Author's Note: This is my newest essay published on my blog. I am cross-publishing here, because I so value DKos' many contributors and great thinkers and would love to hear your comments and feedback. I will endeavor to respond to all who post substantive replies.
An article I came across last week got me to thinking about epistemology, the sub-discipline of Philosophy that determines what we know and how we come to know it. Turns out voters in Missouri have now granted themselves the right to skip classes and classwork if the subject matter or presentation violates their religious beliefs. I'm not an attorney, but this new law presumably also means that parents who object on religious grounds to their children being taught the principles of natural selection and evolution in Life Sciences classes in public school can pull their children from those classes:
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"Last week, Missouri voters gave themselves the right to pray without state interference. But some science educators are worried that the seemingly innocuous referendum on the 7 August ballot, which passed overwhelmingly, could also undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Amendment 2 "is a lawyer's dream" because of its vagueness, says Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which tracks efforts by groups that oppose evolution. While the amendment begins by declaring that all residents "have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences," it also lists several situations in which that right must be protected. Rosenau is worried about one particular clause: "that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."
Those words give students the legal right to skip assignments related to evolution if the subject matter conflicts with their beliefs, Rosenau says. And that exemption could extend throughout their scholastic career, he adds, since evolution is not just taught in one lesson but remains a recurrent theme throughout science education. The amendment also leaves a hole in their coursework, he says, as it provides no guidance on any substitute lessons."
What caught my eye was the final sentence, a paraphrase of Joshua Rosenau's comments. The new amendment provides "no guidance on any substitute lessons." So what exactly will those children and students learn about the origins and development of life in the universe? And how will its validity be measured and evaluated against the validity of the theories of natural selection and evolution? The Scientific Method - built around the simple schema of Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment and Conclusion - now has a challenge to its very existence, as epitomized by the broad support for Missouri's Amendment 2. But what shall replace the Scientific Method?
We face a new epistemological crisis in this country. The crisis has been brewing for well over 50 years but, I would argue, since the advent of the internet has reached epidemic proportions. In an age where every URL is created equal and where precedence goes not to knowledge which is tested in the cauldron of the scientific method but rather by which spurious link comes up first in a Google search, how are we to evaluate statements and data to see whether they accurately represent truth or reality?
Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued that the history of science could be explained by anomalies in a prevailing paradigm reaching the point where a 'crisis' occurs, such that the existing paradigm must be overthrown and replaced by a new paradigm. Think Einstein replacing Newton or Darwin replacing the Biblical account of Creation. The point is that internal contradictions within an older established order reach such a fever pitch that the older order no longer suffices. That crisis now besets the very mechanisms by which our culture arbitrates what it calls knowledge. The epistemological crisis is now upon us and it is hard to forsee the new paradigm that will replace the ancien regime.
Were one to turn to the media to arbitrate and decide upon 'Truth,' one might be sorely disappointed these days. According to the Pew Center, public faith in the media is at historic lows:
"For the second time in a decade, the believability ratings for major news organizations have suffered broad-based declines. In the new survey, positive believability ratings have fallen significantly for nine of 13 news organizations tested. This follows a similar downturn in positive believability ratings that occurred between 2002 and 2004.
The falloff in credibility affects news organizations in most sectors: national newspapers, such as the New York Times and USA Today, all three cable news outlets, as well as the broadcast TV networks and NPR."
While the survey says that the public no longer believes the media, one might be tempted to still believe that the media itself still offers some claim to "objectivity." But one would be hard-pressed to find any examples of that. A media that blithely equates statements of fact about Romney (Romney has not and still refuses to release his tax returns) with the Swiftboat slanders about John Kerry (belied by Kerry's service records and contemporaneous accounts) as though the two are somehow equivalent shows how far from credibility the media has fallen. The media no longer has any special claim on the truth, if it ever did.
The old authorities - Church, Academia, Media, Government - have broken down, but no new authority has risen to take their place. Those of us who looked to the Occupy Movement as a new source of epistemological authority -- a crucible where competing theses were tested and through dialogue and the testing of experience rejected or accepted -- found ourselves dismayed by the constant Babel of voices. When the ideas of those opposed to the flouridation of water receive the same level of credence as ideas about global climate change, well Houston, we have a problem.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a very interesting article in the online edition of Smart Money about self-publishing and the demise of the great publishing houses and the thousands who are employed there. I was struck by the author's penultimate paragraph, for it turns out that self-publishing is the material manifestation of this epistemological crisis. When everyone fancies him- or herself an author and there are few if no barriers to electronic publication and distribution, what will prevent a terrifying cacophony of voices from polluting the Commons?
"Self-publishing will produce a tsunami of books. Very few will be financial successes. Very few will be any good. Sifting your way through the chaff for the wheat will be much harder than browsing through a bookstore. I suspect the best-selling few, like Fifty Shades of Rubbish, will "crowd out" the rest. Once upon a time Internet cheerleaders talked about the so-called "fat tail," the idea that the Internet would make marginal products profitable. The reality seems to be the reverse: The overwhelming dominance of the few."
I have often called for a latter-day Martin Luther to tack a new 95 Theses upon the doors of the Academy. But now I fear that the Reformation (v 2.0) would not accomplish much. We are, I fear, destined to live through an age of epistemological anarchy for many years to come. The Scientific Method, that system of knowledge which ushered in vaccines, space travel and good nutrition may become simply another cult among many other cults of knowledge. More to be pitied, I suppose. But again, how shall we evaluate the world we live in and representations about it for their truthfulness? How will we know what we know?