Personal epistemology, free speech, and tech companies

The NYT describes “The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation, and in response Hacker News commenter throwaway13337 says, in part, “It’s not unchecked free speech. Instead, it’s unchecked curation by media and social media companies with the goal of engagement.” There’s some truth to the idea that social media companies have evolved to seek engagement, rather than truth, but I think the social media companies are reflecting a deeper human tendency. I wrote back to throwaway13337: “Try teaching non-elite undergrads, and particularly assignments that require some sense of epistemology, and you’ll discover that the vast majority of people have pretty poor personal epistemic hygiene—it’s not much required in most people, most of the time, in most jobs.”

From what I can tell, we evolved to form tribes, not to be “right:” Jonathan’s Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion deals with this topic well and at length, and I’ve not seen any substantial rebuttals of it. We don’t naturally take to tracking the question, “How do I know what I know?” Instead, we naturally seem to want to find “facts” or ideas that support our preexisting views. In the HN comment thread, someone asked for specific examples of poor undergrad epistemic hygiene, and while I’d prefer not to get super specific for reasons of privacy, I’ve had many conversations that take the following form: “How do you know article x is accurate?” “Google told me.” “How does Google work?” “I don’t know.” “What does it take to make a claim on the Internet.” “Um. A phone, I guess?” A lot of people—maybe most—will uncritically take as fact whatever happens to be served up by Google (it’s always Google and never Duck Duck Go or Bing), and most undergrads whose work I’ve read will, again uncritically, accept clickbait sites and similar as accurate. Part of the reason for this reasoning is that undergrads’s lives are minimally affected by being wrong or incomplete about some claim done in a short assignment that’s being imposed by some annoying professor toff standing between them and their degree.

The gap between elite information discourse and everyday information discourse, even among college students, who may be more sophisticated than their peer equivalents, is vast—so vast that I don’t think most journalists (who mostly talk to other journalists and to experts) and to other people who work with information, data, and ideas really truly understand it. We’re all living in bubbles. I don’t think I did, either, before I saw the epistemic hygiene most undergrads practice, or don’t practice. This is not a “kids these days” rant, either: many of them have never really been taught to ask themselves, “How do I know what I know?” Many have never really learned anything about the scientific method. It’s not happening much in most non-elite schools, so where are they going to get epistemic hygiene from?

The United States alone has 320 million people in it. Table DP02 in the Census at estimates that 20.3% of the population age 25 and older has a college bachelor’s degree, and 12.8% have a graduate or professional degree. Before someone objects, let me admit that a college degree is far from a perfect proxy for epistemic hygiene or general knowledge, and some high school dropouts perform much better at cognition, meta cognition, statistical reasoning, and so forth, than do some people with graduate degrees. With that said, though, a college degree is probably a decent approximation for baseline abstract reasoning skills and epistemic hygiene.

Almost anyone who wants a megaphone in the form of one of the many social media platforms available now has one. The number of people motivated by questions like “What is really true, and how do I discern what is really true? How do I enable myself to get countervailing data and information into my view, or worldview, or worldviews?” is not zero, again obviously, but it’s not a huge part of the population. And many very “smart” people in an IQ sense use their intelligence to build better rationalizations, rather than to seek truth (and I may be among the rationalizers: I’m not trying to exclude myself from that category).

Until relatively recently, almost everyone with a media megaphone had some kind of training or interest in epistemology, even they didn’t call it “epistemology.” Editors would ask, “How do you know that?” or “Who told you that?” or that sort of thing. Professors have systems that are supposed to encourage greater-than-average epistemic hygiene (these systems were not and are not perfect, and nothing I have written so far implies that they were or are).

Most people don’t care about the question, “How do you know what you know?” are fairly surprised if it’s asked, implicitly or explicitly. Some people are intrigued by it but most aren’t, and view questions about sources and knowledge to be a hindrance. This is less likely to be true of people who aspire to be researchers or work in other knowledge-related professions, but that describes only a small percentage of undergraduates, particularly at non-elite schools. And the “elite schools” thing drives a lot of the media discourse around education. One of the things I like about Professor X’s book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is how it functions as a corrective to that discourse.

For most people, floating a factually incorrect conspiracy theory online isn’t going to negatively affect their lives. If someone is a nurse and gives a patient a wrong medication or incorrect medication, that person is not going to be a nurse for long. If the nurse states or repeats a factually incorrect political or social idea online, particularly but not exclusively under a pseudonym, that nurse’s life likely won’t be affected. There’s no truth feedback loop. The same is true for someone working in, say, construction, or engineering, or many other fields. The person is free to state things that are factually incorrect, or incomplete, or misleading, and doing so isn’t going to have many negative consequences. Maybe it will have some positive consequences: one way to show that you’re really on team x is to state or repeat falsehoods that show you’re on team x, rather than on team “What is really true?”

I don’t want to get into daily political discourse, since that tends to raise defenses and elicit anger, but the last eight months have demonstrated many people’s problems with epistemology, and in a way that can have immediate, negative personal consequences—but not for everyone.

Pew Research data indicate that a quarter of US adults didn’t read a book in 2018; this is consistent with other data indicating that about half of US adults read zero or one books per year. Again, yes, there are surely many individuals who read other materials and have excellent epistemic hygiene, but this is a reasonable mass proxy, given the demands that reading makes on us.

Many people driving the (relatively) elite discourse don’t realize how many people are not only not like them, but wildly not like them, along numerous metrics. It may also be that we don’t know how to deal with gossip at scale. Interpersonal gossip is all about personal stories, while many problems at scale are best understood through data—but the number of people deeply interested in data and data’s veracity is small. And elite discourse has some of its own possible epistemic falsehoods, or at least uncertainties, embedded within it: some of the populist rhetoric against elites is rooted in truth.

A surprisingly large number of freshmen don’t know the difference between fiction and nonfiction, or that novels are fiction. Not a majority, but I was surprised when I first encountered confusion around these points; I’m not any longer. I don’t think the majority of freshmen confuse fiction and nonfiction, or genres of nonfiction, but enough do for the confusion to be a noticeable pattern (modern distinctions between fiction and nonfiction only really arose, I think, during the Enlightenment and the rise of the novel in the 18th Century, although off the top of my head I don’t have a good citation for this historical point, apart perhaps from Ian Watt’s work on the novel). Maybe online systems like Twitter or Facebook allow average users to revert to an earlier mode of discourse in which the border between fiction and nonfiction is more porous, and the online systems have strong fictional components that some users don’t care to segregate.

We are all caught in our bubble, and the universe of people is almost unimaginably larger than the number of people in our bubble. If you got this far, you’re probably in a nerd bubble: usually, anything involving the word “epistemology” sends people to sleep or, alternately, scurrying for something like “You won’t believe what this celebrity wore/said/did” instead. Almost no one wants to consider epistemology; to do so as a hobby is rare. One person’s disinformation is another person’s teambuilding. If you think the preceding sentence is in favor of disinformation, by the way, it’s not.

One response

  1. Pingback: The margins are narrow; why? « The Story's Story

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