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.