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How do we know what we know? Fact, faith, fear.


Thinking about allegations of “fake news,” assertions that Covid-19 is a hoax and the denial of climate change in the face of expert testimony and extreme weather events, I began to wonder: How do we know what we think we know? I thought of the biblical quote, “The truth shall make you free,” and its variants, used as a motto at a number of universities as a secular declaration devoid of its biblical origins.
This is a fitting slogan for universities, because they are chartered to pursue the ideal of truth in accord with facts. In fulfilling this mission, universities serve three distinct roles. They are creators of new knowledge grounded in objective study and independent research; they are curators of what is thought, whether true or false, in books or databases; and they are critics supporting pursuit of questions that ask, “What if?” and about fairness, justice and truth.
But how do we know the truth? I think there are three ways that people claim something as true. Some seek truth through empirical evidence that is supported by findings that can be replicated by others. This way of knowing a truth is based on trial and error and controlled experiments.
In this way, we can learn the biological origins, manifestations and consequences of disease. Medical scientists and public health experts explain what they know from objective studies. Their findings can be tested by others and reported in peer-reviewed journals in order to minimize the potential for bias to influence results.
Some others express as truth what they “know” through epiphany, or revelation. They know this truth because they believe it, often because of religious inspiration and teachings. To say that someone believes something is true without empirical evidence is not to cast doubt on their conclusion, but to clarify the process by which they determined what they consider to be true. At times, such “received wisdom” becomes an orthodoxy that brooks no challenges.

Still another expression of a truth is based on emotion, including fear and prejudice. These irrational “truths” can be the foundation of hate and discrimination. When President Trump claimed that Mexican immigrants were “murderers and rapists” he was expressing a prejudice, making an emotional claim, a fear of the “other,” not a fact supported by evidence. His claim was true only as an opinion grounded in bias.
I think that each way of knowing — fact, faith and fear — must be acknowledged. We also must understand that we cannot argue against an expression of truth held by belief or bias by relying on empirical evidence alone. Beliefs and biases are not susceptible to reason — but they can be the subject of ethical analysis.
We must take a stand against fear-mongering, racist rants and lies about public health measures. We must expose the nature and character of the assertions made or the actions taken. As the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” so we must expose falsehoods and discrimination for what they are.
Someone might assert that climate change isn’t occurring or isn’t caused by human behavior, but that shouldn’t stand in the way of taking steps to mitigate climate disasters. Someone else might assert that wearing masks and social distancing are denials of individual liberty. But such an opinion doesn’t give that person license to deny the rights of others who seek protection from a deadly virus.
One can argue with the scientists about how to behave during the pandemic, and the extent to which human behavior is threatening our planet, but we must do so with facts, not opinions based on emotion or epiphany.
By emphasizing the importance of facts, we may offend others who “know” a truth through another means. But they must honor our path to truth just as we must respect their right to an opinion. Indeed, the very foundation of democracy requires civility, the willingness to listen to alternative views. But we shouldn’t allow opinions to negate facts and prejudice to deny freedoms.
So let’s acknowledge that there are different paths to what we consider truth, some based on empirical evidence, some based on emotion or bias, and some based on belief. Further, let’s agree that each of us can hold our position without denigrating a way of knowing expressed by another, unless that belief or bias endangers others and curtails their legal rights. We can disagree without being disagreeable.

Dr. Robert S. Scott is president emeritus of Adelphi University.