Philosophy > How Much Do We Really Know?

How Much Do We Really Know?

Published: November 27, 2010

Maybe Rene Decartes had the sum total of human knowledge locked up in his "I think therefore I am." Rene spent a portion of his time on earth searching through animal carcasses to find the soul. He didn't have a whole lotta luck. But you know, that is how research works. At least personal research. Funded research...well there you have to ask where the money comes from. Obviously, the tobacco industry didn't spend a lot of money researching the health risks of their product.

Science is by it's nature revisionist history. A science guy has a theory. He has three grad students go off and look into the issue. Two come up with data that fail to support his theory, one finds data that does. In essence, we have just seen the academic version of natural selection as two researchers are let go and one gets to stay on. Then the results get published and we have added to The Body Of Knowledge on whatever that subject was.

There are numerous problems with our Body Of Knowledge on any topic. One, it is an outright lie that was put out there to support an end, some dogma most likely. Two it is the result of flawed technique. The experimenter didn't fully understand all the parameters that affected the outcome and hence assigned causation to something they could see when the real driver was something they overlooked. Three, it is a solid technique applied to the wrong data. Oh there is another, there is the information that is unknowable given out current level of technology. (This last category is a favorite among people with an agenda, if you can't know for sure, make a scary claim that can't be disproved and you are off and running.)

Then on top of this issue, we have the meta issue. The amount of "knowledge" out there is expanding faster than the universe itself. A hundred years ago in the USA an MD needed two years of training. At the end of that, he or she knew pretty much everything they needed to know to practice medicine. Now there is no way to even approximate that mastery of all the information out there.

The net result of all this "knowledge" is that on an individual basis, our level of ignorance is growing exponentially as we age. Between the legit info that is correct, the info that results from flawed technique and the absolute brazen lies that are being sold as the truth, the individual is the proverbial hurt locker in terms of sorting out just what is true in this world.

The simplest example is Global Warming. This fall under the catagory of "unknowable" in terms of causation. Are green house gasses causing global warming or is it just a normal cycle of the earth? Is it both? To what degree is it on or the other? The great news for politicians is that the science guys can't say definitively. So that alone is enough for certain politicians to vilify something they consider evil. That is "business". This give them the opportunity to apply regulations that limit business. Which then causes business to lobby those same politicians to create exceptions to the regulations. Net result of the global warming campaign, money goes from business to politicians.

A little cynical? Perhaps. Unless you consider the one thing that scientist can say with certainty. The producers of the most greenhouse gases on earth are...cows. Why do you not know that? Well, politicians can't really extract campaign contributions from cows. That would be my take.

As is rightfully the case, numbered among the least respected people in America are lawyers and politicians. When you look at what both of them do, you see why they get no respect. They add zero value to the process. They move money from A to B while nicking off some for themselves. The guy selling fries at the local fast food outlet or the lady who mows your grass is doing much more our standard of living than these others.

Let me give you one more example. Lets look at two documentaries. The first is the film "Supersize Me." That was a hatchet job on the fast food industry, but most notably McDonalds. The guy who made the film overate at McDonalds for a month. Put on excessive weight that took 4 months to lose on a macrobiotic diet afterwards. Clearly, this was the definitive hatchet piece that would put McDonalds out of business, no?

No. They are still doing fine. In fact, I eat there on an irregular basis. On my recent trip to NYC, where I had some of the best restaurants in the world to choose from, I did have one breakfast at McDonalds. I happened to need wi-fi at the time to check into work. There were a McDonalds and a Starbucks on the block in Harlem where I was located at the time. It was a no brainer. Egg McMuffin beats the Starbucks breakfast sandwiches hands down. Especially when it is done right. And the Harlem version happened to beat the Florida and Ohio versions and was as good or slightly better than the Iowa version.

My point here is that McDonald's doesn't survive by making food that tastes terrible. No one would eat there and they would go the way of other business that make terrible products. That is how this free market system works. Those who hate the free market system need to take pokes at the people who have made the system work for them. That was the idea behind super size me. At least according to the guy who made the documentary "Fathead".

I'll get to that film in second, but keeping with the topic of what we know and what we don't know, I'll toss in myself and my daughter. I cut out red meat from my diet for roughly 35 years. My daughter went further than me, she was a vegan, though for a shorter period of time. On Thanksgiving she was cooking a number of dishes while sporting a tee shirt that proclaimed "Praise the Lard!" My entry into this meal was secured by transporting a pound of bacon across county lines to end up in both the stuffing and also a squash dish. My point here is that we both believed we were doing what was right in the past. And we believe that we are correct now even though we both admit having made an about face on what we stuff in our faces. How can this be?

Well, that was the genesis for "Fathead". First off, if there is an award for terrible marketing, this film gets it. The name is repulsive. The photo on the cover is equally so. It is almost like a writer telling you not to read a piece because it has math in it, if you get my drift. You see, this documentary was made by a software engineer. Ridiculous right?

The counter argument in Fathead is that fat is not the problem. This engineer also ate at McDonalds for a month. But he limited his total caloric intake. Much like the Supersize Me guy, he had a lot of fat in his diet. The difference was that the engineer ordered Diet Cokes. He did not ingest the 30 pounds of sugar that the other guy did. At the end of his month he lost 7 or 8 pounds, his per cent body fat dropped and oh yeah, his blood work indicated that his cholesterol level was in the excellent range. This was after a month of Big Mac's? Yup.

His argument is that the US government, backed by the soybean industry and CSPI drove regulations that replaced lard and butter with vegetable oil. And that oil is actually on of the culprits in heart disease. That flipping back to animal fats is healthier. His other argument is that the "technical adviser" for super size me was a lawyer with the agenda "File Suit agaist McDonalds". Face it, when you are a lawyer and can't add value to society, you have to extract it from people who do add value.

In the end, I don't know who is right and who is wrong on these issues. You may think you know, but at best you can say that you are maybe somewhat sure this is the right way to go. Just because someone lobbies for something, you can't be certain it is evil, just that it is in the best interests of the person paying for the effort.

So with that, I'm not much further along that Decartes at the end of this. I don't think my head is all that smart in terms of what to eat or not eat. So I have to look around and see if I have another way of determining what to eat or not eat. Turns out that in addition to a brain, I have something called a tongue. When it contacts stuff it generally sends me a message that goes along one of two lines "Good, swallow" or "Bad, spit out." In the end about all I can say is

I taste, therefore I eat.

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