May 10, 2015

The best teacher I ever had was a philosopher-historian named Hans Meyerhoff. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at noon, he held forth on "Existentialism in Literature" in the largest hall on the UCLA campus. People would pack the room, sit on the stairs, eat lunch standing at the back, to hear this man. Each week he would begin a new book. He would stride across the stage to the lectern, slowly reach down and pull the book from his briefcase, open the book decisively in front of him, and say, in a thick German accent,"Vhat does ziss book show?" With this question, he taught me how to read. “Vhat does ziss book show?” is one of only three things in 25 years of schooling (other than typing class in Junior High School) that I have found valuable as an adult.

Of the other two, one is also in a German accent, though from a different émigré. An old-world biology professor once remarked, upon observing a student report, “Per zent meansss von hundert samples. Do you haf von hundert samples?” It made me look at statistics differently for the rest of my life. “Among the students in the seminar, 60% brought laptops to class.” Right. 74% of statistics are made up.

The last gem was imparted by an otherwise non-distinguished physics professor, as a random observation on scientific method: “Two colleagues,” he said, “a scientist and a non-scientist are riding along in a car when they spy a flock of sheep along the side of the road. ‘Oh, look,’ says the non-scientist, ‘the sheep have just been shorn.’ ‘Yes,’ says the scientist. ‘At least on this side.’ A clarifying insight.

These three stickies all share a concern with epistemology -- the questions “How do we know what we ‘know?” and “What constitutes valid “knowledge”? In this day of claims and counter-claims, of politics accurately described as “Liars calling liars liars”, of fake news with more news than real news, we had better be alert to the epistemological frame of our life-worlds. Throw that switch, and the bullshit-detectors start madly beeping.