Cultural Epistemology

According to that wizard of the web, Google, epistemology is “the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.”  Reading a National Geographic article about India recently, I reached a new understanding of how we come to know things – it is often culturally dictated.

Warning: This note contains references to human practices that are seldom mentioned in public.  While other countries were mentioned in the article, India was the most developed nation of the group.  So, we have the very odd situation of urban and rural residents of India who pay good money for cell phones with Internet service, defecating in open fields.  The global health term for this practice is “OD” and the first word is “Open.” 

When you have nearly a billion people in a country with a substantial portion engaged in this practice, you create a public health nightmare.  Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual and political leader of the subcontinent, once remarked that “sanitation is more important than democracy.”  He should know because he broke ranks with the caste system and cleaned public toilets for a time.

When human waste is left in the open, flies land on it.  The foot of a common housefly (they have six feet), carries thousands of bacteria including human pathogens.  The flies land on human food and fruit delivering their deadly payload in the process.  Humans eat the food without washing the food or their hands (because there is little running water) and ingest pathogens in the process.  This leads to cholera, dysentery, malnutrition and a host of other debilitating diseases.  Normal development of children is slowed or arrested because they cannot retain food long enough to nourish their bodies.

The Indian government has been building public toilets for decades.  But many people still refuse to use them believing that there is plenty of wide-open space, why not use it?  They also believe that a toilet near their home will make their home unclean which is not true because the toilets have traps that prevent flies from reaching the contents while OD leaves the bad stuff in the fields exposed to flies and flies can travel more than a mile.  Some believe that the toilets are only for the lower castes.  Some think it is more sanitary than using a toilet.  Others believe that the toilets are only for the women and children to protect them at night.  As a result, the toilets are often used for storage of tools, as stables for animals and other purposes for which they were never intended while terrible, preventable diseases run rampant.

This is an example of millions of people stubbornly clinging to beliefs that cause harm to themselves and their children.  Even when given a toilet and confronted with the facts, many of these people continue to follow the old (culturally accepted) practice of OD. 


This preservation and transmission of harmful, misinformation is mostly done without the benefit of social media or the internet.  Years ago, I had an employee who grew up in India while her father was an agricultural consultant under the USAID program.  He told me that it takes two human generations to change cultural practices and beliefs. 


I pray that is not the case for the harmful misinformation we see on the Internet these days.