How Do You Know What You Think You Know?
October 24, 2013 Editor 0
Friedrich Nietzsche notoriously asserted: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Understood one way — that there are no objective truths — his remark seems quite clearly false. However, if the statement is understood as a descriptive claim about human psychology, it’s not clear to me that it’s wrong. That is, if he means that people very often confuse their interpretations with the facts, then he’s onto something.
In my last post, I argued that an admission of ignorance — saying, “I don’t know” — is an indication of intellectual honesty. But obviously many people do know some things, and a few people know many things. The challenge here is sorting wheat from chaff: How can you tell when they really do know something and aren’t just making false claims?
Philosophers have given a lot of thought to that question and have offered a number of answers. I think folks standing around water coolers and sitting in boardrooms could benefit from reflecting on what the philosophers have come up with — and from applying it (more frequently).
Probably the most orthodox position in epistemology is that knowledge is justified true belief. According to this account, one can only claim that one’s belief counts as knowledge if the belief is in fact true and one is justified in believing that it’s true. Mark can only claim to know that Steve is manipulating his sales figures if: (1) Steve is actually manipulating his sales figures (truth condition); and (2) Mark has very good reason to believe that Steve is manipulating his sales figures (justification condition).
If Mark’s justification for his belief is that Steve is a jerk and he looks strange, then it seems to me that he’s not warranted in asserting that he knows that Steve is fudging his numbers — even if Steve is indeed fudging his numbers. Mark is free to speculate, conjecture, hypothesize and so on that Steve is up to no good; but he can’t legitimately claim to know that he is. Similarly, an economist who predicted a downturn for the wrong reasons cannot claim to have known that a downturn was coming. And an HR head who predicted that an applicant would do well can not claim to have known that he would do well, if she believed he was a good hire because he had the same birthday as her son.
That obvious next question is, “So what counts as justification?” There is no unobjectionable answer, and I don’t think we need one. Instead I believe a kind of epistemic rule of thumb — a simple heuristic — can help us solve the practical problem of judging how to treat an assertion: When someone makes a claim, simply ask whether what’s been asserted is a fact or an interpretation (i.e., a subjective judgment); and then follow up by asking for justification. After that it’s up to you to decide how much weight to give the claim based on how compelling you find the justification.
Suppose you’re out having lunch with colleagues and someone casually says, “Max is arrogant, dishonest, and manipulative.” Is that a fact? An interpretation? What’s the justification for that pretty powerful claim about another colleague? Unless justification is demanded, there’s real risk that some people at the table will later on confuse a potentially baseless assertion with the truth. Not to pre-empt that potential confabulation is, I think, to do Max an injustice. And bear in mind that sometimes you’re the Max.
Quite often, simply asking, “How do you know that?” is not only a good thing to do, it’s also the right thing to do.
That may seem to many of you like a statement of the obvious. But I frequently witness instances in which what look to me like interpretations are presented as facts, and, I worry, heard as facts. So before dismissing this piece because you think I’m simply stating the obvious, please test the heuristic by asking yourself: “How do I know that?”
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