Epistemology, the branch of philosophy that considers how we "know" things, has traditionally emphasized individual knowledge. This important article by University of Connecticut philosophy professor Michael Patrick Lynch notes epistemology's growing interest in studying social knowledge and why this is crucial now.
"In the jargon of academia, the study of what we can know, and how we can know it, is called 'epistemology.' ... Interest in how knowledge is acquired and distributed in social groups has long been a substantive field of inquiry in the social sciences. But with notable exceptions—such as W. E. B. DuBois, John Dewey, Thomas Kuhn, and Michel Foucault—twentieth-century philosophers mostly focused on the individual: their central concern was how I know, not how we know. But that began to change near the end of the century, as feminist theorists such as Linda Alcoff and Black philosophers such as Charles Mills called attention to not only the social dimensions of knowledge but also its opposite, ignorance. In addition, and working largely independent of these traditions, analytic philosophers, led by Alvin Goldman, launched inquiries into questions of testimony (when should we trust what others tell us), group cognition, and disagreement between peers and experts. The overall result has been a shift in philosophical attention toward questions of how groups of people decide they know things. This attention, not surprisingly, is now increasingly focused on how the digital and the political intersect to alter how we produce and consume information. This interest is on display in Cailin O’Conner and James Weatherall’s recent book The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread (2019), as well as in C. Thi Nguyen’s work on the distinction between echo chambers (where members actively distrust “outside” sources) and epistemic bubbles (where members just lack relevant information). These examples highlight how philosophy can contribute to our most urgent cultural questions about how we come to believe what we think we know. ...
"Democracies are especially vulnerable to such [epistemic] threats because in needing the deliberative participation of their citizens, they must place a special value on truth. By this I don’t mean (as some conservatives seem to think whenever progressives talk about truth) that democracies should try to get everyone to believe the same things. That’s not even possible, let alone democratic. Rather, democracies must place special value on those institutions and practices that help us to reliably pursue the truth—to acquire knowledge as opposed to lies, fact rather than propaganda. The epistemic threats to democracy are threats to that value and those institutions. ...
"Research on 'epistemic spillovers' indicates how deeply politicized knowledge polarization really is. An epistemic spillover occurs when political convictions influence how much we are willing to trust someone’s expertise at a task unrelated to politics. In one study that explored how this works in everyday life, participants were able to learn both about the political orientation of other participants, and their competency at an unrelated, non-political task (often extremely basic, such as categorizing shapes). Then participants were asked who they would consult to aid them in doing the task themselves. The result: people were more likely to trust those of the same political tribe even for something as banal as identifying shapes. And they continued to do so even when they were presented with evidence that their political cohorts were worse at the task and even when there were financial incentives to follow that evidence. ...
"[P]erhaps no attitude is more toxic than intellectual arrogance, the psychosocial attitude that you have nothing to learn from anyone else because you already know it all. ... But the real political problem is not arrogant individuals per se, but arrogant ideologies. These are ideologies built around a central conviction that 'we' know (the secret truths, the real nature of reality) and 'they' don’t. To those in the grip of such an ideology, countervailing evidence is perceived as an existential threat ... it encourages in its adherents what José Medina has called 'active ignorance.' Arrogance engenders entitlement, and entitlement in turn breeds resentment—forming the poisonous psychological soil for extremism. ...
"Put slightly differently, what we really need to understand is how big political lies turn into convictions. A conviction is not just something one 'deeply believes' (I believe that two and two make four but that isn’t a conviction). A conviction is an identity-reflecting commitment. It embodies the kind of person you aspire to be, the kind of group you aspire to be a part of. Convictions inspire and they inflame. ... But Big Lies also do something else: they defray the value of truth and the democratic value of its pursuit. To understand how this works, imagine that during a football game, a player runs into the stands but declares, in the face of reality and instant replay, that he nonetheless scored a touchdown. If he persists, he’d normally be ignored, or even penalized. But if he—or his team—hold some power (perhaps he owns the field), then he may be able to compel the game to continue as if his lie were true. And if the game continues, then his lie will have succeeded—even if most people (even his own fans) don’t 'really' believe he was in bounds. That’s because the lie functions not just to deceive, but to show that power matters more than truth. It is a lesson that won’t be lost on anyone should the game go on. He has shown, to both teams, that the rules no longer really matter, because the liar has made people treat the lie as true. That’s the epistemic threat to democracy from Big Lies and conspiracies. They actively undermine people’s willingness to adhere to a common set of 'epistemic rules'—about what counts as evidence and what doesn’t. And that’s why responding to them matters: the more folks get away with them, the more gas is poured on the fires of knowledge polarization and toxic arrogance."
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