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Perspective on knowledge: The protocols of knowledge

This article appears in the issue February 2017 [Volume 26, Issue 2]

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We may be undergoing an important revision in the rules that silently govern knowledge. For example:

In August, candidate Trump said that Obama “is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, OK? He’s the founder. He founded ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.” When offered a chance to explain this as a hyperbolic way of saying that Obama created the conditions under which ISIS came about, Trump refused the rescue.

This left many of us breathless not just for the audacity of the lie, but for the degree to which we are seeing—not just with Trump— the fundamental protocols of knowledge breaking down. These are the agreements that have long and broadly prescribed how one comes to knowledge, how one justifies one’s knowledge and how one behaves when challenged. Some of these protocols are widely observed by institutions as well as individuals. Most of them we just take for granted.

Something of value

For example, knowledge acquisition comes with a requirement for doing some degree of due diligence. The degree is calibrated by the topical area and the consequences of being wrong. So, when I assert over dinner that Ricky Gervais played the director in Tropic Thunder, I’m not required to present you with footnotes because so little rests upon my being right or wrong. If, however, I am writing a biography of Ricky Gervais or introducing him at an awards ceremony, I had better get that right. If I tell you to treat your migraine by taking a heaping teaspoonful of LSD, I’d better have done some darn good diligence. (Don’t try this at home, kids.)

Similarly, the protocols of knowledge insist that we should treat knowledge as something of value. If someone exhibits a complete disregard for it, then we will usually exclude her or him from the discussion. It doesn’t happen very often because caring about knowledge is so fundamental. But we have protocols for dealing with constant liars in any case.

 The protocols of knowledge also insist that knowledge be shared unless there are strong reasons for not doing so. This is both so that we will all benefit from it, and also so that it can be examined and tested by multiple minds. In the end, knowledge is something that emerges from social groups and publics.

Redefining protocols

That’s in part because it has been fundamental to knowledge that it can be corrected. We have procedures for doing so that vary, appropriately, from one domain to another. Experimental sciences rely upon the experiments being reproducible. Law courts have appeal processes. Traditional newspapers have little correction boxes they run, usually inconspicuously. As individuals, our ways of discovering that we’re wrong and then correcting ourselves vary widely depending on the topic, the circumstances, our personality and whether or not we’ve had coffee yet. Challenge me about who played the director in Tropic Thunder and I’ll try to beat you to IMDB to see who’s right. Challenge me about something that actually matters to me—did I misquote Trump about Obama founding ISIS?— and I’ll put up more of a fight, require additional argument and evidence and will lose somewhat begrudgingly. 

That’s because of another protocol of knowledge: We are responsible for being as right as we can be. Knowingly telling lies or making misleading statements is a violation of the protocol. But this is quite complex, for there are many nuances that put at least some of the responsibility on the listener. The Onion doesn’t violate the protocols of knowledge by making up plausible but ridiculous stories because its readers should understand that it’s a humor publication. Likewise, we don’t take adjective-laden advertisements or fulsome introductions of public speakers at their literal face value. We are also OK with our politicians lying … up to a point that may have been redefined in the most recent U.S. presidential election.

Protocols do get redefined over time. As fake news becomes more common, search engines and social sites might well introduce their own new protocols for the posts that they house. There’s nothing etched in stone about how much a politician can lie without suffering for it. We’ve already heard Trump’s defenders excusing him because “he’s an entertainer, not a politician.” If that’s how we come to think of politicians, then the protocol will have been refined, and it is on us to understand how much to discount what politicians say. So long as it’s understood, knowledge survives.

Caring about truth

The point of having these informal protocols in the first place is to enable us to have some confidence in the beliefs we hold to be true. Not caring at all about the truth or be willing to fool others for one’s own advantage undermines the very possibility of protocols. After all, these rules are constructions intended to enable us to agree on enough that we can survive together. That assumes that we care about truth. If we don’t, then the rules are whatever you want them to be and we should all be looting our neighborhood grocery stores for canned goods and ammo.

Let us hope that we continue to care enough about knowledge that we’re willing to play by its rules, even if we’re watching those rules now change. (By the way, the opening quote from Trump is accurate, but Steve Coogan played the director in Tropical Thunder.)


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