Contemporary Political Discourse
Before talking about epistemology, I am going to tell you a bit about myself. Growing up I was that weird kid who started watching news on the regular in middle school. Come to think of it, I was that weird kid for a lot of reasons, but that’s besides the point. From my perspective, there has been an interesting trend in how contemporary political discourse has evolved over my life. When I was younger, when you watched the news it was split between world, national, and local, it was even tempered, and it was driven by details and “facts.” The current state of polarization was (generally) absent and it rarely devolved into shouting matches between pundits.
“Listen. I make the facts around here when I out shout the other guy.” – Bill O’Really!?
I put “facts” in quotation marks to bring your attention to it, which is, as will become apparent, ultimately the purpose of this article.
What is a fact?
It seems like an easy question to answer. “It’s something that we know to be true; something that we all accept.” However, if you talk to a student of philosophy, they will tell you, “Get out of the arm chair and hold the phone.” Answering the question, “What is a fact?” becomes a bit more challenging when you look deeply at it… and when you ask a bunch of pesky philosophers.
When you want to know how to define a “fact,” this brings us to the study of Epistemology. This particular branch of philosophy has been defined by The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as the following:
“Defined narrowly, epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief. As the study of knowledge, epistemology is concerned with the following questions: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions of knowledge? What are its sources? What is its structure, and what are its limits? … Understood more broadly, epistemology is about issues having to do with the creation and dissemination of knowledge in particular areas of inquiry.”
OK, that’s a lot to unpack. There was a lot of dense sentences and concepts in there; who would have thought that something from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy would be confusing? So let’s unpack that shit, and I promise that I will bring all of this back around to the news at some point.
Study of Knowledge and Justified Belief
Let’s start by looking at knowledge. In Theaetetus, Plato famously said that knowledge is “justified true belief.” For most run of the mill things in life this definition works fine. For example, you believe that when you turn the key in your car’s ignition it will turn on; it has in the past and that is what you were taught to do. It is justified that you believe that to be true.
However, this approach doesn’t work 100% of the time. This was illustrated by Edmund Gettier, who royally fucked up our sense of reality, by creating/discovering what has been called the Gettier problem. Indulge me for a moment…
Why so many MS paint drawings? Because they’re easy AND I like them, that’s why!
The Gettier problem illustrates that some information can be true and believed, yet unjustified. The question becomes, is this knowledge? When the obviously jaundiced person in the cartoon confidently declares, “There is a sheep in the field,” is that knowledge? There are many answers to this question, more than an arm chair philosopher like myself is able to go into.
The important thing to remember from this example is that truth is complicated; figuring out what is a fact is difficult. When these discussions are esoteric in nature, there is no big problem though. However, when you introduce this into the realm of pragmatics, you start to get into trouble. If you have a real life decision to make, you NEED to have facts, you NEED to have truth, or at the very least something close enough to facts and truth that you can make a decision. This brings us to the second portion of the Stanford Definition of Epistemology.
Creation and Dissemination of Knowledge
So now, finally, we are getting back to the root of this article. In a rudimentary sense, journalism is primarily concerned with the “creation and dissemination of knowledge.” It is the roll of the reporter to gather up as much information as they can, look at it all together, and produce a story for news consumers to consume. Great, sounds simple. Until you get to a point where you have two points of information that contradict each other…
This is where epistemology comes in, or rather where our current political polarization begins. Imagine that you are a reporter and you are writing a piece about Climate Change. I can feel people behind their computer screens getting bristly already. You approach the topic 100% objectively (just play along), you gather your facts, and write your story. At times you come across climate deniers, but ignore them mostly because of their lack of empirical evidence in their arguments. Based on the real science you write a piece that is clearly “in favor” of climate change being caused by humans. Throughout the article you cite researchers, NASA data, and you even interviewed a leading expert on the subject. You are proud of your work and you publish it.
Introducing the new Pat-Yourself-On-The-Back Apparatus!
You know what? Pat yourself on the back, you’ve earned it!
(Source of picture, Side Note: This is a real patented device.)
After you publish it, you decide to go to your website and scroll down to the comments section to receive your praise for a job well done. And then the shit storm happens. Comment after comment is throwing around accusations that you’re biased, that you are part of the lame stream media conspiracy to push climate change on all of us, and, well… have you ever read a comments section before?
You cited your sources, you looked at all of the best available information, you did your best to approach the subject completely objectively, and still people are calling you biased. So what happened…
I propose that in the above scenario, the problem was not in the sources of information or the objectivity of the article written, but rather the readership is coming from a different epistemological point of view. In essence, their epistemology is different from yours. In their minds, NASA is not an objective source. To many, going to NASA for climate data is the equivalent of asking a used car salesman for their opinion on the quality of the car they are trying to sell you.
Here’s the kicker. They are not wrong… per se.
Before you get angry with me, I am 100% a believer in human made climate change, and NASA is great and, in my opinion, the curators of objective data. What I am saying is this: think back to the Gettier problem. When I declare “I believe in human made Climate Change,” it is as if I am looking into the field at a sheep. I am confident that in making this claim about Climate Change because I have, metaphorically, gone out into the field to look at the sheep. And yes, the Climate Change sheep both look like a sheep from the road and up close. The WHOLE crux of the problem is what I use to evaluate the sheep up close.
This whole sheep analogy is getting to be a bit much, perhaps I should shear it down… sorry.
I tend to use Empiricism to evaluate all of the information that I need to analyze. When I need to figure out a complex problem, such as determining the validity of Human-made Climate Change, I look to the science surrounding the issue. That is my choice. Others may value different information, such as rhetoric, or logic, or mysticism. Does that mean that those approaches are less valid approaches? Well I would say yes, but again that is my opinion. In a follow up post I will explore why I feel this way, but in a nut shell, science/empiricism seems to have given the world some of the most effective methods of tackling problems, methods that logic, rhetoric, and mysticism have failed to solve.
Before moving on let’s briefly define these four different epistemological approaches. NOTE: I have had psychology professors break down epistemology into these four basic categories. However, upon reviewing the literature (1, 2, 3, 4) on Epistemology, I cannot find where these specific divisions came from. Regardless, I still find this approach to be a valuable way to discuss the differences in epistemology of the American public. Additionally, they are not an exhaustive list of different Epistomologies; think of them as a convenient short hand.
The Epistemology of empiricism, according to Wikipedia, focuses on showing evidence through the scientific method. Empiricism rejects anecdotal evidence as being a valid data point for deriving truth from reality. Belief, faith, and arguments do not matter when it comes to empiricism. Truth according to empiricism comes from predictable, repeatable, and observable data points. This is the reason for the scientific method being structured the way that it is. In a nut shell, it can be summed up as, show me the data.
If Wikipedia is to believed, then logic is the systematic study of arguments. The study of arguments doesn’t mean studying people who are arguing, but rather the study of the arguments that they are making. Logic is successful as an epistemology if, and only if, it concerns itself with the structure of arguments, and seeks to avoid fallacious reasoning. The Epistemology of logic doesn’t care about the character of the person making the arguments, they could be a moron; it is only the the internal logic of the things they are saying that matters. In a nut shell, it can be summed up as, convince me with your reasoning.
Rhetoric. Ah, rhetoric. In the theme of great orators of bygone days, rhetoric concerns itself with the delivery of a message, the poise with which one may traverse the playing field of debate. At times it calls for flowery language, layered in such a way to create a pastoral mental picture. While at other times, it is sharp tongued and pointed; blunt. Rhetoric, according to Wikipedia, is the art of discourse and persuasion. It does not concern itself with the petty details of other epistemological pursuits, in favor of winning over supports to a position. In a nut shell, rhetoric is concerned with conviction and seeking to convince others.
Mysticism, in the sense that I am using it here, refers to all things divine. Revelation, divination, and prophecy would all fall into this category of epistemology. In this way, I am applying the term mysticism to all instances where faith and religion are the sole source of truth and fact. Why is the sky blue? God did it. What is this thing called Earth that we live on? Dirt piled on top of turtles. Why am I sick? Bad spirits. The esoteric knowledge, (attained conveniently from Wikipedia) that is mysticism is the attainment of truth and fact from hidden knowledge. Definitely unobservable, non-empirical, beyond reason at times. In a nut shell, mysticism is what we know of the unknowable from the world beyond our senses.
Great… Now What?
So where does this all leave us, and why does any of this matter? One word: Paradigms.
The term paradigm was invented by the late philosopher Thomas Kuhn in 1962, in his ground breaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolution. One of the concepts Kuhn put forward was that when two people were in different paradigms, they would not be able to debate an issue in an intelligible manner. He used the following example:
Imagine a Newtonian physicist arguing with an Aristotelian physicist. The two physicists value completely different sources of information, they collect their data differently, and their theoretical models of the world are radically different. If the two attempted to debate the work of the other, they would start from world views so distinct from one another that their conversation would be nonsense. Kuhn called this phenomena of disconnected arguments “incommensurablility,” which to this very day is the smartest sounding word I know.
Kuhn argues that when people are operating in different scientific paradigms, their conversations around truth become incoherent. These conversations breakdown based on the fact that each party is arguing from a different beginning point. However, rather than debate the value of the beginning points, they are debating the ending points that they wind up.
“…Paradigms differ in more than substance, for they are directed not only to nature but also back upon the science that produced them. They are the source of the methods, problem-field, and standards of solution accepted by any mature scientific community at any given time.” – Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp 103
Epistemology and the News
Finally! If you have read this far, you’re a trooper, and I salute you… purely metaphorically. Here is my argument.
People generally use one or more of the 4 epistemological positions that I have laid out above, to evaluate the news that they consume. In doing so, their epistemological paradigm dictates how they evaluate the information that they are receiving. The news consumer evaluates the truthfulness of the news piece, not on the merits of the information being presented, but on how well the piece aligns to their epistemological paradigm. If the news piece is closely aligned to their own epistemological paradigm, then they are more likely to evaluate the piece as a trustworthy source of information. If the news piece is not closely aligned with their epistemological paradigm, then they will regard the information more dubiously. All of this is happening INDEPENDENT to being critiqued based on its validity within the paradigm from which it was created. The news piece is being judged on where it came from rather than how valid it is.
When commentary comes into play, either in the form of formal media, social media, or conversation, the commentators themselves may be operating within different paradigms. When disagreements of interpretation happen in the commentary process, rather than debate the merits of their epistemological paradigm, they debate the topic FROM their paradigm. Their fellow commentators do the same, and no one is approaching the topic from the same paradigm. As Kuhn would say, the conversation has become incommensurable. At this point, usually the whole conversation breaks down and turns into a shouting match.
The worst part of this process is that the observers of the commentary, also interpret the commentary within their own epistemological paradigm. So even if one commentator is making a very good case, the observer is more likely to agree with the commentator making the argument that is in line with their epistemological point of view, rather than the commentator making the best argument. All the while, the REAL debate, the epistemological debate, the debate that will lead to resolution, remains untouched by all parties involved.
These debates are like using a hammer without any nails. You can do it but you’re not going to build anything.
If no one wants to talk each other what hope in there?
I believe that the current source of the political polarization that the US, and the world, is experiencing is actually the result of the above outlined epistemological dilemma. These types of arguments are not helpful. All that they serve to do is strengthen the ever widening divide between an already divided world. Arguing about epistemology only works when you do so with the explicit intention to do so. Everything else is just banal, self serving, ego stroking.
“Why, if I didn’t know any better, I might think that you were making a joke of a low moral temperament…”
I would purpose that the only way to move forward, and to eventually shrink the gaps in our divided society, will be to call out these arguments when they arise. The first important step to doing this will be to become aware of what epistemological paradigm you are personally operating under. Once you know where you stand, ask yourself, does this bias prevent you from being able to see the logic (as in logic of the argument, not Logic the epistemology) of an argument from a different paradigm? And also ask yourself, if you are were to engage in an argument would you be able to recognize when you have slipped in an argument of epistemology?
Lets try walking through an example that may or may not be sheep related…
“For the love of God, he’s back onto us again!”
Imagine, that you are talking to a friend and they say to you, “Sheep are stupid animals.” Now you, being an avowed empiricist, ask them, “What data do you have that suggests that?” To which your friend replies, “Data? Who needs data? Its obvious that they’re stupid because they do dumb things, and many people feel that they are dumb.” To which you inquire, “Who are these people? What measure are they using to assess ovine intelligence?” And your friend retorts, “Assess the intelligence of sheep!? Come on, everyone knows they are stupid! Why are you so blind to the truth about sheep!?” Eventually you acquiesce, and declare, “I suppose that they do seem somewhat silly.” Your friend then frankly declares, “You see, sheep are dumb.”
Now this is obvious hyperbole, but imagine this conversation with anything other than sheep. Go ahead, pick any contemporary political issue, and you have most likely had an argument that has gone something like this. In the above example, what was actually being debated was not the the apparent intelligence of sheep (they are actually pretty smart) but the epistemology being used to arrive at this conclusion. You, the empiricist, wanted data to answer this question. In the lack of having any, you presented a case of skepticism to such a strong claim as “Sheep are stupid animals.” Your friend, who seems an adherent to rhetoric, eventually proved the validity of their statement by convincing you to accept their claim. But the underlying dispute was never addressed, and no one walks away the correct party. You have failed to forward your point of view, and your friend has only convinced you via attrition. In the end, you may both walk away feeling sour about the other one.
In the future, such an argument may play out as follows.
Sheep-hating-friend, “Sheep are a dumb animal.”
You, “What epistemological paradigm are you using to make that claim?”
You, “I do not value the collective opinions of others, nor do I value your ability to convince me of your statement, as a means for establishing truth. I accept empirical data as the only form of deriving truth.”
Sheep-hating-friend, “Oh, I disagree about that. Lets talk about the merits of your epistemology verse mine before we talk about sheep. That way we can move this debate forward in a coherent manner.”
You, “Agreed, you sheep-hating-ass-hole.”
Do you see how in the second conversation, the argument is able to progress to the root of the disagreement? Now I am not saying that the actual conversation will go as structured as that, but the thrust of the conversation brings the argument to where it needs to be. The next time that you have an argument with a person and the conversation degrades into a coded epistemological dispute, call it out.
In closing, in the future I would like to urge you to keep these concepts in mind. Whether you are consuming news, via print, web, television, of through secondary commentary, please try to understand the epistemological paradigm that the article is coming from. If you disagree with the paradigm, do that. By all means do that, but stay aware of what the intended purpose of the article is.
When it comes to public policy, like education standards or abortion, we need to defer to what the constitution says. I am not a legal scholar, but I can say a bit about this. We are not a theocracy, the US is not ruled by religious doctrine; this rules out mysticism. As a society, our legal structure needs to accommodate this, and religious ideology has no place in our laws. Additionally, if you see a news piece that is discussing religious morality, you can’t really approach a critique from the stand point of empiricism. Well, you can, I suppose, but if you want to have an intelligible conversation you cannot. Empiricism, by definition, has no place in the direct dialog of theological debate.
In general, to know thyself, know thy epistemological paradigm. It will dictate how you view the news, and all information more generally.