August 11, 2005

I know nothing

I’ve been musing a bit about knowledge. How do we know what we know and why do we think we know it? I’m sure that philosophers and just philosophy majors have spent years and years debating these questions and have honed them down into a manageable mess. I am not a philosopher and I did not major in philosophy. Nor, for that matter, have I read much philosophy, preferring to leave my mind uncluttered to better appreciate the simple pleasures of beer and baseball, preferably at the same time. So, I bring no baggage to these questions.

My musings were prompted by a book I’m reading. My dad gave it to me, I threw it into my bag and forgot about it. It isn’t heavy, so carting it around without remembering I had it for several months was no hardship. I found it this week when I went digging for my as of yet not located notary stamp. Damn that stamp. Anyway, the book, One Nation Under Therapy : How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance , is interesting. One chapter in particular got my attention. The chapter on grief counseling and grief therapy.

Basically, the book asserts, the long held and widely held beliefs that you need therapy to deal with your grief, that you need to vent, to share your emotions and how you feel about your loss, is a bunch of hooey. The belief doesn’t stand up to scientific review. In fact, for some, therapy simply prolongs the grief. The book notes that the 5 stages of grief that have become common cultural touchstones are in fact a distortion of the work of the shrink who came up with it. The 5 stages were not meant to apply to survivors but to people who had just been told that they had an incurable disease. Interesting, no? Pretty much anyone you ask will tell you (I know, over-generalization but, hey, its my blog) that grief and recovery from follow certain recognized pathways, right?

I paid particular attention to this because of the state my grandfather is in, you know.

Well, how is it that this is thought to be true if it isn’t? How do we “know” something? How can we be certain we know something?

We learn things by hearing them or by reading them. We rarely examine primary sources or conduct experiments ourselves. In fact, I think that for most things, we are probably three or four, at best, stages removed from the knowledge. The experiment is performed and the results are observed. Stage 1. The results are written up in a paper and presented somewhere. Stage 2. The results are then published in a journal. Maybe Stage 3 maybe just another stage 2. Then someone, maybe someone with no science training, writes an article about the report. Stage 4. That article is read or skimmed in the newspaper by the consumer. Stage 5. Public exposure of the article results in, maybe, a television appearance in which someone long removed from the experiment discusses the experiment and the results. Rarely is it the scientist. Stage 6. Maybe you’ve caught the 120 seconds of television airtime summarizing the article that summarized the report that summarized the experiment. And you become guided by it. Maybe you repeat what you think you’ve learned to your friends or co-workers, always with the authoritative phrase, “studies show” without really knowing that maybe it was just one experiment. Stage 7. And then we have public knowledge. Far removed, in 7 approximate stages, from the experiment and totally dumbed down.

That is how as best as I can figure out, knowledge becomes widely spread. At best, for most of us, we get our knowledge at Stage 4, the article. At worst, Stage 7. It doesn’t have to mean that the knowledge we obtain is unreliable, but it doesn’t bode well for a high reliability factor, does it, not when I break it down like this, right?

Sometimes we learn from school and from text books and from lectures from teachers or experts. Again, we are asked to accept the “knowledge” imparted in the book or from the lecture. We are asked to accept it as true. But we all know that information in this context is rarely complete and that information is often distorted by outside political forces. Take, for example, textbooks. Textbooks are often reviewed for “sensitivity” issues, for whether they may give offense to other cultures. In that regard, how can we ever accept, uncritically, anything that ever appears in a textbook, again, knowing that the contents have been, perhaps, distorted? Don’t believe me? Go forth and see what Diane Ravitch has said about some of these things (and then throw up):

*Diane on Math and

*Diane on Language Police.

So what can we do? I think that when you have the time, you should read and read critically the source material that an assertion claims to be premised upon. Grief counseling evidently rests on a very shaky foundation of science, or so the book claims in synthesizing the research of others. Don’t accept the bland “studies show” assertion. Go find out for yourself. Inform yourself, educate yourself, empower yourself.

But do it selectively. I mean, at some level, you have to trust or at least decide that the matter isn’t important enough for you to spend the time researching and you might as well accept what you read. Reductio ab absurdum and you find yourself repeating Newton’s experiments on gravity or learning ancient Greek because you don’t trust the Sophocles criticism you were reading. So, clearly, at some level, it can’t be taken too far. I assume we all, intuitively, know what that level is. If not, good luck figuring it out.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 11, 2005 12:16 PM | TrackBack

RP, you make my brain hurt.

Posted by: Rob at August 11, 2005 12:54 PM

I agree for many people grief therapy is not necessary and even harmful, as it brings back the event or events back to the surface again and again every visit that they have with the therapist.

I don't entirely agree that people shouldn't have a venue to vent. My wife saw a therapist for a couple years and the first year was basically mostly that, because she didn't have a venue to vent it was alot of pushed down emotions etc. that had been polluting her psyche. She couldn't talk to her friends or family, and she didn't want to burden me with it, so she just kept it all inside.

7th hand information is dangerous, just look at the so-called political blogger who bases their information from a blog who blogged about something someone else blogged about from a blog where they read about a news story about....etc etc. How reliable would those "facts" be?

Good post RP, and thanks for the links.

Posted by: Oorgo at August 11, 2005 02:32 PM

Great post!

For myself I found that when I began to attend college in my late 40s that I had to rethink many things that I thought I "knew." Its been a great experience and it has taught me to do some searching before I accept "knowledge" from perhaps unreliable sources. Of course sometimes the difficulty is deciding on the reliability of many sources that I once considered very reliable.

Thanks for the reminder!


Posted by: dee at August 11, 2005 02:47 PM

Good stuff! It (very tangentially, anyway) ties in somewhat to my current thinking about what branch of Psychology really will make sense for me if (when) I get into grad school. I'd kind of assumed that Social Psychology was my field, but the more I read, I realize that SocPsych deals with just this phenomenon -- manipulation of the facts -- whether intentionally or not.

This has lead me to a question that (I assume) philosophers have pondered for all time: What *is* truth, anyway? (Circling back 'round to your post...)

The same world event, covered by FOXNews, CNN, and NPR will read/sound like three very different stories. Which best reflects reality? I know I tend to trust NPR more than FOXNews, for instance, but is that just my own bias at work? (Of course it is, but how much?)

Anyway, the study of manipulation is NOT what I have in mind for grad school, and I'm starting to think that Developmental may need to be my primary field. I'll continue checking out textbooks from the library, and someday, it will (I hope) make sense. The general topic I want to study is this: How do we become who we are? Broad, I know...but it took me into my 30s to really figure me out, and I wish someone had helped me stop wasting time sooner!

Posted by: Allison at August 11, 2005 04:42 PM

Ben and I heard a segment of "This American Life" the other day which I am reminded of after reading your post. The speaker said he overheard people talking about furniture and design, taking what little bit they had heard somewhere that made sense to them and stuck, and then expounding on it as if they had spent years studying it. Then, he said, one of the poeple talking about design and furniture said "Don't listen to me, I'm just quoting from 'Modern Jackass'." It made sense to Ben and I immediately, since we all know how that works. How do we know what we know? Now, when we start talking about something in that manner, one or the other of us will say "To quote 'Modern Jackass'". I think this is one of those memes that's wandering around right now.

Posted by: Mandalei at August 11, 2005 05:03 PM

A politician said it best: 'As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.'

Posted by: Simon at August 11, 2005 11:41 PM

While I do think that the stages of grief can be applicable to all types of grief and not simply the reaction to an critical illness, there has been, despite the authors original intent, to great of an adherence to the "stages" as an absolute and orderly procession of events. They were merely clarifications of what she saw, and a recognition that, for example, it was perfectly normal to deny that one had an illness and not a sign of psychotic thinking. They weren't meant as checklists.

In terms of schools; well that is why so many people are turning to homeschooling. I see nothing wrong with depicting mom with a drill and dad with a fry pan, as another example, nor with teaching math through science or history or all subjects in a more gestalt manner, but to distort history and to teach politics instead of math (as Diane has described)---well that is absurd and deteremental to children.

Posted by: Rachel Ann at August 12, 2005 09:27 AM

Hey! Whatta ya know! Studies show that we're all individuals!!

I'm so not mocking you, my dear -- I'm mocking the "learned" doctors who feel it necessary to categorize everyone and everything. Sheesh.

I mean, really. Take a look at an "expert witness" list sometime.

Posted by: Margi at August 12, 2005 01:17 PM

Just read your links to Diane Ravitch. Unbefreakinlievable.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at August 14, 2005 01:50 PM
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