Some Example Claims and Narratives and How We Can Evaluate Them

 In Building Knowledge

This is a continuation of last week’s post about the criteria we can use to evaluate claims.  A claim that meets all of those conditions is likely to be epistemically justified, though if a claim meets most of these conditions but not all of them, then it will still probably be reasonable to believe it in many situations.  The following hypothetical examples demonstrate the importance of each condition in its own right:

Example 1: Imagine someone who reads a certain scientific claim about the human hand relating to the internal neurological configuration that is common to human hands.  This claim is found in a science book that is written by a neuroscientist with a PhD in this field and is employed by an accredited university.  This scientist has a good track record because he has written academic papers in the past that contained claims relating to neurology that have been verified.  The claim currently being evaluated is coherent with the known laws of nature and obviously does not at all rely on any kind of supernatural assertions.  The one evaluating the claim also understands that neuroscientists do studies on test subjects and have certain instruments through which they can examine human neurology quite closely and come to reasonable conclusions, so it makes sense that the source of the claim could be epistemically justified to make this claim.

In this example, the claim being evaluated meets all of the conditions and is epistemically justified.  One should then have a high degree of confidence that this claim applies to their own hand, although there is still reason to be slightly less than utterly certain of this belief as they can from simply observing the basic properties of a hand (number of fingers, the simple fact that it has skin) with the naked eye or common glasses.  This is because one does not see the specific neurological details clearly and unambiguously from simply looking at a hand and therefore one could reasonably harbor some doubt regarding the accuracy of this claim.  Conclusion: All conditions are met and the claim is justified.

Example 2: Imagine a situation similar to Example 1 except that this scientist has a bad track record.  The scientist who wrote the book has credentials and the claims are naturalizable and easily coherent with existing knowledge, but some other claims that this person made were shown to be false by independent tests and investigations.  Due to this, the claims made by this scientist no longer have sufficient credibility for them to be epistemically justified.  Although if all of the other conditions are met besides the track record condition, then one can probably not be faulted for presuming that the claims made by this scientist are true.  The same can be said for any situation where most, but not all, of the conditions are met.  In such situations, it might make sense for one to presume that the claim is true despite it not being epistemically justified.  Conclusion: Most conditions are met, but the claimant lacks credibility so the claim is not justified.

Example 3: Imagine a situation similar to Example 1 except that this scientist, despite having a good track record, is not credentialed by any respected academic institution.  In this situation, the scientist has made nothing but accurate claims in the past and independent tests have verified this.  Despite this fact, this scientist does not have much respect among other scientists who specialize in the same field.  Perhaps this is because the scientist has legitimately come to his conclusions but has done so from some brand new procedures or methods that are not yet well understood or accepted by the scientific community.  If this is the case, then this scientist’s work will probably be accepted by other scientists eventually and this should earn the scientist respect as well.  Until this happens though, claims made by this scientist are not epistemically justified.  The scientist might well be justified to believe in the claims he or she makes because such claims might come from the scientist making reasonable conclusions that come from a certain set of evidence.  But those who simply hear these claims and are aware of the circumstances surrounding the claims, including the lack of credentials, are not justified to believe in them.  Conclusion: Most conditions are met, but the claimant lacks credentials so the claim is not justified.

Example 4: Imagine someone who closely observes people’s hands and uses this information to make claims about their overall health, most of which involve the functioning of internal organs and complex bodily systems.  This person has a practice where she does this for a living and has actually made accurate predictions in the past, according to independent investigations.  She is also highly respected among her palm reading peers, each of whom also have good track records for providing accurate information.  The claims this palm reader makes are naturalizable because they only involve the health of certain parts of the body.  There are natural laws for how the body functions, and this person is just making a claim about the health of some part of the body.  And these claims are easily coherent with all epistemically justified beliefs because they are in line with a basic understanding of human anatomy and the functioning of internal organs.  The problem with this scenario is that there does not appear to be a way in which this palm reader could herself be justified to make the claims she does.  So it is not the content of the claims she makes, but the manner in which she comes to her conclusions on which the claims are based.  Wishful thinking aside, it is obvious that one cannot gain an understanding of the functioning of one’s internal organs merely by observing the palm of their hand.  Because of this, the claims made by the palm reader are not epistemically justified.  Conclusion: Most conditions are met, but the claimant does not appear to be justified to have the belief that her claim comes from, so the claim is not justified either.

Example 5: Imagine a news report about an event happening in Portugal.  The news organization that produced this report has a long history of providing detailed and accurate information.  The one evaluating the claim can personally attest to the veracity of several of the stories that this organization has put out in the past, and there are no known instances where this organization made false claims.  The one evaluating the claim has talked to people from around the world who can personally corroborate several stories as well and none of them claim that the news organization has put out misinformation at any point in the past.  This organization is also highly respected among competing news organizations.  The news report coming from Portugal is from a reporter who claims to have seen firsthand that the Virgin Mary appeared.  Now, assuming that this claim can be made coherent with all existing epistemically justified beliefs, there is only one condition that it fails to meet.  It is inconceivable how something like this event could have happened through a natural law, so therefore this claim is not naturalizable and thus it is not epistemically justified.  For a reporter to make a claim such as this would certainly tarnish the reputation of even the most respected news organization.  Conclusion: Most conditions are met, but the claim is not naturalizable, even if one tries to postulate previously unknown laws of nature, so the claim is not justified.

Example 6: Imagine a situation similar to Example 4 except that the reporter makes the claim that the sun came significantly closer to the earth rather than claiming that the Virgin Mary appeared.  This claim can be naturalizable if one assumes that the earth’s orbit suddenly changed due to laws of physics that scientists simply did not know about but that always existed.  One would also have to assume that the sun suddenly cooled down so that it did not melt the earth, and again this could have been caused by natural laws that always existed but were just not understood by scientists.  So it is possible to naturalize a claim like this, but it does seem to directly contradict the known laws of nature.  There is simply no way of making this claim coherent with existing epistemically justified beliefs.  It would be conceivable for a claim like this to supersede existing beliefs, but one would need much, much more evidence.  Therefore, this claim fails to meet all of the conditions and is not epistemically justified.  Conclusion: Most conditions are met, but the claim is not coherent with the known laws of nature, so the claim is not justified.

Example 7: Imagine hearing someone recount a story that she says her grandparents had told to her decades earlier, and this story is related to the aforementioned events that occurred in Portugal in 1917, where crowds were gathered to see these supposed miracles.  The story involves a newspaper reporter who supposedly told this woman’s grandparents that he had fabricated and published a report of a false miracle in order to sell newspapers.  In this case, the claim that is being evaluated was recounted by the woman about what her grandparents had told her decades earlier, which in turn are a propagation of an earlier claim that this reporter supposedly made.  In this scenario, we can say that the claimant is justified to make this claim and that the claim is easily naturalizable and that it is a coherent claim and that the claimant is also credentialed.  If this confession by the reporter were true, then the fact that he made a false claim about a miracle in the first place does hurt his credibility, but it improves his credibility that he later came clean about this, even if this was only in private company.  The one thing about this scenario that makes this claim not epistemically justified is that it is worse than secondhand information on the part of the claimant.  This claim was propagated too many times in order for us to consider it factual.  We do not have the firsthand accounts of the reporter in this situation.  If the reporter were still around to come clean and set the record straight regarding the false report of the miracle, that would be one thing.  That would be ideal, but this claim might still have minimal credibility if we at least had the grandparents to relate their own secondhand information on this matter.  In this case, we don’t even have that.  It does make sense that the actual reports of miracles, which were printed in newspapers close to the time that they purportedly occurred, were made up in order to sell newspapers, but in this hypothetical scenario, we don’t have enough evidence to make this conclusion.  Conclusion: Some of the conditions were met and some were not, most significantly the fact that the claim was propagated too many times from its original source to be credible.  For this reason, the claim is not justified.

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