Home > Uncategorized > Understanding is a three-edged sword

Understanding is a three-edged sword

I routinely find myself rhetorically paralyzed by a question that I don’t think really can ever be answered, and I’m a little embarrassed to put in to words. Mostly because it’s the sort of question that Simon Pritchett would ask:

How do we know what we know?

Now, this is less a question of metaphysics and more a question of reliable information gathering, because this question always comes up in my mind in the context of debates and discussions on political or philosophical matters. Essentially, on any topic that is infeasible to directly experience.

Case in point: at a recent Society of Independent Thought meeting, we were discussing human rights, in relationship to torture. A weak form of this problem arose when the topic of whether torture actually works came up. One party argued that it would be simple enough for the tortured to fabricate whatever fictions the torturer wanted to hear and thereby escape punishment, the underlying argument here being that torture on the whole is a rough and barbaric practice with unreliable results.

I ended up taking the other side, and from a practical perspective pointed out that torture has been in use by human civilizations for at least six thousand years (dating it back to the Sumerians, at least). Why would humanity still be using torture today if it didn’t work?

But the flaw in both of these arguments is that they are philosophical posturings about something which the members of the discussion, college undergrads all, know virtually nothing. How would you definitively settle the argument over whether it works or not? You would need an expert. Someone who knows torture and has used it, right?

But isn’t a torturer always going to say that his work is effective? And it shouldn’t be too hard to find someone to argue the other side, who’s written some papers and read some books to point to some studies that say that torture never works and kills more than it saves and so forth.

It’s easy to extrapolate this out to the attention being paid to the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The FedGov and the .mil have a distinct incentive to make sure that there’s no proof of torture that comes out of there, if it’s happening. And the human rights watchdog groups have to find something to crow about: they’re never going to say “Okay, we’re all nice enough people, let’s all go home.”

So both sides have good reasons to say there is or isn’t torture going on there and there’s no independent way to verify either way (i.e. normal people can’t just stroll through and see for themselves.) Something that is infeasible to directly experience.

The other discussion where this problem weighs heavily on me is the recent publicity blitz over guns being bought in America and smuggled to Mexico to be used by their drug cartels:

The fact is that out of 29,000 firearms picked up in Mexico over the last two-year period for which data is available, 5,114 of the 6,000 traced guns came from the United States. While that is 90% of traced guns, it means that only 17% of recovered guns come from the United States civilian market.

. . .

Surprisingly, a significant number of the arms are coming to the cartels via legitimate transactions. They are produced and exported legally every year, regulated by the State Department as Direct Commercial Sales. FY 2007 figures for the full exports are available here [That doc lists some 10,500 “Nonautomatic and semi-automatic firearms” legally sold to Mexico/Mexicans in 2007 alone. -HZS] . . .

And there are a number of people pointing out how widespread this disinformation is. For their own reasons, many media outlets as well as the FedGov are very interested in promulgating this idea that Mexico’s drug war is our own fault1.

And when you have media outlets and the government (the former ideally acting as an analytical watchdog for the latter) forming a consensus and peddling what seem to be lies together, it’s hard to be sure that we can really know anything any more.

I mean, it’s not hopeless: the entire notion of the (original, conservative/libertarian) blogosphere was disgust with the modern media outlets. And in many ways it’s working: I only know about the “Mexican Gun Canard” because a few bloggers have championed the cause, backed up by boots-on-the-internet research.

But the fact of the matter is that to gain this sort of less-biased approach, you have to care a lot. To circumvent conventional news media and try and get the “real story” from various blogs and internet sources requires rather a lot of work. And for those who aren’t all that interested, it’s not worth it.

The service that the news media provides that I have yet to find a good replacement for in the blogosphere is condensing everything from the day down in to a compact, skimmable package. You open the paper, read the articles that catch your eye. You put the evening news on while you make dinner.

And I think the problem here is that this variety of information condensation implies a certain infiltration of personal bias in to the format of the news. NC State’s student paper, the Technician, has an unsigned editorial in the paper every day, written about whichever topic the editors think is most important. Interestingly enough, it seems that this same topic is often the front-page article2.

The people who distill your information for you will always bring to the top the issues they think are most pertinent. So, again, for the end-user, non-journalist citizen, just going about his day and trying to keep a handle on what’s really going on in the world, how does he do it? Is there a better way?

I really don’t know.


1. Which it is, in a different way. I subscribe to the notion that keeping drugs so severely illegal grants these cartels license to operate. Big Business might not be too popular in America right now, but at least if they were manufacturing our weed for us there would be much less financial incentive to be as evil as these cartels are.

2. The one exception to this in recent memory is Thursday’s paper which had a cover story about the incoming Student Body President and a large interior article about the Tax Day tea parties, with the unsigned editorial applauding the notion of citizen activism. Because the tea parties weren’t really an NC State thing, I guess they didn’t merit front-page coverage.

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