“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.” (Barack Obama in conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, in The Atlantic, November 18, 2020)
Oxford defines epistemology: theory of the method or grounds of knowledge.
Dictionary defines epistemology: the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.
In simple terms: Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge> It seeks to answer the questions “what is knowledge? and How is knowledge acquired? Epistemologists are philosophers who are interested in questions such as whether it is possible to have knowledge, what kind of knowledge there is, and how people come to know things. Epistemology is considered one of the four main branches of philosophy along with ethics, logic and metaphysics.
From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Tern epistemology comes form the Greek words ‘episteme’ and ‘logos’. Episteme can be translated as ‘knowledge’ or ‘understanding’ or ‘acquaintance’ while logos can be translated as ‘account’ or ‘argument’ or ‘reason’….(E)pistemology seeks to understand one or another kind of cognitive success (or, correspondingly, cognitive failure.
The phrases “what do we know?” and “how do we know it?” come to mind, whenever the word epistemology arises. And if Obama’s observation has merit (this scribe believes it has considerable merit!), then we have to take time to reflect that “alternative facts” is an oxymoron irreconcilable with “what we know” irrespective of how we ascertain those “things” (concepts, facts, emotions, perceptions) of which we are certain.
At 2:46 p.m. on Tuesday, November 18, I pluck the keys on this laptop, in a small town in Ontario Canada. Out this window, I see some blue sky, some cumulus clouds, a few grey puffs, and the occasional snow flake.
How do I know this? My eyes confirm, with corroboration of my wrist watch, the calendar, the map of Canada and the view from the window of my study. My ears also confirm that relaxing music is rising from the Stingray music channel on our television set. This simplistic list of information seems readily available to this observer, and could slide relatively smoothly along to a reader whose confidence in the ‘source’ is adequate for acceptance and belief.
However, within the hour, I heard, also from the television news, (MSNBC) that trump has ordered a draw-down by half of American troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to 2,500 in both countries. And while most watchers/listeners/interpreters of American politics likely concur with the facts of the announcement, there is no doubt a wide, disparate and highly energized debate over whether or not such a decision makes “sense” at this moment in history.
The critical capacity to distinguish, rationally, and ‘epistemologically’, between the fact of the troop draw-down and the various “interpretations” is a first level of discernment between something known, and something conjectured. And those conjectures themselves, once detailed and made public, also flow into the river of facts, this time however, over the ‘name’ of the specific observer. “X” says, “whatever about the draw-down!” And for the journalists, this attribution is critical to his/her reputation as a recorder of whatever it is the interpreter says.
In elementary school, teachers stress the difference between a piece of information and an ‘inference’ (a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning). This skill, however, does not embrace or tolerate a leap into a proximate universe in which information that is incompatible with and irreconcilable to a given fact. One historic example of this kind of ‘alternative universe’ has been perpetrated by those known as ‘holocaust deniers’. In May 2014, The Atlantic reported in a piece written by Emma Green:
“Only 54 percent of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust…Only a third of the world’s populations believe the genocide has been accurately described in historical accounts. Some said they thought the number of people who died has been exaggerated; others said they believe it’s a myth. Thirty percent of respondents said it’s probably true that ‘Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, two-thirds of the world’s population don’t know the Holocaust happened—or they deny it.”
The clear divide between those who “know” the holocaust occurred, and resulted in the death of some 6 million Jews, and those who do not “know” or who deny its veracity is an obvious failure on some many levels. On the superficial level of distribution of information, through media, and more significantly through educational systems, either the message is not being delivered or, if delivered, it is not being credited as believable. A story out of Arkansas, at the time when Bill Clinton was Governor and his wife was attempting to transform the education system in that state, we learned that some teachers were teaching about World War Eleven, mistaking the Roman numerals for 2, (II) for the Western Arabic Numerals (11). Obviously, the implications of this kind of mis-perception, embedded in an epistemology in those classrooms and transferred to those students has had, and will continue to have a significant impact on the “foundational” knowledge of that generation of students.
The reservoir, or perhaps even the underground mine of what many would consider the treasure of what most consider “foundational” knowledge, (while it is subject to new research, and the discovery of amending information) is nothing less than essential for the potential of legitimate, consensual, reasoned, and reciprocal conversations even to take place. Nevertheless, embedded in what many consider ‘foundational’ knowledge, there are in each cultural demographic, a sizeable cluster of what might be termed “old wives’ tales” or cracker-barrel wisdom that challenges empirical verifiable information. (“Red sky in the morning sailor’s warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight! is just one well-treaded example.) While repeated ‘tests’ of the validity of this maxim may tend to support its likelihood, nevertheless, it can hardly be called a ‘law of the universe’ as ‘gravity’ for example, warrants.
Those standing firmly in a religious-foundational-belief system will, hopefully, embrace the dubious, highly problematic and easily disputed basis of this conversation I had as a teen, when asking my mother to stop smoking cigarettes: Her response, “If God had not wanted us to smoke, he would not have made tobacco!” This comment in the mid 1950’s continues to rebound among many others that beg more forgiveness than cognitive and rational response. The notion of human will, human discernment and the potential of human individual (and collective) choice, through decision-making processes that balance individual desire, or pleasure with the negative risk of nicotine and tar on the lungs and circulatory system, one might have thought, would have been readily grasped by a graduate nurse. Nevertheless, just this morning, the entrance to a prominent teaching hospital was populated by professional health care workers smoking their favourite cigarette brand, while preserving the 9-meter restriction away from the building.
The facts, the truth, the scientifically indisputable “knowledge” about the dangers to human life from smoking, both for smokers and for those in the presence of smokers who inhale second-hand smoke, have been promulgated for decades. At the same time, billions of dollars have been poured into the campaign to deny the danger to human health by the tobacco companies, is a pivotal and historic example of how “interests” compete to capture the flow of ‘information’ (including self-interested propaganda). A similar conflict has also been underway for at least half a century, over the negative impact of fossil fuels and the emissions of toxic gases like carbon dioxide and methane on the environment of the planet. The corporate profits of the oil and gas companies rely directly on the recovery, refining and sale of fossil fuels, as do the mega-corporations which depend on these fuels for their manufacturing and processing facilities. A similar tension has existed between environmentalists and coal producers, although this conflict has focused on the contamination of natural streams, and drinking supplies, as well as the health impact on miners from toxins inhaled during their work in the mines.
We can all agree that loss of the capacity to function, to breathe, to speak, and even to think clearly is impacted by the collision of certain chemicals, gases and toxins with our bodies. Even those whose 401 portfolios generated while serving as executives in tobacco, oil, gas and coal companies “know” that they are engaged in an industry whose long-term prognosis is clouded. Nevertheless, along with their political surrogates, they continue to beat the drum in favour of government laissez-faire with regard to environmental regulations that would crimp their industry.
“Prophets”, armed with the new “knowledge” of impending environmental danger continue to plead their/our case through the media, in classrooms and labs, generating graduates in environmental engineering, a class of graduates not even envisioned when those of us who graduate in the early 1960’s. The word “prophet” however, is one of those words that tends, like mercury, to slide between ‘believers’ and ‘critics’, depending on the degree to which each side is committed to ‘arguing’ and ‘advocating’ for his/her side of the argument.
In the academic community, however, these debates have a kind of discipline under clearly established ‘rules’ and traditions. Both sides can and will agree to a set of facts, and then engage in the “interpretations, implications, inferences and both exaggerations and minimizations of those facts, as is suits their respective argument. However, this model of intellectual decorum and professional discipline, while rigorously defended and embodied by those academics, as well as their medical and legal graduates in the conduct of their professions, does not apply to those practicing the ‘art’ of politics. Words, when used in political campaigns, and their under-studies in the editorial pages, the opinion pages, the social media platforms, have been unhinged from both their original intended meanings and have been ‘weaponized’ in what amount to military-style campaigns that pit one set of “data” against a completely alternative set of “data”. Individual personal character of an opponent, it seems, is also a subject and a target of these scurrilous attacks, when and where even the ropes of a boxing ring and a referee have both been abandoned.
The rise of social media, along with the appetite for sensational, titillating, and paradoxically enervating headlines screaming the fall from grace of prominent people, along with the scurrilous and humiliating and captivating and seductive details of that tragedy, as a gestalt, has given rise to an industry that rakes in literally billions for its perpetrators. And it is a gullible and apparently starving public that snatches these pieces of political radioactivity, morphing what once were Roman amphitheatre duels in which the masses were spectators, to political death-duels panting for both naïve and gullible audiences, and gladiators willing to submit to the ravages of this new political landscape.
And given that not only aspects of human behaviour is or can be confined to codified law, in any attempt to restrain the worst of our tendencies, and also given that linguistic traditions of grammar, sentence structure, thematic argument through the retrieval, curation, interpretation and presentation of packets of facts as the legitimate manner by which to advance a cause, have to a large extent fallen by the roadside, and given that the pursuit of power and wealth for their own sake have shoved the public interest off the public agenda, the extermination of any agreed set of facts has resulted. Rather than truth being the first casualty in war, we have all been complicit in turning our public discourse into a war in which each micro-act and each word have become the bullets, the arrows, the spears and the cannons of our battle. And there is no boundary on the battlefield; we each hold that battlefield in our hands, in our cell phones, or our laptops, or tablets.
We are not only at war with those whose words and actions and beliefs and attitudes we dispute, and we are instantly permitted, anonymously, to ‘fire’ our verbal rifles onto any one or more of several unregulated and voraciously profitable platforms. We are also untrained in this new pseudo-military-industrial-informational-cyber-technical political warfare. There are no apprenticeship programs for political neophytes, except those operated by dark money, or those funded by internet agents which serve a national government and/or an international cartel or cabal. We are all learning through experiments for which we are ill-prepared and under-tutored.
And so we are living, not only in and through a global pandemic that has already killed more than a million and threatens to eliminate many more lives, but also in a world where we, like those toxic gases, are the erosion and the atrophy of our capacity and discipline to deploy words, not as weapons, but as hand-shakes, even with those whose ideas we oppose. We have trampled on the subtle and nuanced meanings of words, as well as on the willingness to surrender our tyrannical domination of our knowledge “framework” based on a foundation of agreed information, beliefs, attitudes, traditions and even laws. We have not merely “dominated” nature as the misinterpretation of the old Testament suggested. We have morphed into ironic, paradoxical, and mythical self-defined and self-declared super-heroes unimpeded by the traditions of those cultures on whose shoulders we have tread for centuries and whose foundational precepts, principles and prophecies have served as guiding lights. We are now verging on the tragedy of self-sabotage, through our glib and willing surrender of those boundaries that define truth, that seek decency, and that envision authentic dialogue, not without humility, but with a level of grace that extends both to our competitors and adversaries as well as to ourselves.
Having abandoned shame, and a reliance on a body of foundational premises and facts, and fallen over the cliff of mature restraint, we are all endanger of succumbing to an intellectual, biological, chemical and political chaos for which we are unprepared and potentially unwilling to prevent.
To Obama’s words, I would suggest we are already IN an epistemological crisis, one we are endanger of denying!