Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Personal and Social Knowledge

by Gary Berg-Cross
The topic of personal versus social knowledge came up the other day in a group conversation that I was more or less part of.  The particular spark was a Pew poll that suggested the American public is becoming less religious.  As one can see from the lead paragraph the actual results are a bit nuanced:
..the Pew Research Center study also finds a great deal of stability in the U.S. religious landscape. The recent decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors is largely attributable to the “nones” – the growing minority of Americans, particularly in the Millennial generation, who say they do not belong to any organized faith. Among the roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults who do claim a religion, there has been no discernible drop in most measures of religious commitment. ....
The share of U.S. adults who say they believe in God, while still remarkably high by comparison with other advanced industrial countries, has declined modestly, from approximately 92% to 89%, since Pew Research Center conducted its first Landscape Study in 2007

But the way the group conversation went was a bit skeptical of the trend and wondered if Pew survey methods (as compared to Gallup for example), say just using landline phones as some claimed might be a reason to doubt the results. 
I did a quick search during the discussion to find that Pew uses a variety of methods but just point out that in general only 1 in 10 people contacted responds to their surveys.  
The group’s skepticism is not isolated.  RELIGION DISPATCHES, for example, argued that there are serious differences the way questions are argued that the religion-science conflict question (Generally, do you think science and religion are often in conflict?”) locked respondents into:
“ a specific formulation of concepts. “Religion” and “science,” as we mentioned earlier, can point to a very wide range of traditions, activities, and groups of people. ‘Conflict’ here could refer to a fundamental epistemological incompatibility between religion and science, or to secondary social tensions between dogmatists on one or both sides. Or it could refer to some combination of both. Asked whether science and religion are, “often in conflict” or, “mostly compatible,” the poll participant has to collapse any such nuances and pigeonhole their beliefs into one side of a binary.
It is true that surveys are based on respondent’s individual interpretations and the phrasing in different surveys is important to understand, but for many important topics group or social surveys provide important insights into topics that individual may not have due to a lack of one’s own knowledge, experience or existing biases.
There’s something to be said and maybe much to be said for personal knowledge via experience of something the witness actually saw or heard.  There is something attractive in the strong individual sense that appeals to conservative thinking of self sufficiency. It may be especially valuable if it is reflected experience and tested over time.  

Personal knowledge looked upon this way can be distinguished from what we learn from some other person or source.  In a way this was part of the experience of the Renaissance and more so the Enlightenment.  But only part, because the social aspect of knowledge is extreme important. Science is a social activity carried out by the community of scientists using methods agreed upon by that community’s cumulative experience over time. In Science the acceptance or rejection of the evidence submitted to must be carefully weighed.

Knowledge in the personal sense has to do with being familiar with something.  You can argue that  in order to know the color blue, one must have experienced blue; in order to know fear, one must have experienced it. And gather knowledge by acquaintance.

But much of the world reality is beyond my ability to directly experience it.  What do people believe about the existence of God, or the wealth needed to make one in the top 1% of people in the US?  These are social facts that I don’t experience directly but rely on faithful methods to produce a sharable “fact.” To the extent that I believe in the method by which such facts are gathered I may accept the sharing of them.  It’s an example of social knowledge and when you think of it, much of what we think of as our personal knowledge was been acquired in this social, shared way.

The distinction between personal knowledge and shared knowledge can be summarized by the difference between talking about what ‘I know’ and what ‘we know’. What we as a group know builds a sense of community and makes our relationships last.

In a democracy what we know together is important as are conversations about what we know and believe. And real conversations in political times can be challenging. The prejudices that surround them are so inveterate, that it is impossible to do them justice without entering into considerable detail and nuance, as was touched on in the Pew Survey results. And hearing 2 or more sides of an issue is hard enough in normal circumstances but becomes more difficult has emotional investment rises along with competing facts and interpretations.  You can get on fact checker sites to help but that doesn’t work with all issues and one thing I’ve heard from time to time is argument from “personal experience” that backhands away supposed facts such as from survey and statistical analysis.  I think that it is a mistake and would rob us of a variety of shared knowledge such as historical facts together with historical interpretations that comprise community knowledge over time.

It is also true of economic facts, such as unemployment rates.  Sure I and my neighbors may be employed but what is happening in Baltimore.  I rely on others to understand and report this. Economic topics are varied and vast so the evidence concerning them is varied, but just relying on direct, personal experience doesn’t get us through the problems of knowing.

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