Knowledge has enabled us to make great advances in medicine, technology and beyond. But are some things better left unknown? Some think ‘knowledge is power’ but is it always that straightforward? Let’s dig deeper…
Is knowledge dangerous?
Is knowledge dangerous?
Breaking it down: how can knowledge be dangerous?
Suppose you're a rocket scientist working on making missiles faster and more effective. One day, you realise that your work could produce knowledge with military applications, such as how to develop even deadlier missiles than those currently available. This is one sense in which knowledge could be dangerous: the knowledge you seek could cause physical harm to yourself or others, or at least make it more likely that such harm is caused. Now imagine you know that a friend of yours has another friend who has been saying unkind things about them behind their back. You ask yourself whether you should tell your friend about this. Giving your friend this knowledge could be dangerous in another sense. This is because if your friend came to know this person had been unkind about them then this could cause, or at least make it likely they would experience, non-physical harm (such as psychological or emotional harm). Another way knowledge could be dangerous is how some knowledge could prevent us from coming to know something else. To read more about this see Prof. Srinivasan’s article below.
Dangerous for whom?
Thinking about for whom knowledge could be dangerous highlights another important sense in which knowledge can be dangerous. Prof. Miranda Fricker (The City University of New York) suggests that knowledge can be dangerous depending on how it is created or transferred in social situations where people come to know things together. This can be referred to as epistemic injustice. To give an example, imagine that we are trying to figure out what the price of our lunch is. Suppose you are a woman, I am a man, and that I have the prejudiced and false belief that women are not good at maths. You tell me you think the price of our lunch is £10. I disagree, but you are correct when we pay at the till. Finally, suppose that because of my prejudice, I have lower confidence in your testimony than my own in other situations too. By doing so, I wrong you not only by having some prejudiced belief about you, but specifically in your capacity as someone capable of knowing things. This is a simple example, but imagine how this kind of injustice could arise in even more important situations like court cases, in a job, or a life-or-death scenario. Watch more.
Is all knowledge dangerous or only some?
Philosophers commonly distinguish between two kinds of knowledge. The first is the kind of knowledge you have when you know that some fact is true. For example, knowledge that grass is green, that the sun is hot, or that the Earth is round. This is often called 'knowledge-that' or 'propositional knowledge'. The other kind is knowledge of how to do things. For example, knowledge of how to ride a bike, how to play the piano, or how to bake a cake. This kind of knowledge is called 'knowledge-how'. Some philosophers think 'knowledge-how' is importantly distinct from 'knowledge-that'. So, for example, knowing how to ride a bike is not the same as knowing some facts about bikes. But is knowledge of both kinds capable of being dangerous? For example, perhaps it is a mistake to think that 'knowledge-that' is itself dangerous. Our rocket scientist’s knowledge, for instance, does not seem to itself cause harm to anyone, although it could be used to do so. Instead we might think that it is just 'knowledge-how', like knowledge how to build or use a deadly weapon, that can be dangerous in this sense. But this is a tricky topic that's still up for debate. What do you think?
What is knowledge?
What does it mean to know something? Can we know anything at all? And can knowing one thing somehow stop you from knowing another? Prof. Amia Srinivasan (University of Oxford) discusses the different approaches to this topic in Philosophy and how it can help answer our Big Question.
What is knowledge?
Knowledge is everywhere. You probably know what you ate for your most recent meal, your birthday, who the Prime Minister is, and what the square root of 4 is. We talk about knowing things and not knowing things all the time. The verb ‘to know’ is one of the ten most common verbs used in English, as well as in many other languages. In fact, all of the world’s 6000+ languages has an equivalent of the word ‘know’, which is true of fewer than 100 words. (Even the words ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ aren’t universal across human languages; some Aboriginal Australian languages use a single word, meaning ‘ingest’, to describe both eating and drinking.)
Image above: Prof. Amia Srinivasan who studies the theory and philosophy of knowledge (known as 'epistemology').
At the same time, it is hard to say exactly what knowledge is. Just because something is a fact isn’t to say that it’s knowledge. Imagine that you flip a coin and immediately cover it with your hand so that neither you nor anyone else can see it. Has it landed heads or tails? There’s a fact of the matter about which one it is, heads or tails, and yet no one knows it. (Unless, that is, there is an all-knowing God who knows all the facts. But let’s ignore that possibility for the moment.) Now imagine that you really want the coin to come up heads...perhaps you win £10 if it does. On the basis of wishful thinking, you come to believe that the coin really is heads. And let’s suppose that (even though you can’t see the coin) it, in fact, has come up heads. Do you know that the coin has come up heads? Presumably not. After all, just because you believe something and it happens to be true doesn’t mean you know it. Only after you lift your hand and look at the coin do you know that it’s heads.
To know something, in other words, involves not just believing something that is true, but having reason or justification for your belief. For example, physically seeing that the coin is heads.
Justifying your beliefs
But what counts as a good reason for a belief? Think about all the things you take yourself to know, for example, what you ate for your most recent meal, your birthday, who the Prime Minister is, or what the square root of 4 is. Why do you believe these things?
In the case of your most recent meal, you probably remember eating it. Maybe you can see it in your mind’s eye in front of you, or recall the taste on your tongue? Memory also probably plays a role in your belief about the identity of the Prime Minister: at some point, you learned who the current Prime Minister is, allowing you to now recall their name. But what if your memory is playing tricks on you? Now take your birthday: you believe that you were born on some particular day because you were told you were. But why should you believe the testimony of other people? What if they were lying to you, or they misremembered? And how about the square root of 4? It certainly seems obvious to you, once you learn what ‘square root’ means, that the answer is 2. After all, 2 times 2 is 4! But why does that feeling of obviousness show you that the answer is true? Has anything ever seemed obvious to you and then turned out to be false? When you are a small child, did it not seem obvious to you that the sun went around the earth?
Some philosophers, called ‘sceptics’, think that it’s impossible to know anything at all. Why might that be? Take the flipped coin. Imagine you’re looking at it, sitting in the palm of your hand. If you know anything, you surely know that there is a coin in front of you. After all, there it is, sitting in your hand. You can see it and feel it; if you drop it you can hear it, and if you bring it to your nose you can smell it. And yet, isn’t it possible that you aren’t actually in a human body, seeing, feeling and hearing but actually just a brain, sitting in a vat of chemicals, being stimulated by a team of rogue scientists so that it just seems like you are in a body, holding a coin? What if right now you’re not really in a human body, reading this on your computer, but inside a computer simulation, being tricked into thinking that you are reading something on a computer?
If it’s possible that you are in these sceptical scenarios (if you can’t rule out that you’re a brain in a vat, or in a computer simulation) then how can you know that the coin you see really is a coin, or that you have hands at all?
Even if you’re not a sceptic, you might still think that there are at least some truths that we cannot know: the truths of morality. Why is this? Well, it seems that there is deep disagreement, across cultures and history, about many moral questions: for example, whether slavery, homosexuality or abortion is wrong. People’s beliefs about these questions seem largely determined by their particular historical or cultural circumstances. If so, then what makes your moral beliefs any more justified than the beliefs of people in different times and places?
Can knowing something ever stop you from knowing other things?
Suppose that there is no God, and that you came to know this. But suppose also that, once you come to know there is no God, you become depressed, and lose your interest in learning new things. In this way, your coming to know one new thing (that there is no God) stops you from coming to know other new things. In this way, some knowledge can actually destroy other knowledge!
Here is another example. Suppose you learn that girls perform worse than boys on a particular maths test. On the basis of this knowledge, you conclude falsely that girls are worse than boys at math. In fact, the reason that girls do worse on the maths test is because they (falsely) think of themselves as ‘bad at math’. This is a real psychological phenomenon called ‘stereotype threat’. Here, an item of knowledge (that girls perform worse on a particular math test) leads to a false belief (that girls are worse at boys than math), which in turn helps (via ‘stereotype threat’) to make the first fact true.
In these two cases, knowledge appears to harm you as a knower, leading you to be more ignorant than you would otherwise be. But in both cases, knowledge also appears to be harmful in another way. In the first case, you stop believing in God, which make you depressed and, in turn, less able to take pleasure in life, to pursue your projects, and have meaningful relationships. Here, knowledge is dangerous for your wellbeing. In the second case, a little bit of knowledge not only leads you to a false belief (that girls are intrinsically bad at maths) but moreover a false belief that contributes to a systematic harm faced by girls. Because so many people falsely think that girls are bad at maths, some girls perform badly at maths. This is a case of a bit of knowledge leading to a form of troubling social inequality. It is often said that ‘knowledge is power’, but it is important to remember that power can be used for good or ill.
What do you think?
How does the brain learn new knowledge?
Dr Juan Manuel Galeazzi from the Department of Experimental Psychology (University of Oxford) gives a short tour of the remarkable workings of the brain whilst we learn. He discusses how this can change as we grow older and whether gaining knowledge can ever be dangerous.
Big data: does it offer big benefits or big problems?
What do we mean by 'big data'?
When people talk about “big data”, they usually mean very large sets of information that can be analysed by computer to identify trends and patterns. Some examples of big data sets could be a record of every flight made from Heathrow in a month or all the test marks from all the pupils in your school over the course of a year! Since big data is often highly variable, recorded at high speed and received in large volumes, this often means that it has to be interpreted by computers rather than people. This is because the sets of information are too large or fast-moving for human beings to be able to read or comprehend. Increasingly, the gathering of big data is fuelling advances in technology such as self-driving cars and artificial intelligence that could be used to perform tasks such as diagnosing diseases and identifying people suspected of crimes. But it could also be used for other purposes, like marketing products or keeping people’s attention focused on social media. Progress is fast...the latest iPhone’s processor is estimated to run at about 2490 MHz. This is over 100,000 times more powerful than the computer that landed man on the moon 50 years ago! What will this technology look like in another 50 years? Take a look at how researchers at Oxford are using modern technology to create a real-time story of events as they happen...
Big data can help us learn more about our planet
Scientists from around the world are working to share information about the state of the environment so that larger patterns can be identified. This will help predict which plant and animal species are in danger of extinction so that individuals, governments and charities alike can take prompt action to save them. Although there are big differences of opinion, many scientists and policymakers are trying to work together to agree on a set of factors (known as Essential Biodiversity Variables) that can be observed/recorded by scientists and standardised. This information would then need to be put in a format that can be analysed by computers. This presents a difficult challenge since the natural world is so complex and can be hard to summarise succinctly for a computer. However, finding a meaningful way to work with this data will help policymakers decide where to target funding for projects designed to protect wildlife and the environment. Read more.
Drone data can challenge our privacy and security
With drones, it’s now possible to monitor large areas of the landscape quickly and easily, and to collect information about the movement of people, which can be very useful in events such as terrorist attacks. However, some people argue that technology has developed faster than our ethics or the law – how do we make and keep rules for drone surveillance? And what about when people use drones in a way that’s disruptive or dangerous, such as flying them at airports to prevent scheduled flights from taking off? Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs has been working with government officials, drone manufacturers and companies such as IBM and Airbus to come up with potential solutions. These could include creating new laws to limit governments’ and private companies’ ability to monitor people, and designing drones in a way that limits their ability to be flown dangerously.
Image credit: Diana Măceşanu on Unsplash
Satellite data can help us prepare for disasters
In the event of a natural disaster, it’s important for governments and aid organisations to be able to see where the problem is and how many people are affected, and to predict whether the problem is likely to get worse. Satellite images can be used to generate data about what’s happening on the ground, and machine learning can be used to assess and process the information. This can lead to improved evacuation plans, planning and designing better flood defences and drought-response programmes, and even help farmers to have better access to insurance in case their crops fail. Read more.
Employers can make decisions using our digital data
Imagine that you’re applying for a job – but through data-sharing, your potential new employer has quick and easy access to info pulled from every social media post you’ve ever made, every product review you’ve written on shopping sites and perhaps even your history of online takeway orders! If you’re a pizza-loving, ASOS-shopping Liverpool fan who posts selfies from your stadium seat, what happens if your potential future boss happens to be a fashion-hating health-food enthusiast who supports Manchester United? None of this information is relevant to your performance as a potential employee – but what if the people in charge of hiring you make unfair judgements (inferences) about you based on it? This might be an extreme example, but the ability to pull together large amounts of data quickly could lead to those in charge of important decisions making unfair snap judgements about people. For example, there have already been reports of firms denying people loans or insurance based on their Facebook profiles. This is why researchers such as Prof. Sandra Wachter (University of Oxford) have identified ‘the right to reasonable inferences’ (eg. not to be judged about your football preferences!) as an important right in the 21st century. To find out more, watch the video below:
Big data can help medical research
Researchers such as those based at Oxford's Big Data Institute are using large volumes of data from sources such as lifestyle surveys, scans of internal organs and medical records dating back to the 1960s to identify genetic, environmental and behavioural causes of diseases such as dementia. In doing so, they can track the progression of these diseases over time and study the effects of different treatments. Working with big data like this can help reveal patterns and trends, lead to new discoveries and generate further questions (source). It's hoped that doctors and other medical professionals will gain a deeper understanding of what leads us to become ill since it brings together multiple sources of information from a person's anatomy to their lifestyle.
Who should control knowledge?
A patent is a legal document that gives an inventor control over who uses their invention. When asked about the Polio vaccine, its developer, Jonas Salk said:
"There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"
What do you think he meant by this?
Are some discoveries best left undiscovered?
Since humans first started manufacturing plastics on a large-scale in the early 1950s, more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics have been produced (source). Plastics are lightweight, inexpensive to produce and durable – this makes them one of the most versatile materials in the world. You can find plastics in everything from clothing to food containers, furniture to engines. However, the chemical structure of plastics that makes them so useful also makes them resistant to the natural processes that biodegrade materials. Plastic bottles can take more than 450 years to decompose! Increasingly, scientists are worried about the impacts of plastic waste on ocean eco-systems (source). Wildlife can become entangled in plastic waste such as fishing nets or swallow plastic debris such as single-use plastics. Microplastics are small fragments of plastic less than 5mm in diameter which can contaminate rivers, lakes and oceans. All of these plastics have impacts on food chains – including humans! The average European who eats seafood will ingest 11,000 plastic particles each year (source). Can you think of any ways we can use less plastic in our day-to-day lives?
Modern lives are dependent on electricity. Electricity is used to light our homes, refrigerate our food, communicate with one another and manufacture the things that we buy. Can you imagine living your daily life without it? Global electricity production is continuing to grow with production having grown every year since 1974 (source) Yet a billion people globally still don't have access to electricity, which is a major barrier to economic development. Electricity access improves healthcare, education, food security, gender equality and poverty reduction. Another key issue to consider is how electricity is generated. Fossil fuels continue to dominate electricity production. This is responsible for 40% of the world's CO2 emissions which makes it a big contributor to the ongoing climate crisis (source). Renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power can generate electricity without emitting carbon dioxide. However, with nearly half the world’s population still struggling to meet their basic needs, it can be difficult to balance economic growth with environmental protection. And so this poses some tricky questions. For example, how can governments ensure that the growing demand for electricity is met without causing harm to the environment and slowing progress to reduce poverty? What do you think?
Naturally occurring radioactive materials are all around you -- from the floors and walls of your homes to the food and drink you consume. Natural radiation is found in the soil beneath our feet and radioactive gases are in the air you breathe. Humanity uses radioactive materials for a range of different purposes. Doctors prolong life by using radiation-based medical therapies to treat certain types of cancer whilst nuclear weapons have killed hundreds of thousands of people in wartime. Nuclear fission can produce electricity without emitting greenhouse gases and contributing to climate change. That said, the waste produced as a result of nuclear fission, needs to be carefully stored and managed to avoid exposing people to harmful levels of radiation. Disasters such as Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986) and Fukushima in Japan (2011) have shown us the devastating impacts that nuclear fission can have when it goes wrong. Parts of Chernobyl are likely to remain highly radioactive for up to 20,000 years (source)! Scientists are now researching nuclear fusion - which is much cleaner and safer. However, fusion is still in the early stages and it will likely be many decades before it can offer a practical solution to our energy demands. Find out how scientists at Oxford are contributing to this research in the video below:
What do you think...do the positive uses of radioactive materials outweigh the negative ones?
Antibiotics are used to treat or prevent bacterial infections. Since Scottish chemist Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic in 1928, it is estimated that at least 200 million people have been saved worldwide due to antibiotics (source). However, antibiotics are not only used to treat humans – but they are also used in livestock. Antibiotics used on farms can contaminate the surrounding environment through water run-off and slurry. Meat consumption is set to drastically increase as the world becomes wealthier and diets continue to change. Antibiotic demand is consequently set to grow. This is a huge problem – not all bacteria are killed by antibiotics – those that survive antibiotic treatment reproduce and spread the genes that make antibiotics less effective. Overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has increased the number of antibiotic-resistant bugs. This has made it more difficult to treat infections and led to the emergence of drug-resistant 'superbugs'. A growing number of infections, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and blood poisoning, are becoming harder to treat. If antibiotics can no longer be used to treat infections, society risks returning to an age where common infections and minor injuries could become fatal once again. Could this be a return to the Middle Ages when a simple cut could kill you?
Fictional nanny Mary Poppins once sang: 'Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!' And in fact, the Ancient Greeks and Romans used sugar as medicine! Today, sugar is used in a wide range of foods. Beyond just making food tastier, sugar plays several important roles in the chemistry of our food. It can act as a bulking agent in food such as meringues or biscuits, a preservative that slows the growth of bacteria in jams and to enhance the flavour of nutritious foods such as rhubarb. A little sugar is fine – but everyone knows that too much sugar in your diet is bad for you, right? Consuming too much sugar can increase the risk of obesity which in turn increases the risk of developing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Despite this, according to a report by the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, people in the UK consume nearly three times the recommended amount of sugar each day. In the United Kingdom, 29% of adults are classified as obese (source) - with obesity responsible for an estimated 30,000 deaths each year (source). This raises questions about how to tackle excessive sugar consumption. Should governments tax sugar like they tax alcohol and tobacco? Or should you be allowed to make your own decisions?
Many aspects of our world have been transformed by the internet. Billions of people are now constantly connected, businesses can reach customers on the other side of the world and unimaginable amounts of information are now more available than ever. Without the internet, you wouldn’t be reading this right now! But as our lives become increasingly entangled with cyberspace is the internet causing more problems than it is solving? Social media sites have become platforms for bullying. Fake news promotes prejudices. There are even concerns about how the Internet affects democracy (i.e the way that we vote for a government to represent us). Cybersecurity is one of the biggest issues of the 21st centuries – industries, countries and individuals are all vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Having your credit card details stolen can be inconvenient – but cyber-attacks on nuclear power stations, electricity grids and military installations can have very serious consequences. In 2007, Estonia suffered multiple and sustained cyber-attacks across the country (source). Cash machines stopped working, media outlets couldn’t publish newspapers and government employees could not communicate with one another. To delve deeper into the key debates surrounding whether the Internet has helped or hindered society, take a look at our Big Question: Is the Internet bad?
Image credit: The Internet of Things by Gary Stevens
Is knowledge power?
What's the difference between scientific and indigenous knowledge and does one have more power than the other? Dr Constance McDermott from the Environmental Change Institute (University of Oxford) discusses this distinction and how it affects our ability to tackle real-world problems such as rainforest loss.
Why are knowledge and power connected?
Well, in most situations, in order to have power over someone or the power to do something, you either have to know something about the person or thing that you're trying to influence. Likewise, if you already have power, one of the ways of being recognised as more knowledgeable than others is if what you say seems more valid.
When it comes to the environment there are many disagreeing opinions and voices. The Internet has brought an explosion of knowledge sources, but who do we believe and why? According to Dr Constance McDermott from the Environmental Change Institute (University of Oxford), the answer varies depending on who we are, what the context is, and who the knowledge comes from.
Indigenous knowledge or scientific knowledge
We’re used to considering rainforest loss as a ‘global problem’ that affects us all. But can our knowledge and understanding of how to deal with the crisis be any match for the experience and knowledge of the people who live in the middle of it?
Dr McDermott explains that within the international environmental community, there is “an increasing division in ways of thinking about knowledge that is scientific, and indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is often either ignored or used to serve other interests.”
What do we mean by these different types of knowledge?
Indigenous knowledge can be understood as ‘the accumulated experience, wisdom and know-how unique to nations, societies, and or communities of people, living in specific ecosystems’ (source). Indigenous knowledge is based on relationships between humans, non-humans and the environment and is validated through ‘subjective’ experience, stories, songs, ceremonies, dreams, and observations (source).
Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is often described as ‘objective’, based on what can be observed directly by sight, sound, smell or touch, and is validated using universal measurements.
The problem is that scientific knowledge does not hold the same level of importance with everyone and scientists often disagree with each other.
Plus, it’s not as straightforward, accurate or fair to say that one type of knowledge (i.e. scientific vs indigenous) has more worth than the other. In fact, Dr McDermott argues that policies and strategies to protect the environment can never fully be based on science as they must also be based on a certain set of values, although which values are more important is hotly debated.
An example of how both knowledge sources can inform each other can be found in the words of Raoni Metuktire who is an environmentalist and chief of the indigenous Brazilian Kayapó people. Below he describes the impact that deforestation, mining and agriculture are having on people living in the Amazon:
'We call on you to stop what you are doing, to stop the destruction, to stop your attack on the spirits of the Earth. When you cut down the trees you assault the spirits of our ancestors. When you dig for minerals you impale the heart of the Earth. And when you pour poisons on the land and into the rivers – chemicals from agriculture and mercury from gold mines – you weaken the spirits, the plants, the animals and the land itself. When you weaken the land like that, it starts to die. If the land dies, if our Earth dies, then none of us will be able to live, and we too will all die’ (source).
In the points that he makes, Metuktire, arguably, demonstrates how indigenous and scientific knowledge are not independent of each other; there are several areas of overlap. What do you think?
So why isn’t indigenous knowledge drawn upon more by those in power?
To answer this question, we have to think about who is setting the agenda and who holds power. This could be government representatives, environmental groups, or academics. They will have their own ideas of what sorts of knowledge they find useful to their cause. This is assuming they all have a particular agenda, and one key problem is that this agenda may not always be agreed upon by everyone.
Dr McDermott points out that “if you're trying to act on a global or national scale, the types of knowledge you can use are different to the types of knowledge that are useful at a local level. So regardless of your agenda -- whether you're working for an environmental charity or a big oil company -- if you want to have control over situations in a distant location like the Amazon, you're going to favour more formal [scientific] systems of knowledge and standardisation of laws.”
Another problem is that rainforest management schemes are often informal, or part of a traditional system. For instance, as Dr McDermott explains, “a logger who lives close to the forest, probably has a lot of knowledge about what it takes to protect and maintain their livelihood. The way they use the forest may be perfectly sustainable”. This means that they have learned to work in a way that causes little or no damage to the local environment. Their logging activities might be less intensive or self-sufficient, which means that they are able to provide enough to take care of the local community without the need for help from elsewhere. “But if these activities don’t follow internationally set standards, their knowledge is de-legitimised and becomes invisible to the climate activist based in the UK or beyond.” This is because it’s likely that the climate activists’ agenda is to create change at the global or national level.
The power of money
An idea that is sometimes put forward, is that problems in tropical countries are often caused by poverty. According to this line of thinking, poorer people don't have many options and so this can lead to actions/activities which destroy the resources that are available to them. But McDermott says that in reality, it's the interests of wealthy corporations and governments which are driving changes in land use across the world, and not the behaviours of individuals. “Increasingly, the main motivation behind deforestation globally is the increased demand for specific products (e.g. palm oil, cocoa) and need for commercial agriculture, not local farmers who don't understand the value of the forest.”
So how can we shift the balance between knowledge and power to solve issues like deforestation and climate change at the global level?
Dr McDermott suggests: “Question everything but also do your best to try to understand everything. Do your best to understand the full picture and pay attention to where power is…We need to be willing to accept that what people think is sustainable will be different in different places. You can't have a one size fits all system and then say you're going to involve local people once the decisions have already been made.”
Dr McDermott and her colleagues are currently developing an app which can trace the origins of products and aims to help consumers make more informed and ethical choices. To learn more about Dr McDermott’s research, take a look at the video below:
So what do you think... does knowledge give a person power, and can this combination of power and knowledge ever be dangerous?
Is knowledge | dangerous?Vote now