Consider the following statements:

  1. Neil Armstrong never landed on the moon but was bouncing around in a TV studio on July 20, 1969, with Walter Cronkite in a nearby booth to report on the alleged event.
  2. The baby baptized as William Shakespeare on April 26, 1564 in Stratford-on-Avon grew up illiterate and thus never wrote any of the works attributed to him.
  3. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were brought down on September 11, 2001, not because two planes, gorged with jet fuel, flew into them but because the federal government had planted explosives in them at strategic locations.
  4. Jesus Christ never existed.
  5. The Holocaust never happened.

Strange to relate, each of these sentences has found advocates somewhere in contemporary society. Now of course there are varying degrees of moral turpitude involved in subscribing, however sincerely or disingenuously, to these sentences. Despite that moral variety, however, they all have at least this in common, besides their flagrant falsity: it is impossible to convince those who propound these statements of their falsity, partly (but only partly) because the events being denied lack analogies to the everyday world of predictable events.

These denials, in other words, are not solely due to malevolence, although in many cases ill will must be present in the person who voices such views. My concern here is more with the epistemology (loosely defined) that lurks behind the inability to refute such statements. In other words, I want to ask: Why , besides obvious mendacity, does contrary evidence never count with people who claim they sincerely believe these assertions?

The reason I wish to describe these five sentences (needless to say, I could generate a larger list) as “epistemic pathologies” can best be seen from an incident in the life of Albert Einstein. After the Nazi takeover of the German government in 1933, over two hundred German scientists signed a public letter condemning relativity as “Jewish physics,” which for that reason had no place in the science curriculum of the Third Reich. To which Einstein dryly retorted: If these advocates of “German physics” were right, one signature would have sufficed.

True enough, and brilliantly riposted. But what an ironic comfort his retort must be to contemporary Holocaust-deniers! What does it matter, they will retort in turn, if far more than two hundred historians say the Holocaust happened? One would suffice if it had really happened. So here I stand contra mundum , brave Holocaust-denier that I am, forthrightly facing the world of false consensus!

The roots of this kind of epistemic pathology, in other words, run deep. I am referring not just to the crazy websites out there, where sectarians can gather to have their views reinforced. The real trouble is, our civilization is saturated with a toxic epistemic atmosphere that turns discourse into a fetid terrarium for generalized skepticism across the board. Such toxicity would include these epistemic poisons: the general untrustworthiness of the mainstream media with their ideological spinning of the news, Photoshopped news photographs, reports of plagiarism by reputable scholars, scientists who lose their federal funding because they were caught altering data to win grants, and so on.

To take but one disturbing example, John Ioannidis, who teaches at Tufts University School of Medicine, makes this startling claim in ” Why Most Published Research Findings Are False “:

There is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false . . . . Simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true. Moreover, for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.

One example of such chicanery will prove my point. David Shaywitz, formerly of Harvard, points to a recent study that was silly in itself, but also easily refutable:

When a group of British academic researchers reported last spring that women fond of eating breakfast cereal were more likely to give birth to boys, the story was lapped up by journalists the world over. “Skip breakfast for a daughter, eat up your cereals for a son,” advised the Economist , just one of many publications to seize on the report.

The problem with this fascinating study? It appears to be wrong.

An analysis led by Stan Young of the National Institute for Statistical Sciences found that the original conclusion was based on poor statistics and is probably the result of chance. So far, Young’s rebuttal, published in January, has received little notice. That it is ignored by many of the media outlets that lavished attention on the original report isn’t surprising; in fact, the most remarkable thing is how ordinary that lack of attention may be.

A lot of science, it turns out, can’t withstand serious scrutiny . . . . Part of the problem is that we’ve been conditioned to trust university research. It is based, after all, on the presumably lofty motives of its practitioners. What’s not to like about science carried out by academics who have nobly dedicated their lives to understanding the unknown, furthering knowledge and serving humanity?

But there is also something more at work here. Leaving aside questions of outright fraud, media gullibility, and PR spin, the lay public must also now take on faith (no other word will do) some very counterintuitive claims by honest scientists, such as the wave/particle duality in the behavior of light, the constancy of the speed of light, the relativity of the contraction or expansion of spacetime according to the speed of the observer, and the origin of the universe in a “singularity” that was at one time, roughly fourteen billion years ago, infinitely dense and infinitely small. If the lay citizen¯a resident of the Show Me State of Missouri, for example¯were to demand irrefutable evidence for any of these assertions, how could he be answered?

But the problem goes deeper than the suspicion that science has turned the universe into a vast Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. The real problem is that almost all of what people claim they know¯and not just the esoterica of science¯must be taken on faith, from the number of planets in the solar system (who, by the way, demoted Pluto from the pantheon of planets, and on what grounds?) to the age of the earth and the chemical composition of water.

How does that happen? That is, how does proposed knowledge come to be accepted as “true” knowledge? To take an obvious example, how did society move from geocentrism to heliocentrism in the seventeenth century? It can’t have been just by looking at the heavens, something everyone has always done, no matter in what century. Something social must have been at work.

Early in the twentieth century a new branch of sociology, inevitably called the sociology of knowledge, burst on the scene that sought to answer just that question. Its purview includes all those social structures and processes that manage this deft trick of translating reported knowledge into what is assumed to be “true” knowledge, quite independent of whether that reported knowledge is true. After all, the social costs of denying geocentrism were once quite high (just ask Galileo), but now geocentrists are on the defensive.

Because it so lucidly explains this new branch of social epistemology, I have long been enamored of Peter Berger’s book A Rumor of Angels ever since it came out in 1968. Although primarily a study of secularization as a social phenomenon, the first two chapters also offer one of the most accessible surveys of the sociology of knowledge I know, a text with such interdisciplinary relevance that I used to assign it in any number of my courses until it went out of print.

The reason this question falls under the rubric of sociology rather than, sensu stricto , epistemology (a branch of philosophy) is because of the role certain crucial social structures play in enforcing what society deems acceptable knowledge.

Now sociology, broadly conceived, studies society under the rubric of various roles that members of a society adopt to improve efficiency of work based on the division of labor, the first example of which would be the hunter-gatherer division of primitive societies.

Let us presume the second division of labor occurred when the first scout was sent out by the hunter band to look for game. It is obviously more efficient for hunters to send out one scout than to have them all traipse about the forest looking for game: the scout goes looking, and then reports back; and everyone gets the same knowledge for a cheaper expenditure of energy.

But what if the scout is lying? Well, why would he lie, since he needs to eat as much as the rest of his small society? Crucially, the scout is trusted, since he would go hungry by lying just like the rest of his village; and this ineluctable reality makes his reported knowledge plausible. Of course he could be lying, as when spies are double agents. (The Trojan scout Dolon in Book X of the Iliad and Sinon in Book II of the Aeneid are examples of how seemingly trustworthy scouts can dupe their own side.) In other words, you never can tell for sure if reported knowledge is true knowledge; but trust must outweigh anxiety if society is to function.

To move from the Trojan War to contemporary physics, we are told that the speed of light is approximately 186,000 miles per second. Really? Says who? How can such a claim be verified? If someone denies it, can he, as the expression goes, be “brought to reason”? Certainly, no one who has not himself personally verified that speed experimentally can hope to convince the dissenter who refuses to budge without being led through his own personally verified experiments. But even assuming a professional scientist had himself repeated for his own benefit the Michelson/Morley experiment (few, after all, do) and also mastered Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, both crucial for establishing the constancy of the speed of light , he would then have to drag the skeptic through these and all the other complicated steps that first led scientists to their determination of the speed of light. Why bother? Why not simply penalize the skeptic with a failing grade, social opprobrium, refusals to write letters of recommendation, and the like? (And yes, I am aware of the irony that I cite articles in Wikipedia, which has had its own problems with accuracy.)

All these factors and more (such as peer pressure, rhetorical bullying, loaded words like Flat-Earther , and the like) are absorbed by the individual in the process of socialization, during which he internalizes what Berger calls “plausibility structures.” By that term he means those social structures¯schools, degrees, peer-refereed journals, reputable reference works, credentials, even white lab coats¯that signal to the individual mind that all this reported knowledge he has been learning is plausible knowledge.

The word plausible is crucial for the sociologist of knowledge, because his concern¯methodologically speaking¯is not with the actual truth of the knowledge he is investigating, but rather with its manner of acceptance. For purposes of social cohesion, all that is necessary is that the individual recognize that, while he himself has not verified, say, the speed of light, its plausibility so far outweighs any likelihood of its later revision that he can accept it as true knowledge in order to get on with life:

One of the fundamental propositions of the sociology of knowledge [writes Berger] is that the plausibility, in the sense of what people actually find credible, of views of reality depends upon the social support these receive. Put more simply, we obtain our notions about the world originally from other human beings, and these notions continue to be plausible to us in a very large measure because others continue to affirm them . . . . Most of what we “know” we have taken on the authority of others, and it is only as others continue to confirm this “knowledge” that it continues to be plausible to us.

Such is the human condition. But if what Berger says is true about any knowledge, very much including scientific knowledge (with perhaps the exception of direct experience, like the cold of winter, the pain of tennis elbow, and the like), it surely holds true all the more for religious truths, especially those based on revelation. Thomas Hobbes said in Leviathan that whenever someone claims he encountered God in a dream, the third-person observer can transpose that claim and simply admit his slumbering neighbor had a dream about God. Revelation, in other words, must be accepted by faith. For the sociologist¯and not just the sinner¯revelation, too, is justified by faith.

Religion, after all, is scarcely less socially determined than language. Thus, if a newborn baby were snatched from its crib in Virginia and kidnapped to Moscow or Riyadh, it would grow up speaking Russian or Arabic, as the case may be, and would be raised in the religion of its putative parents, knowing nothing of the mental world of its biological parents.

All of these insights, and more, from A Rumor of Angels came flooding back to me during the recent controversies surrounding the Lefebvrists. When Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications imposed on the four breakaway bishops, he clearly thought he was beginning the process of healing a schism (which canonically the movement is) but¯much to his surprise, I am sure¯he discovered he was dealing, sociologically speaking, with a sect, which is much harder to negotiate with, for the reasons set above.

Church history teaches that schisms rarely get healed, although they occasionally die out of their own internal contradictions (Donatism, for example). And in the contemporary setting, sects thrive even more. For that reason, I can’t say I’m terribly optimistic about the chances for an ultimate reconciliation with this current crop of schismatics, not least because they act so much like a sect.

Nor do I see any path to a clearing from the epistemological fog that permeates, like a forest miasma, so much of the contemporary search for genuine knowledge. I am certain of this, however: Truth catches up with everyone, sooner or later. As Wittgenstein said so famously at the opening of his Tractatus : “The world is everything that is the case . . . . The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.” We ignore reality at our peril.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, seminary for the archdiocese of Chicago .

Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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