Serial and the problem of knowledge

Yes, I realize I am a bit late to the Serial think-piece game, but I finally got around to listening to the final episode of the first season earlier today.

As it wrapped up, I was impressed that Koenig & Co. were up front about the fact that while there is a lot of "there" there, all of the investigation and analysis didn't really make the picture of who killed Hae Min Lee any more clear.

While the whole podcast was quite interesting simply at the storytelling level, I found myself thinking today that it provides a pretty good introduction to the problems of epistemology, that is, the question "What is knowledge" and what it means when we say that we know something.

At the end of the final episode, summarizing her thoughts and feelings about the whole affair, Koenig touches on what I think is a fairly common notion about how we can come to know something, to be sure of something:

Certainty, one way or the other, seemed so attainable. We just needed to get the right documents, spend enough time, talk to the right people, find his alibi. And then I did find Asia, and she was real, and she remembered, and we all thought, "How hard could this possibly be? We just have to keep going."

And now, more than a year later, I feel like shaking everyone by the shoulders, like an aggravated cop. Don't tell me "Adnan's a nice guy." Don't tell me "Jay was scared." Don't tell me who might have made some five-second phone call.

Just tell me the facts, ma'am. Because we didn't have them fifteen years ago, and we still don't have them now.

It is an easy trap to fall into, thinking that if we just gather all the facts, collect all the data, that is that path to knowledge. Here, though, a whole team of people spent a year digging through all of the facts and the data, and they have even more questions than they started out with. Some of that uncertainty is due to the fact that the events about which they are talking happened fifteen years ago. Many of the people involved were high school kids at the time, and possibly not the most reliable witnesses.

The thing is, no matter how deeply you dig, you will always encounter that sort of problem. It doesn't mean it's not worth the effort–just that it's never a simple matter of just collecting the facts.

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