Professors discuss details of knowledge at panel

Four professors from different departments spoke at the Academic Affairs Committee Professor Panel on Wednesday Nov. 19 to discuss how different fields define "knowledge," what knowledge means and why people can be confident that they know something. The panel consisted of assistant professor of planetary geology, hydrology and geomorphology Nicholas Warner, assistant professor of history Ryan Jones, assistant professor of statistics Yusuf Kenan Bilgiç and assistant professor of philosophy Amanda Roth.

The first question proposed to the professors was about whether or not they believe there is a general consensus of what is known in their respective departments.

“The problem for me, being new to the department, is that it is hard to get a sense of what we all agree and disagree on,” Warner said, who is in his first year of teaching at Geneseo. “I get my data from the frontier of existence of known space. In the planetary sciences field we are limited on data, heavy in hypothesis and light on consensus. There are no defined laws for planetary sciences––it is always changing. We help each other in trying to establish a knowledge of our respective fields.”

Jones, who is also a new professor and teaches Latin American history and cultures, said he feels similarly.

“The history department changes as history changes,” Jones said. “It is very different than the department it was 50 years ago, which focused on politics and economics. [The professors] saw history as a series of lists and dates as opposed to focusing on women, minorities and different types of people.”

The second question dealt with the different levels of reliable knowledge. Warner discussed the importance of hypotheses when it comes to geological sciences.

“There needs to be some sort of initial observational evidence to support a belief,” he said. “Hypothesis is basically just observing something, then examining what it is and why it happens. Eventually, a hypothesis that stands the test of time and becomes reviewed amongst peers who are similarly trained becomes a theory. You can't go from hypothesis to theory to law—it is impossible.”

Roth countered Warner’s argument.

“Philosophers do not use the theory of law,” she said. “Some are skeptical of the idea that we can actually know anything––why do we need justification? What counts as justification? We can observe all sorts of things, but does that count as observation? We can't really justify anything—this is one of these puzzles that have been puzzling philosophers for hundreds of years. There is no way to justify beliefs.”

Finally, the panel discussed what the process of knowledge in the professors’ respective fields includes.

“In stats you are given data, but what can you infer? What is missing? We need to communicate with some upper level of knowledge,” Bilgiç said. “I call it wisdom; wisdom and knowledge force you to make decisions,”

Warner said that knowledge comes from communicating.

“We all read, speak, teach and write. That is a key part of building my own knowledge base over time,” he said. “One of my graduate advisors said she got a PhD because she realized that she doesn't know everything. The recognition that you don't know everything keeps you going—to read more papers, give more talks, teach more classes. I’ve learned more from teaching than anything else. You can really improve from interacting with others.”