What Do We Know?

Many years ago, in fact, a very long time ago, people blamed the weather on irritated gods. The gods lived on mountain tops in the clouds. If the populace was insolent, there was a good chance of ravaging winds and storms in the forecast. Lightning struck, fires ignited, houses destroyed, and explanations came forth to understand why. There was that famous incident, way back when, when a whole country was so disrespectful, corrupt, and in general, not well behaved, that a massive rain event lasting forty days and nights completely cover the earth with flood waters. Fortunately, one man was warned, otherwise we, along with all the other animals on earth, would have been toast. Even that colorful rainbow at the end of the deluge had a very simple explanation that everyone could understand.

History is replete with people’s explanations of why things occurred or didn’t occur. We may scoff at those old mythologies and tales and chalk it up to the ignorance of the people at that time but proceed with caution. In the popular TV series, Outlander, the main female character time travels back 200 years and meets her ancestors. The interesting thing is she is a doctor, a surgeon no less. Needless to say, her education and knowledge far surpassed the people of the time that she met on her travels. In her adventures, which included war and disease, she managed to impress the locals with her healing powers. Also, because of such, she was accused of witchcraft. You’ll have to watch the series to see how that turned out.

Progress with a capital “P” is the hallmark of civilizations and we pride ourselves on discovering the true cause and then our subsequent minimization of our misfortunes. Medicines, weather, how rockets get to the moon, what makes a great rum, are all things that we discovered. They can be explained and verified, by duplication by others, in a way that precludes charges of witchcraft. True, not all things can be explained. I doubt anyone can understand the pricing of a plumber or the gyrations of Wall Street, never mind the structure of a good joke.

Be that as it may, it is taken for granted that knowledge is constantly being acquired and the benefits are manifest in our lives. Wisdom, how we use such knowledge, is another matter but is not the subject of this essay. But that brings up my question. How much do we, as a society, know?

This is not a new problem, and many have thought about the subject. These are my thoughts. The corollary to the question follows as “why is it that the more we know, the more we know we don’t know”.  Going back to that doctor in Outlander, she tried giving a reason for her actions and results. But where to begin? The theory of germs, bacteria, vaccines, blood disorders? No, it would be impossible to fill-in all the blanks in their general knowledge or to ridicule the practice of their medical system. The general level of knowledge in the society at that time was not sufficient to instantly absorb 200 years of medical improvements and information. In a sense, the less they knew, the less they didn’t know. It was not that those people were unintelligent. The capacity for humans to learn – intelligence – probably has not progressed in the last hundred thousand years, if at all. The answer in short is, you cannot build the third story of a house until the first two are built.

But what of today. After millions of years of evolution, we are now unequivocally at the pinnacle of our knowledge. Until tomorrow. But not everyone is at the pinnacle or nearly so, and that is something to think about and what that means in a society.

How many people know and understand the latest string theory of the universe? How about genetic codes and how RNA works in every living thing; the myriad of ways money and property can flow worldwide; the total heat balance and dynamics of the atmosphere; the economic, social, political and religious history of our enemies; the amount of rainfall needed to grow our crops; the number of people we know personally and their philosophy of life; the inner workings of our computer or car; the best way to bake bread; what tomorrow’s weather will be; what we ate for breakfast this morning?

I’m sure we all fit somewhere in the range of knowledge from the universe to breakfast. What is the point? Well, if my life, or next meal depended on knowing and understanding the latest string theory of the universe, I’m afraid I would not survive. On the other end, I do remember what I had for breakfast. But our lives, as an organized society, does rely on a certain level of knowledge and understanding that is common to the vast majority of the population. At that level we can function coherently, economically and certainly in a “democratic” way. Isn’t that the justification for universal primary education?

I should also say that “knowledge” is much more than “facts”. It is an organized way of thinking and relating those facts together. Facts alone do not constitute knowledge.

Concretely, we understand modern medicine in a way that people 200 years ago didn’t and so accept the fact that swallowing an aspirin is not considered witchcraft (for most people). Our longevity and wellness depends on this. This is not to say we have complete knowledge of all medical procedures. There is still a tomorrow.

What happens when the gap between the general knowledge and understanding of a subject and the pinnacle of understanding  the same subject becomes a wide chasm? What happens when the subject becomes so arcane and nuanced that it becomes difficult, or even impossible, for the general population to understand and follow? If that knowledge propels or impacts society in directions that can’t easily be explained because of that chasm, does the feeling of losing control, of being manipulated, and of frustration grow? I think it does. In the case of the Outlander, she was accused of witchcraft. In today’s parlance, it might be called Fake News or Deep State conspiracies.

The first reaction may be to say that that it is a problem of communication by those with the advanced or pinnacle knowledge. They did not explain their positions and so they are at fault when they are accused of witchcraft. But as the doctor asked, how do you condense 200 years of medicine into a few words of reassurance? Witches, of course, always were charged with ulterior motives: they paved the way of the Devil. Is it any different today? Without understanding and knowledge we fill the gaps with conspiracies, mythologies and the fears of being led to the Devil or worse: their stealing our money, or liberty, or freedom!

Another reaction may be to deny or delegitimatize those with pinnacle knowledge. Yes, questioning the “knowledge” is fundamentally the way to gain more knowledge. But it assumes you understand the answer. Anecdotal evidence may prompt questions but is a poor basis of generalizing answers. It is not surprising that those with this “knowledge” are placed in positions of authority. Delegitimize authority and you lay the foundation of delegitimatizing the knowledge. But all this is a dead end and not a way to advance and progress to the future; turning back the clock is not an answer. History doesn’t look kindly at regressions.

The first step to bridge the chasm is to acknowledge that there is one. After that we must strive to raise the knowledge and understanding of all; not just the gifted, select, and privileged, or just the young or the old. Realizing, of course, not everyone must or can be at the pinnacle of knowledge on all subjects. But much like inequality of wealth, where some will always be wealthier than others, the gap cannot be so great as to cause a revolution. Bloodshed may be the result of a revolution, while a failed state may be the result of the inequality of knowledge.

I do believe that we are at the point in time that a widening chasm has developed with serious consequences felt by all. Frustrations run rampant.  Maybe the pandemic would have been handled differently if more credence was given to those who saw the devastation to come. Climate change is an insidious problem that is not obvious to those unaware of atmospheric physics. Enemies are threatening without knowing why. Divergent policies in a convergent world need explaining. The lack of transparency is often cited as a major factor for the problems we face. Transparency is certainly important but that implies you understand what you see.

The consequences of the gap in understanding or knowledge are amplified by the technology of interconnectivity. It’s not just our neighbors or countrymen that are affected by that gap. It extends to countries and people around the world. The Outlander had to answer to a small village on charges of witchcraft. How do you answer to half the people in the world?

There seems to be only one answer. To those people 200 years ago, just wait 200 years and you will understand that it was not witchcraft. To those many, many years ago, wait a few thousand years and you will understand that storms arrived not because you were insolent. And about that one man who survived the flood, there were many ways he could have been doomed. But he survived because he understood the pinnacle knowledge that was presented to him. There was no chasm in understanding, he took action and survived. That is what we all must strive for now. We don’t have time to wait for the future.

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