Why epistemic crisis is a phrase to know for 2017
2017 could be a tough year: Donald Trump, fake news, media bias, Brexit, climate change deniers, not to mention terrorism. How do we understand this? Are they connected in any way? Epistemic trust can be a useful framework to view them, but first you'll probably want to know what epistemic means, what epistemic trust is, and what it has to do with the growing challenges we face.
Epistemic means knowledge. As in, information, news, truth. Epistemic trust is about who we decide are trustworthy sources of knowledge. These decisions impact ordinary information and essential information alike. For example, do you believe that new pizza place has great food if an Uber driver tells you? How about if your mother does? What about if your kid is sick and not getting better? Do you believe an internet post from a parent you've never met? Or the pediatrician who is quoting a research study? On a less personal, but no less important level, do you believe a scientific paper about the melting of Antarctic ice shelves - or dismiss it out of hand since you can see for yourself that there is just as much extreme cold weather as warm weather these days? All of these are examples of how we sometimes make decisions to accept information as true, not because of how accurate the information might be, but because of who tells us.
In situations with real risk (physical, financial, emotional, etc.), epistemic trust fades, replaced by a state called epistemic vigilance. In epistemic vigilance, just like it sounds, we become appropriately suspicious. We evaluate knowledge and its sources more carefully. Rather than simply trust, we trust but verify, knowing that some people out there will try to deceive us. In this way, we attempt to protect ourselves from email phishing scams, from deals that offer something free when it really isn't, or from politicians who make campaign promises they have no intention of actually pursuing once elected. Since we constantly rely on other people for information, epistemic vigilance helps us weed out bad people and bad ideas.
The amount of information in the world has increased dramatically in the last 20 years with the arrival of the internet. Not only that, but the number and variety of sources of information have also exploded. These two factors combine to make our decisions about epistemic trust, about whom to believe, massively more complicated, overwhelming even. Under stress, intense emotion, or information overload, we may shift from the more typical epistemic vigilance into a state of 'red alert', called epistemic hypervigilance. As the name implies, hypervigilance is an unhealthy dose of being wary and watchful. This is a state where danger lurks not around some corners, but every corner. This is a state where any motion is a threat and where any information we disagree with seems not merely suspicious, but an attack.
Epistemic hypervigilance is where we find ourselves in 2017. The right doesn't believe anything from the left, the left doesn't believe anything from the right. Climate change is debatable even if 99% of climate scientists tell us it's not. If you watch Fox News, the rest of the media is biased, read, not to be believed. When Donald Trump tweets, he might mean what he says, unless he's joking (in which case, why are you taking the statements of the President of the United States so seriously)? If you live in Britain or America, globalization and immigrants are enemies, pulling governments not from left to right necessarily, but from thoughtful pursuit of interests to distrust. To be sure, there is false information being spread, but what's worse, ordinary people are no longer able to, or interested in, distinguishing inaccurate information from intentional deception, from attack.
In principle, none of this is new. Knowledge as power is an ancient concept, wars have always involved propaganda, politicians have always had ulterior, even personal motives. But in practice, today's world is different. Even the mercury/vaccine/autism crisis didn't topple the public's belief in the rest of medicine, though in hindsight it was probably a harbinger of things to come. Things may get bleaker still.
There is a response to epistemic hypervigilance. There is a way to return ourselves, and others, to a less paranoid state of mind. It requires listening, but more than that, it requires mentalizing. Mentalizing is what we are doing when we 'get' someone. It goes beyond sympathy, beyond empathy, beyond validation. When we validate people's experience, they still often feel like their feelings don't make sense or aren't 'right', like you are separate in some way, over there looking in, saying "I see that you feel that way." When we mentalize people, we stand up and cross to the other side of the table, sitting down next to them. We say to them, "I'm looking the way you're looking, so now I really see how you got to feeling the way you feel. I can understand that, it makes sense." If we can do a whole lot more of that, and a whole lot less demonizing and impugning, we stand a chance to exit this epistemic crisis.