence. In fact, I don’t see a problem with keeping my opinions conditional. “Based on what I know, I think…” or “If the current information proves to be correct, then it seems…” If we all remembered that we can’t know all there is to know, I think we’d all be better off!

—Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. 
T. S. Eliot

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Ojo Del Lago
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