Knowledge and Newspapers

Written by: Steven L. Reynolds


Recently while teaching my Theory of Knowledge class on Zoom I asked the students whether they should believe what they read in the newspapers. Their confident answer was that they should not – newspapers are biased. I expressed surprise. (Not genuine – I’ve been teaching this class since 1988.) Did they think they shouldn’t believe that there had been a Tempe city council meeting at such and such a date and time, with presentations by the people listed? Were they refusing to believe that there had been a trial under judge X of defendant Y, on  charges Z, and that the accused pled not guilty? I also mentioned the rich matter for belief to be found in the business, sports, and weddings sections, and in the obituary notices.

We were discussing testimony, which in recent philosophy means, roughly, what we tell each other, by speaking or writing, when we expect to be believed. Philosophy has always depended heavily on testimony for its content – testimony about what philosopher X said.  But aside from brief but important discussions of why we should believe testimony, by David Hume and Thomas Reid, there wasn’t much said about it in philosophical theory of knowledge until the 1990s, when important work appeared by Coady, Burge, and Craig, and a little later, Sosa, Lackey, Williamson, and many others.

Among other topics, philosophers who study testimony have been discussing whether we have the following rule: tell someone that p only if you know that p.  If you are asked where Sally is, according to this rule, you shouldn’t answer that she is in the cafeteria unless you know that she is.

I think we have such a rule and that we comply with it reasonably well when we talk to people about ordinary matters.  So we must be able to distinguish fairly quickly what we know from what we don’t know. It doesn’t follow that our evidence for what we tell others must be slight or unconsidered. Think of the possible errors that come to mind when someone asks how I know that Sally is in the cafeteria. Am I sure it was Sally I saw entering the cafeteria a few minutes ago, and not Cindi, who looks a bit like her? How long has it been since Sally passed my desk?   Would I have noticed if she had left the cafeteria? I may have ready and convincing answers to those questions, even though I didn’t consciously consider them until now.

On the other hand, we do seem to be flooded with ignorant and dishonest assertions, especially online. If people habitually try to tell us only what they know, and usually succeed, as I think they do, how comes it that we have to contend with so much non-knowledgeable testimony?

A complete answer to this question would be long, and require the expertise of many people. I’m sure I’m not the person to provide it. But I would like to make one suggestion. It is that we might do better in weeding out the bad testimony we hear, and refraining from promoting it ourselves, if we had more respect for the boring stuff such as we see in the newspapers, and perhaps a little less admiration for the kinds of intelligence our popular entertainments depict science as using.

Consider the conspiracy-theory claim that the increased number of deaths in municipalities where Covid-19 was spiking are really much fewer than reported. The numbers are based on reports of individual deaths appearing in official government death records, as completed by thousands of health care workers and families of the departed and filed in appropriate government offices. They are typically available for inspection by, among others, local funeral businesses, who would notice reports of the deaths of large numbers of persons whose families could not be contacted about very affordable but dignified funeral plans.

Conspiracy theorists commonly ignore or even deny pertinent observations that have been conscientiously reported and made available to them. Those in the U.S. who allege fraud in reports of school shootings, fraudulent mail-in ballots, and fraudulent videos of police brutality, set aside not only the detailed and plausible stories, but most of the pertinent observations supporting them that are preserved in newspapers, records of official investigations, and personal communications, etc., from the persons who had relevant opportunities for observation. They offer instead only vague and implausible speculations –  magically effective computer hackers, impossibly quick and error-free faking of videos, political actors who persist in their masquerades daily, for years, for no imaginable motivating reasons. The lack of observations supporting the skeptic’s “alternative hypothesis” against the more generally accepted story is apparently thought to be unimportant.

It’s as if our society thought that finding the truth needed only a flash of insight, and not the development of a consistent story or a theory that is corroborated by observation and that then still requires refinement and further testing. It’s as if physics consisted only of Newton’s noticing a falling apple, and the rest was just boring stuff, happening off screen, in a day or two, before the (also preposterous) engineering and manufacturing that, in the movie, will be followed by explosions and smiling celebrations.
Of course we don’t believe that such movies depict genuine science. We wouldn’t elect to high office someone who offered as evidence for the effectiveness of a medicine to treat Covid-19, only his own possession of a ‘good brain’. But we do post our little bits on social media, with the excuse that we are only proposing them for discussion, or to raise doubts. It’s as if we thought that the most well attested truths required only the laziest touch to put them in doubt.

Doubts and the freedom to raise them are important to our success in finding the truth. But useful doubts, the ones that lead to better inquiry, are based on real possibilities of error, and we can discern those only by paying appropriate respect to observation.

Knowledge as Acceptable Testimony by Steven L. Reynolds
Knowledge as Acceptable Testimony by Steven L. Reynolds

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About the Author: Steven L. Reynolds

Steven Reynolds is Professor of Philosophy at Arizona State University. He is the author of Knowledge as Acceptable Testimony (Cambridge University Press, 2017)....

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