Once upon a time, I encountered the word epistemology and its forms only in academic writing. Lately, I’ve been seeing it all over the place, often unaccompanied by any definition.
Election-deniers are said to exist in a “parallel epistemological bubble.”
David Brooks writes about an “epistemological crisis,” the “epistemic regime,” and the “epistemic process.”
Lies spoken by a politician in a speech are described as “epistemological recreations.”
A piece about the proliferation of digital dashboards relating to the Covid-19 virus warns that “dashboards pose a range of epistemological risks.”
Note: A digital dashboard is an electronic interface that aggregates and visualizes data from multiple sources, such as databases, locally hosted files, and web services.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines epistemology this way:
The theory of knowledge and understanding, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion.
Merriam-Webster gives this definition:
the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity.
Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten confesses that he doesn’t understand the meaning of epistemology even after reading the dictionary definitions, but he uses the word anyway and no one challenges him on the way he uses it. He concludes that his readers don’t understand it either.
I think that what journalists mean by epistemology is “what people generally believe to be true at a particular period in history.”
This kind of epistemology changes because the world changes and because people’s perceptions of the world change. In Galileo’s day, most people “knew” that the sun revolved around the earth. People who believed otherwise were considered nutcases. People who agreed with Galileo but wanted to get ahead politically and economically would likely pretend to go along with the contemporary epistemic regime.
One type of epistemology is natural and the other is learned.
We acquire a natural epistemology from personal experience. For example, I know that drinking a hot liquid can burn my tongue because I have burnt my tongue drinking hot liquids. That kind of knowledge remains the same from generation to generation.
Learned epistemology does change. For example, I know that the United States of America is made up of fifty states because my trusted sources of information tell me so. Before 1959, however, I knew that the USA was made up of forty-eight states. I was not wrong then, but I would be wrong now if I still believed what I believed then.
Something else that I “knew” in the 1950s—because trusted sources told me so—was that smoking is harmless, racial segregation is socially necessary, and the only suitable occupations for women are nurse, secretary, elementary school teacher, and housewife.
US society in general has experienced an epistemic regime change since the1950s, but because not everyone trusts the same sources of information, we have what Vox writer David Roberts calls “tribal epistemology.” Different sets of people in the same country hold to different accepted truths because they are getting their information from disparate sources.
Some trusted sources in this new regime deliberately disseminate misinformation and outright lies. Some sources carefully conceal certain information. There have always been cynics and doubters of established truths, but a majority usually agreed as to what was commonly believed. In this new age of doubt and mistrust, a companion study for epistemology has been born: agnotology.
agnotology: the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.
The term agnotology was coined in 1995 by Robert N. Proctor of Stanford University and independent scholar of linguistics, Iain Boal. An example of agnotology is the tobacco industry’s advertising campaign to create doubt about the ill effects of tobacco use. A more current example is climate denial, fostered and bankrolled by oil companies to downplay the effects of climate change.
Londa Schiebinger, an international authority on the theory, practice, and history of gender in science, contrasts agnotology with epistemology. She says that epistemology questions how we know, while agnotology questions why we do not know. She says that “ignorance is not merely the absence of knowledge, but an outcome of cultural and political struggle.”
If this is true, if what we don’t know is the result of information being deliberately manipulated or kept from us, then we must learn to ask the legal question, Cui bono? Who benefits if we believe this or that version of the news?
It’s not surprising that many people latch onto information sources that claim to know the absolute truth about everything. Uncertainty is stressful. Epistemology has many faces. Thinking is hard.
One can only hope that trust in observable fact will prevail.