Inside Knowledge: What Separates Fact from Belief

The title of this post is identical to an article by Richard Webb in the Features Section of the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.  HM answers this question by saying that it is the degree of belief.  Research has indicated that absent any indications to the contrary when we hear or see a fact, the default is to believe it.  When supposed facts are heard or read that do not correspond to the individual’s belief system, a noticeable signal is recorded in the brain.  This indicates that System 2 thinking has been invoked and this fact will either be rejected or postponed until further information and thinking can be performed.  Kahneman terms System 1 intuition and System 2 reasoning.  System 1 is fast, that’s why it’s the default processing system.  System 2 is slow and requires further thinking.  System 2 is supposed to protect us from false beliefs.  At the turn of he 20th century there were many physical scientists who believed that practically everything that needed to be known about the physical sciences was known.  All that was needed was to add some more decimal places of precisions.  Just five years later Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity.  Beliefs should always be subject to change and should never reach certainty.

Technology has developed at such an alarming rate that there are an enormous number of facts to evaluate.  All of science, both physical and social, is producing facts that lay people do not have the knowledge to evaluate. Moreover, there is a business of deliberately publishing false facts (See the healthy memory blog post, “Lies, Incorporated.”)

The remainder of this post is motivated by the box titled “Where Knowledge Comes From”  at the bottom of the article.  One way of classifying knowledge is by how we acquire it.

Perceptual knowledge comes from our senses but involves significant processing by our brains.  Basically the brain builds models of the world using this information, but it must be appreciated that we do not have direct knowledge of the world.  The truth is that we infer it, and this knowledge changes as information grows.  Everyone should be familiar with perceptual illusions, in which the psychological interpretation does not agree with the physical representation.

Testimonial knowledge comes from other people and media.  Here belief should largely hinge on the source of the information.  Different sources have different biases, as these biases must be taken into consideration.  The credentials of the sources are of primary importance.  Whether there is scientific evidence for the facts is especially important.  Sources that contradict scientific data must be evaluated with skepticism.

Our inner sense, the awareness of our own feelings and states, such as pain and hunger would appear to be highly credible, but some times we are out of touch with our senses.  Beliefs can actually greatly deaden pain in many cases.  Enter “placebos”  into the search block of the healthy memory blog.  (Enter “placebos” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to learn more about their effectiveness)

Inferential knowledge goes beyond actual facts in assessing the credibility of facts, and in making inferences about facts.  Critical thinking is key here.

Beliefs can blind us to facts.  A good example of this is the problem of health care in the United States.  Health care in the United States is the most expensive in the world, yet health statistics in the United States approach those in the third world.  Every advanced country in the world has a national system of health care except the United States.  The reason for this is that the Republican party sees government as the problem and not the solution to health care.  But all other advanced countries have successful health care systems in which the governments play a central part.  The affordable health care act, frequently referred to as Obamacare, used the government to increase access to health care.  It was a small effort that fell far short of Obama’s goals.  Trump promised that Trumpcare would be much better than Obamacare.  Had he formulated an improvement over the affordable care act, it would have been welcome.  However, the plan that was formulated was woefully short of the Affordable Care Act, and was defeated.

Republicans trumpet the value of market forces in health care.  But back in 1963 Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow offered an explanation as to why markets do not work well in health care.  There is a huge mismatch of power information between the buyer and seller.  For example, if a salesman tells us to buy a particular television, we can easily choose another or just walk away.  However, if a doctor insists we need a medication or procedure, we are far less likely to reject the advice.  Arrow also noted that people don’t think they don’t need health care until they get sick, and then they need lots of it.

Beliefs are frequently compartmentalized and this has adverse effects on inferential knowledge.  Here again the Republican Party and healthcare provide a good example.  It should be understood that both parties have religious beliefs, but Republicans are especially strong in their beliefs which center on loving our neighbors, and caring for the needy and sick.  Yet compartmentalization of the Republican beliefs about the role of government blocked addressing religious beliefs about caring for the sick  with the result of increased unnecessary suffering among their fellow human beings

Beliefs are necessary, but they should never be absolute.  They are dangerous in that they can foreclose meaningful solutions to critical problems.  And they can hinder effective inferential knowledge.  A useful exercise is occasionally to try to ignore one’s beliefs and explore the ramifications of ignoring those beliefs.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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