How to Know Something
Marisa Guerin PhD, August 26, 2021
A wide appreciation for ways of knowing things is great, but we in the USA are facing a catastrophe of the opposite type: the one that arises when many people think there are NO trustworthy sources for knowing what is true. It is a profoundly damaging crisis. How are we ever going to make headway on the laborious process of gradually building a fairer world if we are losing our access to a shared sense of what is true, what is valid, how to understand our reality? How are we even going to stay safe from Covid?
I don’t pretend to have an answer. It has something to do with education, for sure, but also has a lot to do with the influence of journalism and social media.
When I was in graduate school, I was absorbed by my studies of the wide range of ways in which humans actually think and feel and gain knowledge. Going beyond the narrower boundaries of analysis based on logic and numbers, we now understand that men and women of all cultures enrich their scientific knowledge and human wisdom when they access their intuition, their relational and emotional connections, contemplative, artistic, and meditative insights, and the learnings that come from physical skills and experimentation. All of these modalities play a role in grounding our lives in reality.
But no matter how enriched our contemporary understanding of ways of knowing, I never imagined that I would live in a time when people would fail to agree on how to differentiate opinions from valid and reliable truth. Individual and personal interpretations of reality will not work as the basis for life in society. This is so excruciatingly clear as we watch news reports of adults and children becoming sick and dying from a disease for which there now exist extraordinarily effective vaccines, miracles of human science – but which some people are unwilling to trust. Doctors and nurses are crashing and burning out from the extreme stress of it. I have no words for it, just pain, not to mention frustration.
Maybe great suffering will compel a change. I don’t know. Eventually, there must be a way to pierce the bubble of misinformation and to re-establish the legitimacy of academic, governmental, and professional institutions that exist to advance our common good. In all likelihood it will be a slow process. People have their reasons to be distrustful, even if some of the reasons come from bad-faith actors in which those folks have mistakenly placed their confidence. There is a shocking vulnerability there, one that triggers violence when people are up against walls. It took time for cohesive trust to deteriorate, and it may take even more time to rebuild it.
Somehow and in the meantime, I hope families and neighborhoods can find a path to what is safe, fulfilling, and reasonable for people and their loved ones. Respectful dialogue and thoughtful listening would go a long way.
I don’t mean to be glib or escapist as I end this short reflection, but I do think there is something to be said for starting with what we can see with our own eyes and validate in the real world. An example of that process is a humorous “pre-internet-meme” that I have hanging in my kitchen, a hand-made copy of one that my uncle Ignacio made years ago for my mother Conchita. It is a little reminder that sometimes, common sense is all you need.
The picture is of a little burro with a tail made of a bit of rope.
The legend says, translated:
“If the burro’s tail is dry…. (the weather will be) …Fine; If it moves…..Windy; If it moves a lot….Hurricane; If you can’t see the tail…..Foggy; If it’s wet….Rainy; If it’s frozen….Snowy.”
Presumably, the little burro was not just a weathervane; once the farmer would know its condition, the farmer would act to keep the burro safe, warm, and dry!
Let’s keep our eyes on how those we care about are doing, and respond accordingly to that first hand knowledge.