...called Amy, Baz and Cy – okay Amy is a chap of the female persuasion but this is an equal opportunities post so Cy is of the unpersuaded gender.
Now suppose there are only three phenomena in the known universe and Amy, Baz and Cy understand one each. They sound like politicians already, but let’s move on and call these three phenomena Earth, Wind and Fire.
Amy understands Earth.
Baz understands Wind.
Cy understands Fire.
They all know something about the other phenomena, but can’t be said to understand them because in their universe understanding more than one phenomenon takes a lifetime of study. Sounds like politics again, but still we move on.
So Amy, Baz and Cy have some knowledge of all the phenomena in their universe, but two thirds of their knowledge is mainly hearsay plus a little bit of direct observation.
One day a chap called Daz pops up.
Daz not only upsets the gender balance of the whole universe but also understands Water. So once Daz has explained a little bit about Water, Amy, Baz, Cy and Daz still have some knowledge of all the phenomena in their universe, but now three quarters of their knowledge is mainly hearsay with a little bit of direct observational knowledge.
It’s easy enough to see where this is going. The world beyond our personal understanding and direct observation is complex, uncertain and almost entirely composed of hearsay.
We understand far less than we assume because we expand our range by masses and masses of hearsay. The media transmit hearsay as news to such an extent that we can’t tell if it is second hand, third hand or merely a rumour laced with urban myths. Or just made up as usual.
What to do?
Well the crudely obvious lesson is surely a lesson about human behaviour. Most of our knowledge has its roots in human behaviour, both ours and the behaviour of other people such as those who write books, newspaper articles or blogs. Unfortunately we also need to add academic output to this list too.
Unless we choose to be naive of course. Well it’s an option and quite a popular one as far as I can see.
Mountains of guff have been written about epistemology, but it is behaviour we should keep an eye on. Data and logic are all very well, but human behaviour can destroy the significance of both and frequently does.
So apart from personal experience, the logic of human behaviour comes first. There is no other way to cope with our pervasive need to rely on hearsay.
Not that this is news to anyone, but it struck me quite forcibly at a recent agricultural show. A chap was judging sheep and I'd no idea what he was doing, what he was looking for in awarding the red rosette. To find out I'd have to rely on hearsay or buy some sheep and set about learning the ins and outs of the sheep business.
So hearsay it is.