How do we find out what we believe in, or what are the methods that we have of knowing? According to Peirce (1877), there are four methods of knowing information, method of authority, method of tenacity, a priori method, and the scientific method. I will review each one of them, and consider how they impact our learning and how we can influence them through our teaching. I will consider the method of tenacity and the a priori method first. In both the method of tenacity and the a priori method, there is often no way to identify where the knowledge or the belief came from, it just is. The fundamental difference is the willingness to change a belief.
In the a priori method, the belief is there because it seems reasonable and rational within the cultural context of the day. Our society has certain beliefs that we accept, without question, simply because our society holds to those beliefs. As an example, in our modern democracies, we all know that democracy is the best form of government - at least until something better comes along. We don’t question that belief, and it becomes one of the assumptions that we live with. It is reasonable, and we have no reason to question it. If asked, we usually have no idea where the belief came from, it just is. We accept it as a part of our belief system without close examination or consideration, we accept it before (a priori) really thinking about it. It is one of the beliefs that we simply have.
Like beliefs that could be classified as a priori, beliefs that fall under the banner of the method of tenacity don’t usually have an identifiable source. Method of tenacity beliefs are just beliefs that we acquire. How they differ from a priori beliefs is our unwillingness to abandon these beliefs in light of new evidence.
Beliefs that become method of tenacity beliefs allow us to live in a fixed world. A world that doesn’t change and our beliefs reflect that world. For most of us, gravity is a constant that never changes. Through inductive reasoning, practiced from an early age, we fix in our minds our belief about gravity. It allows us to contextualize our physical world, and we can be secure that our belief system, along with the fixed physical properties that our belief represents, will provide us with a stable world through which we can live and move. Evidence available from the world of advanced theoretical physics that tells us that gravity isn’t exactly what we believe it has virtually no impact on how we live our lives in the physical world. It has virtually no impact on our belief in gravity and the pragmatic effects it has on our physical beings. Our belief in gravity is a fixed belief that we don’t change, and it allows us to live in a fixed and settled world.
Examples of method of tenacity beliefs that are problematic are racial biases and bigotry. Although they allow people to live in a fixed and unchanging world, these beliefs are founded on falsehoods and cause no end of problems. Because they are fixed and people refuse to change them, in spite of evidence, the problems that attend adherence to these beliefs can be extremely problematic.
One of the sources of problems with any false beliefs, but especially ones that are classified as method of tenacity beliefs, is that people seek out others who hold to the same beliefs in order to validate their beliefs. In this day and age, the internet allows people to gather in larger and larger clusters to support false beliefs, and keep their belief system protected from the inconvenience of evidence that might cause someone to question what he or she believes in.
Changing either a priori or method of tenacity belief systems is difficult. In order to address deeply held belief systems, people have to begin to understand their thought processes. They have to begin to understand that not everything that they think is necessarily true. They have to begin to think about where their thoughts come from. In our current education system, although beliefs are challenged, thinking about where the beliefs come from is never a question that is asked.
A child who watches when a bit of sodium is placed in water that then bursts into flames has a belief system that is thrown into turmoil. Things shouldn’t burn in water. When this is shown to a child in our current education system, the observation is simply filed away as something new that they learned. Rarely, if ever, are opportunities taken to explore where beliefs might come from. Instead, a new fact is simply introduced that is memorized and filed away for future reference. A belief is slightly altered to include exceptions but basically remains essentially the same.
When a person encounters evidence that runs counter to deeply held belief systems, negative emotions arise. Nobody wants to be wrong. Rather than dealing with new information and carefully considering the evidence, most people will simply reject the new information and fall comfortably back onto their old belief systems.
In teaching, we can begin to lay the groundwork for thinking about where our belief systems come from when the beliefs are concrete and the evidence is easily observed. However, really considering our thoughts and thought processes requires abstract thinking, something that doesn’t emerge until the frontal lobe neurons are in the process of undergoing or completed myelination. This process relies on the hormones that become active with adolescence and is completed between late teens and young adulthood (the late twenties for males).
The ability to self-correct is available once someone can understand and manipulate abstract thoughts. Self-correction is one of the abilities that underlie critical thinking. Something that isn’t actually taught in higher education, but is simply assumed (it is a skill that must be taught). Even worse, the learning of critical thinking is largely context dependent. This means that when someone learns to think critically, the abilities that underlie critical thinking are tied to the context in which they are learned. Just because someone can think critically about economics does not enable them to think critically in other contexts. They must be exposed to other contexts and coached on using their economic critical thinking skills in the new context. After doing this in a couple of different contexts, the skills become transferable, and someone can apply his or her critical thinking skills in any context.
A lofty goal, but only achieved in a single area about 50% of the time and made transferable in fewer than 10% of people. Something we need to work on.
The third method to consider is the method of authority. The method of authority encompasses the beliefs that we acquire because someone we trust (a trusted source) has told us about something. Most of the knowledge we have, and most of our beliefs, are acquired through the method of authority. Even our beliefs that we would classify as a priori and method of tenacity, are acquired because someone we trust has told us, in some form, the information.
When we are told something from a trusted source that we have no reason to disbelieve, we are acquiring information through the method of authority. Traditionally, the trusted sources in our society are parents, teachers, ministers, news sources, politicians, etc. More recently, the internet (surfing, blogs, facebook, twitter, LinkedIn - which is, at least this part, a reliable trusted source - etc.) has taken on an increasingly important role as a trusted source. In the absence of an understanding of how to evaluate the veracity of a source, something that must be learned and practiced (can’t happen in our world of education, because there’s too much content to cover), we live in an age where false beliefs are accepted and incorporated at an unprecedented rate in the general population. Fake news has become a new tool for politicians - not the fake news itself, but the phrase, which covers anything the politicians don’t agree with. Which brings us to the final method of acquiring belief systems – the scientific method.
The scientific method of acquiring knowledge (or beliefs) is really quite simple, even though it has become shrouded in misconceptions. The scientific method really involves four steps.
Make an observation – measure something.
Evaluate that measurement in light of what we already know about what you have measured.
Publish the measurement and the evaluation that has been carried out.
Listen to and respond to the feedback that you receive about the measurements that you have made and the evaluation you have published.
Simple really – measure, evaluate, publish, and then listen. This cycle of acquiring knowledge means that the community studying something will go through cycles of understanding, as they incorporate new findings into the communal understanding of something.
The scientific method works and has resulted in a world that is awash with findings and understanding that have arisen through the scientific method of acquiring knowledge. We used it to put a man on the moon! This method can (and has) been derailed at any step. If the measurements are not precise, if an evaluation is biased or flawed for any reason, if the publication of methods and results is prevented (something that happens increasingly in the proprietary world of corporate or secret government research programmes), or if the feedback to the community is not incorporated.
In addition, the scientific method can be undermined if there is distrust in the method itself. Think about the popular (movies, books, magazines) portrayal of scientists. They are almost always negative, with the scientists portrayed as evil, stupid, or conniving. Politicians (trusted sources) are also increasingly undermining the scientific method as a means to acquire beliefs.
As a result, the primary method of acquiring beliefs in our society today is the method of authority. This means that individuals have no choice but to rely on a trusted source, and we (the educators) have not taught students how to evaluate sources for veracity (too much content). Is it any wonder that we have huge swaths of the populace embroiled in scientific controversies for which there is no controversy? This societal problem must be laid squarely on our shoulders. Higher education is 100% responsible, and, for the most part, has no intention of changing anything in order to fix it.
We can, and must, do better. At least we can teach our students transferable critical thinking skills (the willingness to self-correct) and how to evaluate a source against available evidence.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.