Public debate is always around issues in which people disagree. Is Bradley Manning guilty of a crime and if so, which crime (or was his action justified)? Was George Zimmerman guilty of a crime? Is human activity releasing so much greenhouse gas that the climate will change? Is autism best described as a single condition or a spectrum of conditions? When does human life begin?
It seems to me that a first step in dealing with these issues is for everyone to recognize that he/she could be wrong. Newton's theory of gravitation stood for more than two centuries until Einstein came along to suggest that there was a better way to understand gravity and that Newton's theory gave false answers in some situations. We know that eye witnesses are often wrong in reporting what they saw, and indeed that we sometimes fail to consciously perceive what our eyes are telling our brains.
I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.Perhaps the best way to regard matters of fact is to think of the probability that of fact is actually true. Some statements will be almost certainly true, some very doubtful. Indeed, one might go further to assign both a probability of a statement being true and a degree of confidence in that probability. For example, one might say that there is approximately a 50 percent probability that it will rain, but that that probability might actually be anywhere in a range of 40 to 60 percent.
We may choose to act as if a statement is true even if we accept the possibility that it is not. In law, juries are instructed to find a person guilty of a crime when all the members believe that to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, a grand jury can indict a person for trial on far less convincing evidence. Between these two levels of assurance there is "preponderance of evidence" as the standard for selecting between the claim of the plaintiff and that of the defendant in civil suits.
In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.So how should you decide how true something is, and how much you believe that estimate. Clearly there are many, many things about which you would like to have such opinions. For many of those things, the decision is not very important to your everyday life -- which flavor of pizza is the best, whether Casablanca or Citizen Cane was the better movie, whether other galaxies have different physical laws than this one. Others are very important. If I can't get the pizza I most like, I will almost surely like the pizza I get. On the other hand, if we fail to take appropriate action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and global warming does occur, the costs may be measured in trillions of dollars and lives will surely be lost unnecessarily; collectively on this issue our opinions will sway legislation.
You don't have time to make informed decisions on all the issues that come before you. The approach that we have come up in civilization after civilization is to institutionalize processes to seek the truth on different kinds of issues, leaving the heavy lifting of decision making to the institutions that are created. We construct knowledge socially.
It is easy to see that our own society has institutionalized very inadequate means for judging truth in the past. Political leaders on both sides began the American Civil War believing that it would be short and relatively painless, and each believed that their side would win; that war turned out to be relatively bloodier than any other war in our history; the society that southerners believed the war would protect was destroyed by the war and its aftermath. Prior to the Civil War, most white Americans accepted falsehoods that their churches preached, that many of their governments proclaimed, and that their schools taught -- that African Americans were of an inferior race and American Indians were of an inferior culture.
Our institutions, when they work well, allocate resources to different knowledge questions reasonably, spending more time and effort on those which are important and less on those which are unimportant, avoiding those which are unlikely to yield to existing methods in order to focus on those that are soluble, stopping the search for a specific truth when the search process is facing decreasing returns to investment of time and effort.
I would rather believe the decision of the jury to be true, than try to judge the truth on the basis of a five minute televised debate. I would rather believe the FDA than the TV "talking head" fulminating about the lack of safety of immunizing children. I would rather believe the government and scientific community about the safety of GM foods than adopt the fears of a politician without the adequate training to read and understand the evidence. Of course, in accepting the decisions of our formal knowledge institutions I will make some mistakes, but fewer than by trying to judge all issues myself, each on the basis of inadequate information (from biased sources) and little analysis.
There remains the problem of deciding when different institutions advance opposing hypotheses as true. What do we do when Republican politicians tell us that their truth seeking methods lead them to decide that global warming is not taking place while 97 percent of scientists who have studied the issue tell us that it is? We have no choice, I fear, than to decide which source is more credible on that specific topic. That is why we need to teach our kids "information literacy" -- ways to judge accurately which institutional position is more credible.
Different cultures have institutionalized the social construction of knowledge in different ways, Moreover, the truth seeking institutions change over time. An important effort in every culture is to improve truth seeking institutions. There are many ways of doing so. Science has progressed often through technological innovations such as the telescope and microscope that allow better observation. We have invented computers and simulation software to better explore the implications of our assumptions. Governments are opening their decision mechanisms allowing more people to participate in order to improve the knowledge on which decisions are based as well as the utilization of that knowledge. Western society invented large corporations and professional management to deal with the issues of expanding markets and commerce, notably in the 19th and 20th century.
One important method for improving knowledge institutions is to scan the approaches used by other cultures, adopting memes from those other cultures that work to improve our own. American universities in the early 20th century adopted models of knowledge creation and dissemination from European universities. The former Communist countries adopted market models to signal the scarcity and abundance of goods and services when their central planning systems proved inadequate. The problem of course is how to accurately decide which institutional models are in fact so superior to those we already have as to merit the substitution.
I never blame myself when I'm not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn't my fault that I'm not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?