Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

How We Know What We Know

A Personal Journey

What does it mean to say, “I know?” The way that we answer that question matters. It matters a lot.

Where to start a series of articles about one of the most basic questions ever? This question is actually a juxtaposition of two different questions. On the one hand it could refer to the sort of show you might see on a documentary channel like Discovery. “How do we know that the Earth is round?” “How do we know that dinosaurs once roamed the planet?” “How do we know that when the refrigerator door is closed the light goes off?” That is a very practical kind of question inviting all manner of authoritative commentary bolstered by all sorts of evidence, all photogenic and shot in HD, of course.

But there is a second suite of issues to which the question might refer. When I was an undergraduate at Rice University in the 1970’s I became intrigued with epistemology, the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the nature of knowledge. It is a fascinating topic. I took several classes, read books ranging from Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” to Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” to Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and I thought. The time was well spent but in the end two things bothered me: (1) After a few thousand years the philosophical community has yet to even reach a consensus on what knowledge is, much less on how to obtain it; and (2) There is often a huge gap between philosophers’ arguments and the answers to practical questions like, “Is it really a good idea to get on this airplane?”

Over the years that followed I earned a PhD in Space Physics and Astronomy, then went on to have an exciting and successful career as an astrophysicist working as part of teams responsible for the Hubble Space Telescope.  Along the way, though, I kept returning to that same question. “How do we know what we know?” But now my perspectives were rooted in hard experience and the question had changed to one of immediate and practical importance. “What is the best way to approach knowledge when that knowledge has real consequences?” It turns out that when posed in that fashion the question has real answers.

Here are a few things that I know:

  1. There are questions about which our opinions simply do not matter. There is a world out there that exists independently of what we think is true. That world is sublimely indifferent to our opinions, our wishful thinking, or how loudly we shout at the audiences of cable news channels. You would think that this would go without saying, but it doesn’t.
  2. Since the world doesn’t arrange itself to match our ideas it is up to us to arrange our ideas to better match the world. (Again, you would think this would be apparent.)
  3. There are some practical rules for arriving at knowledge that work wildly better than others.
  4. Most of the time people don’t apply those rules. In fact, people’s brains are programmed not to apply those rules. As a result a great deal of what people claim to “know” is, quite simply, wrong.
  5. Point 4 is a damned shame because all of this matters and it matters a lot! Whether acting as individuals, corporations, governments, or anything in between, our biggest blunders are usually caused by confusing what is we think is true with what really is true.
  6. In today’s world where things are changing at an ever-faster pace and the stakes always seem to be high those blunders increasingly bring with them a price that is higher than we can really afford to pay.

How We Know What We Know ^ A Personal Journey  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Reality Straight Up!

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    Science, politics and a march in the rain

    On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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    When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

    Read Article

  • The Hermeneutics of Bunk
    Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eye

    Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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    Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”

    Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Our Need to Know
    We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusion

    The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

    Read Article

  • A Saguaro’s universe
    Building a cactus starts with the Big Bang

    The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Oklahoma Skies
    To all the amateurs out there, thanks!

    Looking at room full of amateur astronomers, gathered for the Okie-Tex Star Party under the spectacularly dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I am reminded of my own roots and those who helped me discover the universe.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Fight-or-Flight
    How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threats

    A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.

    Read Article

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    Science and the experience of wonder

    Alone, 100 feet underwater, with a shark in its element, I am overwhelmed by a mixture of awe, beauty, joy, and intellectual wonder at the world that brings us together. In that moment, I experience just what science is all about.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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    Chaos is a sticky wicket for science. There are things a correct theory like climate change cannot predict, but there are a lot of things that it can. It’s important to understand which is which.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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    Read Article

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    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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Recent Article Mobile

  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your Consideration
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your Consideration
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughts
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Oklahoma Skies  To all the amateurs out there, thanks!Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Fight-or-Flight  How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threatsPosted in Coaching
  • In a Shark’s Eye  Science and the experience of wonderPosted in For Your Consideration
  • The Quandry of Unpredictability  Chaos, climate and an unpredictable futurePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Why I March for SciencePosted in Thoughts
  • Waiting for Skynet  The benefits of being a machinePosted in For Your Consideration
  • On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

  • Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Looking at room full of amateur astronomers, gathered for the Okie-Tex Star Party under the spectacularly dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I am reminded of my own roots and those who helped me discover the universe.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.

  • Alone, 100 feet underwater, with a shark in its element, I am overwhelmed by a mixture of awe, beauty, joy, and intellectual wonder at the world that brings us together. In that moment, I experience just what science is all about.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Chaos is a sticky wicket for science. There are things a correct theory like climate change cannot predict, but there are a lot of things that it can. It’s important to understand which is which.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, people around the nation will March for Science. It seems strange to need to march in support of the idea that pronouncements from politicians cannot change the nature of reality, or that evidence matters when making decisions. But such are the peculiar times in which we live.

  • For biological organisms, interstellar travel is hopelessly difficult, and probably pointless. For sentient machines, however, home is the environment you were built for.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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