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“The quality of knowledge is best measured by how many people accept it.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Knowledge is defined as a true justified notion that cannot be falsified. The quality of the knowledge produced can be defined as the degree to which it can be proved and justified. What is peculiar about the title’s claim is that it is assuming that the best determinant of the quality of knowledge is the number of people that accept it i.e. the degree of consensus. The degree of consensus can be interpreted to be the degree of agreement among a certain number of people regarding the quality of a particular piece of knowledge. This claim raises the question of whether the degree of consensus is a reliable indicator of the quality of knowledge across multiple areas of knowledge. Furthermore, who should accept the knowledge for it to be deemed of good quality and reliable: experts in the various areas of knowledge or laymen? Do some opinions matter more than others in this determination? It is also being implicitly assumed that the quality of knowledge is objective and absolute i.e. that its nature is stable and that its perception is not affected by people’s ingrained biases and the context in which it was produced. This raises the question of the extent to which the perceived quality of knowledge is affected by contextual factors and the people’s biases. This essay will analyse the various questions that arise regarding the quality and acceptance of knowledge in the areas of natural sciences and the arts.
Although the nature of the knowledge produced in the natural sciences remains largely constant over time, its acceptance can change over time. Theories that were once considered knowledge were later deemed obsolete and were replaced, and those that were initially rejected were later accepted as knowledge. Countless famous examples including Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system, and the works of Vincent Van Gogh come to mind. These paradigm shifts in the acceptance and rejection of knowledge raises the question of whether the perceived quality of knowledge in the natural sciences is affected by personal knowledge, which is subjective and affected by people’s biases, prevailing circumstances and personal experiences.
One perspective is that an individual’s personal knowledge is assimilated by shared knowledge of the whole. If new knowledge confirms one’s personal knowledge, then it will likely be accepted but if it does not, it will not likely be accepted as knowledge. Once personal and shared knowledge align, there can be consensus. When I started learning Quantum Physics in our IB physics class, I was introduced to a particle called a neutrino, a chargeless sub-atomic particle with negligible mass. At that time, my classmates and I could not fathom the idea of a massless particle since it intuitively seemed to defy logic. So, we were initially highly sceptical of this concept. However, once I was introduced to the concept of mass energy equivalence and the actual discovery of neutrinos, I had to put aside my intuition and accept the knowledge about the existence of neutrinos.
However, an alternate perspective can be that it cannot be concluded that the quality of knowledge in the natural sciences is not significantly affected by personal knowledge due to the availability bias towards the few aforementioned real life situations. Availability bias is the human tendency to make judgements about certain concepts based on real life situations that readily come to mind rather than analysing all the facts, which hampers critical thinking and the validity of our judgements. For instance, when we look at famous examples like Copernicus’ heliocentric model and Galileo’s championing of heliocentrism and consider the context and people’s religious biases back then and why their theories were rejected, it is easy to conclude that personal knowledge significantly affects the acceptance of knowledge when, in fact, this claim need not hold true across the entire AOK.
Another element of peculiarity about the title is that it is assuming that the quality of knowledge is “best measured” by how many people accept it. Is this claim true across all the AOKs? This leads us to a discussion of how various AOKs measure the quality of knowledge.
AOKs such as the natural sciences primarily rely on evidence and reason as means of measuring the quality of knowledge and accepting it. Once there is sufficient evidence to substantiate a knowledge claim, then there will be consensus among the scientific community regarding its quality. One example to support this claim is the Alvarez hypothesis. In 1980, theoretical physicist Luis Alvarez and geologist Walter Alvarez discovered that particular clay layers in the earth’s crust had very high concentrations of iridium, an element usually found on extra-terrestrial bodies like meteors and hypothesized in a seminal paper that a meteor impact on earth triggered the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.However, the paper was initially met with scepticism from the scientific community due to the insufficient evidence and the existence of an alternate theory which suggested that volcanic eruptions were the cause of the dinosaurs’ demise. However, Alvarez’s claim was strengthened by the 1991 discovery of the Chicxulub crater off the northern coast of Yucatan peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, in the2010 edition of the journal Science, an international panel of 41 experts in geology and palaeontology unanimously declared that the Chicxulub impact was the ultimate cause of the dinosaurs’ mass extinction. Hence, from this RLS, it can be inferred that consensus does indeed play a major role in the perception and acceptance of the quality of knowledge. However, this consensus must be among experts in the scientific community and not among laymen and only if there is a large body of quality evidence will be scientific consensus.
On the other hand, knowledge produced in the arts is probably most affected by personal knowledge and the context in which it was produced. If a work of art is able to emotionally connect with its audience and relate to their culture and personal experiences, then it will likely be accepted. One example of this claim is Chris Ofili’s 1996 painting called “The Holy Virgin Mary” that depicted a black Madonna surrounded by cut-outs from pornographic magazines and elephant dung. This painting was met with outrage by religious conservatives in New York including its mayor Rudy Giuliani for Ofili’s sexualized portrayal of Mary, mother of God. On the other hand, others argue that the painting actually takes a harsh look at the degradation of black women in modern society and it won the 1998 Turner Prize award and travelled the world in art shows from London to Berlin to New York in art shows. Hence, it was a highly polarizing work of art. Those who emotionally connected with the painting in terms of its social message and its connection to their personal experiences were able to appreciate it. However, the message of the painting could not resonate with those people who were offended by its portrayal of Mary because it went against their personal knowledge and biases. Since personal knowledge is highly subjective and plays a major role in the acceptance of knowledge in the arts, it is almost impossible to come to a consensus on works of art that attempt to perform some sort of social function regarding its quality. Hence, it can be inferred that the degree of consensus regarding a work of art is not a reliable indicator of its quality and that the methodology of creating art that can appeal to a wide audience and their experiences is a better indicator of their quality. The more people a piece of art can emotionally connect to, the more likely it will be accepted as quality art.
- “Availability Bias”, Margaret Rouse, whatis.com, Accessed on 1st November, 2018 https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/availability-bias
- “Alvarez Theory on Dinosaur Die-Out Upheld: Experts Find Asteroid Guilty of Killing the Dinosaurs”, Lynn Yarris, Berkeley Lab News Center, published on 9th March, 2019, Accessed on 1st November, 2019https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2010/03/09/alvarez-theory-on-dinosaur/
- “10 works of art that shocked the world”, CNN, published on 5th October,2018, accessed on 1st November, 2018 https://www.cnn.com/style/gallery/controversial-art/index.html?gallery=%2F%2Fcdn.cnn.com%2Fcnnnext%2Fdam%2Fassets%2F131126151224-controversial-art-5.jpg
- “That time this ‘hip hop Virgin Mary’ really pissed off the art world”, Emily Dinsdale, Dazed, published on 27th April 2018, accessed on 1st November 2018 http://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/39894/1/that-time-this-chris-ofili-the-holy-virgin-mary-hip-hop-pissed-off-the-art-world
 “Availability Bias”, Margaret Rouse, whatis.com, Accessed on 1st November, 2018
 “Alvarez Theory on Dinosaur Die-Out Upheld: Experts Find Asteroid Guilty of Killing the Dinosaurs”, Lynn Yarris, Berkeley Lab News Center, published on 9th March, 2019, Accessed on 1st November, 2019
 “10 works of art that shocked the world”, CNN, published on 5th October,2018, accessed on 1st November, 2018
 “That time this ‘hip hop Virgin Mary’ really pissed off the art world”, Emily Dinsdale, Dazed, published on 27th April 2018, accessed on 1st November 2018,
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