Thursday, March 29, 2012

Doubting the Impossible: Mike Daisey, the Pragmatists, and Networked Ways of Knowing « Social Media Collective:

There’s a lot here to untangle, but what I want to focus on is this knotty question of “truth”. This is a huge simplification, but pragmatist philosophers (people like John Dewey, Charles Peirce, William James) essentially believed that truth—social truths, not stuff like 2+2=4—cannot live in the head of any one individual or system of knowledge. Essentially, the very idea of truth (what people understand to be a fact) is tightly linked to epistemology (how people come to know). Truth is what we find it impossible not to believe. It’s what our minds, hearts, friends, families, classes, races, ethics, ideologies, histories, and imagined futures demand that must believe, if we are to be functioning people in society. Truth is what makes us act, makes us do things in the world to achieve change. Truth isn’t a mirror of reality, it’s what we can’t doubt.

The pragmatists help us see three levels of truth in the whole Daisey debacle. The first—a mundane kind of level—is about the details of Daisey’s narrative. Did he talk to 3 people or 10 people? Did he talk with someone who had used n-hexane or not? Was the girl he talked to 12- or 13-years old? These details matter for sure. The second type is focused on what different genres have to say about truth. Is a theatre story that makes us feel something “true” because the emotions are real, regardless of their origin? Is a journalistic story “true” because we trust news organizations to follow fact-checking conventions that we might not understand first-hand, but that tradition, professional scrutiny and investigative reporting outcomes have convinced us are the gold standard of fact-based public storytelling? Do we trust Daisey more or less to influence our beliefs if we know which genres and traditions he’s using?

The third type of truth, though, is where pragmatists are the most helpful and where internet-based learning is trickiest: what do we want to do because of the story? What is it about the mix of emotion, evidence, argument, and narrative compels us to action – to believe something or do something? What do we want to be true? What do our social worlds make it hard for us to doubt? What makes us act because of—or in spite of—the story? Would we let ourselves believe that Daisey is telling us about a problem that does or doesn’t exist?