Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Knowledge as a part of Culture

There are many things that I know to be true. One of the things that I know to be true is that some of the things I know to be true are not true.
My friend Julianne 
The problem is  to discover which things that you know are true are in fact not true?
The things I learned at my mother's knee and other low places.
My mother-in-law
My last post was was about culture. A lot of our knowledge is comes from our culture. That knowledge consists of "things everyone knows". We learn it at our mother's knee when we are growing up, and from kids on the street. Today, young people learn it from social networking on the  Internet. We pick it up from neighbors, or chatting at the water cooler at work.

Sometimes, of course, "common knowledge" is based on things told to us in school or via the media. Thus, Fascists and Communists who were in power in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia deliberately used schools, radio and movies as vehicles for propaganda. Some of that propaganda deliberately encouraged people to believe things that were not true, thereby encouraging them to support the people in power in their own countries, and to support war against designated other countries.

A lot of this knowledge we don't know we know. What is the right way to use knife and fork or chop sticks? We use these implements by habit, probably following routines we picked up as children. We do so unable to describe exactly what we do in words, and almost certainly unable to describe why we behave as if that is "the right way to behave". But of course, one can offend people in other cultures (or in different parts of one's own culture) by using table implements in a way that they feel is incorrect and even insulting.

A package of glucose and salt added to water provides an oral rehydration therapy that saves lives.

In developing countries many farmers farm the way their neighbors farm, feeling that that is "the way farmers have always farmed here". That belief is certainly wrong, and usually there are better ways that could be used by those farmers to improve the productivity of their farms and thus their families' lives. So too, in those countries many mothers bring up their children the way most of their neighbors bring up their own, feeling that is "the way we bring up our children". It has been found that some mothers in many developing country communities have children who thrive while those of their neighbors do not; the successful mothers know something that the unsuccessful mothers don't know or don't believe to be true. Sometimes that knowledge crucial to success is how to use available modern medical services (such as immunizations, oral rehydration therapy, bed nets and/or primary medical care services); sometimes it is how to create a more nourishing diet from sources available to all in the village (for example, vegetables providing needed nutrients or sources of protein).

People pick up cultural knowledge from sources that are legitimate within their own cultures. They may seek knowledge on how to deal with child's sickness from a herbalist or traditional healer (where a health promoter or nurse-practitioner might provide better advice). They may seek knowledge on how to deal with a pest threatening their crops from neighbors (while an agricultural extension agent might provide better diagnosis of the problem and a better prescription for its solution).

This is not only a problem of poorly educated people in poor countries. Some very well educated people in rich countries believe immunizations are dangerous, that organic foods fertilized with manure are safer than the food found in their local markets that has passed government safety inspection, or that there is no danger of global warming arising from continuation of current energy policies. These people would seem to believe things shared in sub-cultures that they inhabit (to the exclusion of acceptance of information from sources outside those sub-cultures that would be more credible).

I am reading Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth Varon. Among other things, the book describes the way beliefs about slavery changed prior to the Civil War. Notably, there seems to have been a belief in the South that slavery was good for the slaves. Politicians proclaimed that as a fact. According to these politicians, Africans needed to be taken care of, and their masters did so tending them in sickness and old age. The politicians denied mistreatment of the slaves, and cited the bible as defining slavery as totally within the Judeo-Christian religion. Moreover, there was a school of southern plantation novels popular in both the north and the south that depicted slaves as happy and well treated within the plantation community. Perhaps those who had small land holdings and a few slaves treated theirs differently than the large plantation with many slaves, but three-quarters of southern white families had no slaves. So only a small portion of southern whites belonged to the plantation owning class, and they had strong reasons to hide mistreatment of slaves on their plantations if (and when) it occurred,

Thus a first step in providing new useful knowledge is sometimes to find out what people already believe to be true that is not true, and disabusing them of their false knowledge. Will that "gore the ox" of the traditional source of such knowledge in those people's culture? If so, you better know that and prepare for their countermeasures. Sometimes you may suggest one piece of information without understanding what it is replacing, and where that knowledge to be replaced fits in a larger cultural context; if so, you may fail.

Before the Civil War there was no tradition of social science research in the United States. Abolitionists tried to fight the perception that slavery was benign or relatively benign. One major contribution was the book American Slavery As It Is, in which the authors collected information from newspapers for two years and used that, especially the ads for run away slaves which documented their mutilations, to demonstrate wide spread mistreatment. This not only sold 100,000 copies when initially distributed, but served as a stimulus for the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The "positive good" defense of slavery survived the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, into the 20th century.

Culture is not easy.

Here are a couple more of my blog posts that deal with Disunion:

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