On the Sources of Knowledge

Who to trust?

If I was pressed, as I sometimes am, to single out the most valuable lesson I have learned in my time at Harvard it would have to be this: Harvard has taught me to distinguish between drinkable waters and toxic ones.

By this I mean something very simple—that there are many sources of information in this world, and that choosing which ones to trust is one of the most important decisions a person can make. In ours, the heralded age of information, where content is so plentiful, it can be tempting to try to gulp down a waterfall, when instead one ought to prioritize finding a suitable filter.

I have several friends who are conspiracy theorists. People who will sit and explain to me that it is almost impossible that 9/11 was anything but an inside job. They will explain the inner workings of the Illuminati and how money itself is a fictional construct intended solely to empower an invisible elite. They tend to believe in the moon landings—they are not that crazy.

I also have friends who have sat me down and explained to me in rhetoric disguised as argument why a global Islamic Shariah state is inevitable. They claim, with the utmost sincerity, that the word of God is true and that God has commanded that there shall be a global Shariah governed state—Q.E.D. There are glaring holes in these arguments, but holes are easy to look through if you have the correct vantage point.

It is easy to dismiss these people as minorities (which they are) and as being crazy (which they are not). To call someone crazy is to dismiss them, and to claim that they are beyond reasonable understanding and discourse. We should not dismiss these people.


Furthermore, we cannot hope to understand such people if we assume they trust the same sources of information that we do, and if we judge them by the resultant moral standards.

To make the point more forcibly, consider the following thought experiment. You find yourself in a fierce debate with an interlocutor who has taken some unforgivably heinous position—he is advocating the blanket killings of innocent people, or the needless destruction of resources—choose your crime. His position is clearly indefensible, and yet, he is vastly superior to you in the skill of debate. He can pull from history more adeptly than you can; his intellect is razor sharp,

He has more charisma and knows how to leverage humor in ways that you cannot. Your defensive shields are quickly breached by the sharpness of his spears and your appeals to logos, ethos, and pathos are summarily thwarted.

You know he is wrong and yet you do not have the tools with which to demonstrate this to him or to the world. You swiftly lose the argument.

Now you are cornered unless you can find someone smarter to stand in your place. You must persuade yourself that his atrocities are justified, or else retreat to the highlands of dogma—maintain your morally correct position even though you cannot, in this instance, defend it intellectually. An honorable retreat it would seem.

Until, we reverse the positions and reveal that it is in fact you who is the bigot, and he who is the moral voice. He is trying to persuade you not commit some horrific crime. Suddenly, your honorable dogmatic refuge has become the very thing that makes you heinous and extreme, a conspiracy theorist.

This, I believe, is the situation that many swathes of people find themselves in. Alienated by an intellectual community that makes plausible sounding arguments for positions I have been told my whole life—emotionally, physically, habitually—are wrong. In stations where I do not have the intellectual artillery to defend a position I know deep down to be right. Where to my untrained eyes the styles of argumentation are indistinguishable, and the content opaque, it is difficult to distinguish the charlatan from the sage, to separate the nourishing from the toxic. It is easy to be confused by charismatic arguments for terrible positions.

I hope this is a sermon on gratitude. We speak often of privilege, but perhaps we neglect one of the most basic forms of privilege afforded to the educated classes—the ability to defend one's intellectual property against the invasions of rogue attackers.

This is also not just a diatribe about mass media or global education, which are both formidable undertakings. But it does raise an important point. Walking through an intellectual arena without the proper training will leave you just as paranoid, skeptical, and distrusting of your surroundings as you would be walking down a dark alley without any means of defense. It should come as no surprise that so many resort to protectionism and dogma. We drink from the streams we trust.

Awais Hussain ’15 is a joint philosophy and physics concentrator in Eliot House. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. 


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