What is the purpose of knowledge?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Unsurprisingly, the Madagascar covid-19 “magic” potion turned out to be a faux cure, it has been found. Yes, the potion does cure something, malaria, no less, but it is not a cure for covid-19. I happened on the news while reading Michael Hunter’s 2020 book “The decline of magic: Britain in the enlightenment”. One could not help being amused by the uncanny parallels. Such is the nature of conjuring tricks. They are usually clothed in known or verifiable truths. To the undiscerning, they look “true” on face value, and unless you dig deeper, you would drink the kool aid and probably belch with satisfaction at your fallacious “wisdom” afterwards. Conjurors only thrive with the ignorant. Make informed choices. Focus on your goals and leave conjurors to their magic tricks. That is the advocacy and perhaps also the purpose of knowledge.

Appearances can be deceptive
The groundnut pyramids in the northern Nigerian city of Kano used to be a thing of wonder. A symbol of the old city’s wealth and progress. Then suddenly, they disappeared. To this day, there is a perception that the diminution of those towering heights were due to some failure or mismanagement. However, not many Nigerians know that their disappearance were actually due to progress and not misfortune. And there would not be many as ignorant if care was taken to check the data. In fact, the quantity of groundnuts produced in Nigeria more than doubled to 3.6 million tonnes in 2016 from 1.6 million in 1961.

The groundnut pyramids disappeared. But production continued and increased in fact. True, there was a significant lull in output to about half a million tonnes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But by 1988, production was back to at least a million tonnes per year. Conjuring tricks are like that. The disappearance of the “pyramids” created the perception of a failed industry when in fact they were simply casualties of innovation and progress.

Knowledge is the key
As we are a very superstitious people, we fall victim to conjurors too easily. Why don’t we ever ask the self-acclaimed rainmaker to conjure up rain during the dry season or when there is a drought. Our fatalistic beliefs do not help either. It is astonishing how many still go up and about on our streets with careless disregard for recommended covid-19 precautions. In a few interactions, the refrain has typically been that “It is God that protects.” And that if one is destined to contract covid-19, there is not much one could do. Really? Yes, we should believe in God. But surely, we wouldn’t or shouldn’t go into the rain without an umbrella nor stand in front of a hungry lion or a speeding car just because we supposedly “have annointing”.

True, some deliberate foolishness have manageable consequences. But surely, not these. If you are a medical doctor that enjoys a nice cigar but ends up with damaged lungs or someone with the knowledge of his or her lactose intolerance but indulges in the sweet delight of milk & dairy and farts on end, surely you could not blame anyone for the consequences of your pleasures. Still, you may very well live a long and comfortable life in spite of your foolishness. But with covid-19? Certainly not. Not until a vaccine is found, at least.

With the coronavirus evolving, even as a viable vaccine is being sought for what it was thought to be just months before, a successful vaccine would probably take at least two years to develop. And there is no such thing as it is a “rich man’s disease” or that Africans are immune from the virus. Because even as we are very diverse, we share a lot of commonalities. Your race is not a consideration when you need a new kidney or liver. The foods we eat, whether pounded yam, pap, starch, eba, rice, or pasta, varied as they are, can all be classified based on the nutrients they provide the body and based on these are all the same.

A knowledgeable person could not have been fooled by the Madagascar potion. But to the extent that the possibility of its utility was widely entertained speaks to the human inclination for easy solutions. In his 2010 book “A New History of Western Philosophy”, English philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny wonders in the chapter about knowledge and its limits, the field of philosophy called epistemology, what the mark of genuine knowledge is and how it differs from mere belief. “Is there a reliable way to acquire knowledge of the truth and to eliminate false beliefs that are mere seemings?”, he ponders. These are questions that have occupied the thoughts of thinkers from antiquity.

A proper delineation of epistemological questions and varied answers over the years by philosophers in the field is broad and deep and would thus be diversionary for our purpose. But let us take an instance or two from Kenny’s highlights from one of Plato’s dialogues “Theaetetus” on the question of “What is knowledge?” to bring home the complexity of the subject.

“There are cases where people have true thoughts, and form true opinons, without having actual knowledge.” For instance, “if a jury is persuaded by a clever attorney to bring in a certain verdict, then if the verdict accords with the facts, the jurors will have formed a true opinion. But do their true thoughts amount to knowledge?” Socrates, who Plato was purportedly writing about had an answer to the question. But it is not of interest here. The goal here is to highlight how what may be deemed to be knowledge or truth may in fact be something else or simply just falsehood.

An excerpt from Sir Kenny’s exposition is simple enough to get some grasp of what knowledge could be. “Knowledge can only be of what is true; knowledge is only knowledge if it can appeal implicity or explicitly to some kind of support, whether from experience, reasoning, or some other source; and one who claims knowledge must be resolute, excluding the possibility of being rightly converted, at a later stage, to a different view.” After numerous deaths, Madagascar has asked for help to deal with covid-19. “If we know something,…we know that we know it, and know that we know that we know it (Kenny, 2010).”

Challenge the prevailing narrative
In my column of 7th April 2020, I discussed “The power of narratives” using insights from Nobel laureate Robert Shiller’s 2019 book “Narrative Economics: How stories go viral & drive major economic events” and how to manage them. In the pursuit of knowledge, you find repeatedly that what is deemed to be conventional wisdom is often not wise at all. In their 2020 book “Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future”, former Bank of England governor Mervyn King and first dean of Oxford’s Said Business School John Kay highlight a resonant example to make the point.

It used to be the conventional wisdom that the build-up of acid in the stomach that supposedly caused ulcers were due to stress and a bad lifestyle. Australian pathologist Robin Warren thought different, asserting they were caused by bacteria instead. Teaming up with like-minded Barry Marshall, he found that “almost all gastric inflamations and duodenal and gastric ulcers” had one commonality: a bacterium they would call “Helicobacter pylori”. “Eureka!”, yes? You wish. What was a source of humongous profits for big pharma was now to be cured with antibiotics that could be procured for pittance? Warren & Marshall were rebuffed. But they did not relent. “It is now accepted that most gastric ulcers are caused by H. pylori, often acquired in early childhood.” The pair won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

So, what is the purpose of knowledge? It is a rhetorial question at this point. But at the very least, you know enough not to accept the conventional wisdom without doing your own investigations. From the African perspective, using the stomach ulcer ailment as an allegory, there are many who have lost their way in the pursuit of solutions owing to superstitions and bizarre cultural beliefs. But even if you were one swayed by science, you clearly would have been at your wits end following medical advice considering they did not know any better before the dogged pursuit of truth by Warren & Marshall. Beware of the dominant narrative.

Dream awake
I also use the faux “Madagascar covid potion” as an allegory of a broader malaise in our cultures. We rely overly much on untested superstitions and herbalism. These beliefs continue to hamper our progress. In days of yore, we believed flights could only be experienced quite literally in our dreams, with our butt cheeks atwixt the long handle of a broom. Not until such silly beliefs were relegated as fodder for relaxing fiction did the idea of mechanical flight blossom and eventually triumphed. Now if you want to experience the joy of flight, you do not need to conjure up one in your sleep. You simply buy a plane ticket. And yet, we continue to hold dear many fictions as “culture.”

You do not need to wear a leopard skin, with a beaded gourd in hand, and shouting out loud incantations in some deep forest to engineer ostracism, stigma or slander. These are human phenomena that have existed and been used for millenia in war and peace times to various ends. Instead of falling victim to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” faux “wisdom”, we should resort to diligence, focus and hard work. And patience.

The key insight from Michael Hunter’s 2020 book “The decline of magic: Britain in the enlightenment” is its description of how science prevailed over superstitions. While the details might not be ideal for this page, the long and short of it is that science prevailed over magic because it made clear truth from error. And as Kay & King’s 2020 book “Radical Uncertainty” shows, even science has its biases and constraints owing to the human constant and its proclivities for stories and fantasticism, a dimension amply explored in Shiller’s 2019 book “Narrative Economics”.

We have to give up many of our silly beliefs if we desire progress. Evidence of the progress that is possible in the aftermath can be seen in the modern comforts we enjoy today. And not until the people who invented these things jettisoned these fantastic fallacies were they able to concentrate their thoughts towards true magic: aeroplanes, automobiles, mobile phones, satellites, and so on. Things that actually work wonders in the real world and in our lives. Things that do not exist only in our dreamy sleeps.

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