The exchanges in the comments section triggered by Jerry Fresia’s comment and my response raise very interesting questions about what we know and how we know it. To an extent that most of us do not often reflect upon, our knowledge of the world is socially grounded, not the product of individual observation or the formulation and confirmation and disconfirmation of hypotheses. Let me offer, as a start, a few trivial examples and then a more serious extended example, all without venturing into politically or ideologically contested territory.
I believe that Jerry Fresia exists, that he holds a doctorate from UMass and is a distinguished and successful artist. I believe this because I have read it online. What is more, I believe that there is a single individual who repeatedly over the years has commented on this blog, and that this individual is the very same Jerry Fresia. But I have never met Jerry Fresia, nor have I observed him writing and posting comments to this blog, and if someone claimed that this blog persona is the creation of a right wing conspiracy designed [somewhat unsuccessfully, to be sure] to sow discord on the left, I would have no sound counterevidence and would be reduced to ineffectual sputtering.
You who read this blog believe, I should imagine, that it is written by an American philosopher in his eighties named Robert Paul Wolff, but with the exception of Tom Cathcart, Charles Parsons, and a few others, including my sister Barbara, none of you has actually met me or talked to me. For a long time, you could learn quite a bit about this character Robert Paul Wolff by going to Wikipedia, but some while ago one of Google’s internal police force decided the article on me was unsourced and with a keystroke wiped out all of it but the very first sentence. Should that minatory figure revisit the entry, I may be completely obliterated, thereby, so far as the Cloud is concerned, becoming just one more bot.
I also believe that Pelham, Massachusetts, where I lived for twenty-one years, lies to the northeast of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I moved in 2008. Why do I believe this? Because a variety of maps show that it does. To be sure, I have twice driven between the two cities, following interstate highways for most of the distance, but if I were called on to demonstrate to a sceptic the geographic relationship of the two towns I would be forced to appeal to generally accepted authorities, including the orientation display in the driving mirror of my 2004 Camry. Someone who doubts such well-known facts is a nut, a kook, a conspiracy junkie, right?
Well, consider this case. Charles Darwin, as we all know, launched modern evolutionary biology with his theory of natural selection. But Darwin had no idea of the mechanisms of biological evolution. It was the work first of Gregor Mendel and then of Thomas Hunt Morgan that located this mechanism in the genes lying on chromosomes in the cells of living things. [Personal aside: Hunt worked with fruit flies, specifically Drosophila Melenogaster, because they have unusually large chromosomes that are visible using the microscopes available in the early 20th century. My sister, Barbara, won the national Westinghouse Science Talent Search in 1948 with research on phenocopies in Drosophila Melenogaster, and as a consequence during much of her senior year in high school, we ate dinner each evening in the Wolff household under a small cloud of fruit flies that had escaped from our basement and come up looking for food.]
The result was something in evolutionary biology known as the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, given dramatic confirmation and specification by Watson and Crick’s demonstration of the double helix structure of the chromosome. This synthesis dominated evolutionary biology for many, many years, yielding Nobel Prizes and other social recognitions of the brilliant work of several generations of scientists.
There were a few fringe dissenters, of course, as there always are in science, as in life. One was a woman name Lynn Margulis, best known as the wife of the astronomer and TV superstar Carl Sagan. Early in her career as an evolutionary biologist, Margulis put forward the bizarre hypothesis that very early on, maybe two billion years ago or so, at a time when life was extremely primitive and organisms did not even have cellular structures with nuclei, two distinct organisms merged in a process she called symbiosis. One of the two went on living inside the other, and when the host reproduced, so did the visitor, independently. According to Margulis, the essential structures in modern cells known as mitochondria are the descendants of that early symbiosis. What is more, she claimed, such symbiotic mergings continue.
Well, established evolutionary biologists scoffed, Margulis had trouble even publishing her papers, and she spent her career in the sticks first teaching at Boston University and then at UMass Amherst, where we overlapped for ten years, although I am sorry to say I never met her. Margulis championed a number of fringe theories, including the claim that the 9/11 twin towers attack was a false flag operation and that the towers collapsed not as a result of the impact of the airplanes but because of timed detonations of bombs placed strategically in the buildings.
Clearly a nut, right? Right, except for one inconvenient fact. Her theory of symbiosis turns out to be correct, and is now regarded in the profession as one of the foundations of modern evolutionary biology, along with the work of Darwin, Hunt, and Watson and Crick.
I think the specifications in the indictments secured by Mueller are reliable, I genuinely do. Will it turn out, some months from now, that Trump consciously and deliberately conspired with Putin. I have no idea, although I strongly suspect he did. Is the investigation a deep state conspiracy designed to frustrate the legitimate will the American people as expressed in the 2016 election. Of course. Does that make the charges false? Of course not. I think the charges are true. I also suspect that if an establishment candidate had engaged in the same behavior, it would have been buried. Does that mean Trump is no worse than Bush or Obama or Clinton? Nope.
Is that all perfectly clear now?