Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that focuses on knowledge: determining the nature of knowledge, sorting out what we can (and cannot) know and similar concerns. While people often think of epistemology in terms of strange skeptical problems such as the brain–in-the-vat and the Cartesian demon, it actually has rather practical aspects. After all, sorting out what is known from what is merely believed is important for the practical aspects of life. Also a significant portion of critical thinking can be seen in terms of epistemology: determining what justifies believing that a claim as true.
In very rough and ready terms, to know a claim is to believe the claim, for the claim to actually be true and for the belief to be properly justified. As any professional philosopher will tell you, this rough and ready view has been roughly beaten over the years by various clever thinkers. However, for practical purposes this account works fairly well—provided that one takes the proper precautions.
My main purpose is not, however, to do battle over the fine points of an account of knowledge. Rather, my objective is to discuss the Republicans’ epistemic problem to illustrate how politics and epistemology can intersect.
As noted above, a rough account of knowledge involves having a true belief that is properly justified. As might be imagined, the matters of justification and truth can be debated until the cows (if they exist) come home (if it exists). However, a crude view of truth should suffice for my purposes: a claim about the actual world is true when it matches the actual world. As far as justification goes, I will stick with an intuitive notion—that is, that the belief is properly formed and supported. To help give some flesh to this poor definition I will use specific examples where beliefs are not justified.
As I discussed in my essay on politics and alternative reality, political narratives are typically aimed at crafting what amounts to an alternative reality story. This generally involves two types of tales. The first is laying out a negative narrative describing one’s opponents. The second is spinning a positive tale about one’s virtues. While all politicians and pundits play this game, the Republicans seemed to have made the rather serious epistemic error of believing that their fictional narratives expressed justified, true beliefs.
While epistemologists disagree about justification, it seems reasonable to hold that believing a claim because one wants it to be true is not adequate justification. It also seems reasonable to hold that a belief formed by systematically ignoring and misinterpreting available evidence is not justified. That is, it seems reasonable to hold that fallacies do not serve as justification for a claim. Hence, it seems reasonable to hold that beliefs based on such poor reasoning do not meet the standard of knowledge—even if we lack a proper definition of knowledge.
One clear indicator of this was the shock and dismay on the part of conservative pundits such as Laura Ingraham. A bit before the election she said “if you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.” Other pundits and spinions expressed incredulity at Obama’s ability to stay ahead of Romney in the polls and they were terribly shocked when Obama won the actual election. This is understandable. On their narrative, Obama is the worst president in history. He has divided the country, brought socialism to America, destroyed jobs, played the race card against all opponents, gone on a worldwide apology tour, weakened America and might be a secret Muslim who was born outside of the United States. Obviously enough, such a terrible person should have been extremely easy to defeat and Americans should have been clamoring if not for Romney, then at least to be rid of Obama. As such, it makes sense why the people who accept the alternative reality in which Obama is all these things (or at least most of them) were so shocked by what actually happened, namely his being re-elected. The Republican epistemic and critical thinking problems in this regard are well presented in Fox’s Megyn Kelly’s question to strategist Karl Rove: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is it real?”
After Obama’s victory, the conservative politicians, pundits and spinions rushed to provide an explanation for this dire turn of events. Some blame was placed on the Republican party, thus continuing an approach that began long before the election.
Given their epistemic failings, it makes sense that they would believe that the Republican Party is to blame for the failure to beat such an easy opponent. To use an analogy, imagine that fans of a team believe that an opposing team is pathetic but as the game is played, the “pathetic” team gets ahead and stays there. Rather than re-assess the other team, the fans are likely to start blaming their team, the coaches and so on for doing so poorly against such a “pathetic” opponent. However, if the opposing team is not as they imagined, then they have the explanation wrong: they are losing because the other team is better. Put another way, their team is not playing against the team they think they are playing against—the pathetic team is a product of their minds and not an objective assessment of the actual team.
In the case of Obama, the conservatives and Republicans would be rightfully dismayed if they lost to someone as bad as their idea of Obama. However, they did not run against that alternative Obama. They ran against the actual Obama and he is not as bad as they claim. Hence, it makes sense that they did not do as well as they thought they should. To be fair, the Democrats also had an Obama narrative that is not an unbiased account of the president.
It also makes sense that they would explain the loss by blaming the voters. As Bill O’Reilly explained things, Obama won because there are not enough white male voters and too many non-white and female voters who want “stuff” from the government. This explanation is hardly surprising. After all Fox News, the main epistemic engine of the Republicans, had been presenting a narrative in which America is divided between the virtuous hard working people and those who just want free stuff. There was also a narrative involving race (as exemplified by the obsessive focus on one Black Panther standing near a Philadelphia polling place) and one involving gender. Rush Limbaugh also contributed significantly to these narratives, especially the gender narrative, with his calling Sandra Fluke a slut. On these narratives, the colored people and women are (or have joined forces with) the people who want free stuff and it is their moral failing that robbed Romney of his rightful victory. However, this narrative fails to be true. While there are some people who want “free stuff”, the reality is rather different from the narrative—as analyzed in some detail by the Baltimore Sun. In response to such actual evidence, the usual reply is to make use of anecdotal evidence in the form of YouTube videos or vague references to someone who just wants free stuff. That is, evidence that is justified is “countered” by unwarranted beliefs based on fallacious reasoning. Ironically, the common reply to the claim that their epistemology is flawed is to simply shovel out more examples of the defective epistemology.
As might be imagined, while the Republicans had a good reason to try to get people to accept their alternative reality as the actual world some of them seem to have truly believed that the alternative is the actual. This had a rather practical impact in that to the degree they believed in this alternative world that isn’t, their strategies and tactics were distorted. After all, when one goes into battle accurate intelligence is vital and distorted information is a major liability. It does seem that some folks became victims of their own distortions and this impacted the election.
People generally tend to want to cling to a beloved narrative, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. However, there is a very practical reason for the Republicans to work on their epistemology—if they do not, they keep increasing their odds of losing elections.
Somehow I ended up on the Amato for Liberty list (I infer that one of my friends did this as a joke). The most recent email featured an article about Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio (a fellow famous for making inmates wear pink underwear). While I thought the birth certificate matter was over, apparently it is not. Unless, of course, I am getting hoax emails purporting to be from Amato. Here is the text:
“I got over three hundred complaints about Obama’s birth certificate from the people of Maricopa County. When I get allegations brought to me by the citizens I don’t just dump it into the wastebasket. I look into the allegations just like I am doing here,” he told me.
“So that’s why I’ve assigned five members of what I call my cold-case posse to look into it. I don’t know what they’re going to find. But what’s the big deal here? I don’t get it? It isn’t costing the tax payers anything. It’s all volunteer work and what does it hurt to look into it?”
Naturally, people have a right to do this sort of thing on their own time, just as they have the right to look into UFOs, Big Foot and the secret Bush plot behind 9/11. However, it is a bit worrisome that people are apparently filing complaints about Obama to an Arizona sheriff. I do suspect that most of these folks are aware that Obama is legitimate, but that they are doing this as a sort of expression of extremely dislike. What is more worrisome is that the sheriff is apparently taking the matter seriously, despite the fact that Obama’s legitimacy has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. I wonder if he would assign investigators if enough people made allegations of witchcraft or demonic possession.
Fortunately, he is not wasting much in the way of state resources to conduct this investigation. However, it would seem more sensible for him to simply inform such complainers that the matter is settled and that there is, in fact, nothing to investigate.
In terms of what it hurts, it serves to lend unnecessary credence to a claim that has been shown to be false beyond all reasonable doubt. Encouraging this sort of thing encourages irrational belief formation and undermines critical thinking. People should not, from both a moral and critical thinking standpoint, be encouraged to believe things that are obviously not true and certainly should be known by those doing the encouragement to be false.
Also, from a practical standpoint, it risks making Arizona look bad-something the state certainly does not need.
Like all sensible people, I hate to waste money. So, when I plan on buying something, I like to ensure that I am making a good choice. Looked at philosophically, this is both a value problem (what is best?”)and an epistemic problem (“how do I know?”) Conveniently many online stores, most famously Amazon, have customer reviews online. However, as you yourself have probably noticed, these reviews are often not as useful as they might seem.
The first you will see of the typical online review system is stars (or whatever). On the face of it, this might seem to provide a useful assessment of the product. However, it is simply an average (maybe) of all the rankings. As such, it is only as good as the individual rankings. From a critical thinking standpoint, the ranking system is a survey and hence can be assessed by the standards of an inductive generalization.
One obvious problem with the ranking system is that it is based on a biased sample. People who take the time to write a review (or just click stars) will tend to include a disproportionate number of people who have had very good or very bad experiences. This is borne out by the fact that many products have numerous 5 star and 1 star rankings. As such, the stars should be read with due caution.
A second concern is that the rankings are often based on small samples. For example, my own 42 Fallacies on Amazon currently has a 5 star ranking based on one person. While I do agree with the ranking (oh, if only there were six stars), assessing a product on the basis of a small number of reviews would be risky. Of course, even a large sample will still suffer from a bias problem.
A third concern is that people game the system. Since the review processes tend to be rather lacking in regulation and verification, it is very easy for people to load in fake positive or negative reviews. Like plagiarized papers, these are often very easy to spot. If, for example, the “review” reads like company PR, then it is probably a ringer. If, as another example, the review is incredibly negative but praises a competing product at great length, then it is probably someone acting on behalf of that competitor. However, some “hired guns” are probably clever enough to load in reviews while concealing their true nature.
Since the stars are generally not entirely trustworthy, it is natural to turn to the specific reviews.
In some cases, these reviews can be useful. Not surprisingly, assessing reviews is an exercise in critical thinking. As a general rule, I look for reviews that seem to be balanced in assessing the product and note the weaknesses as well as the strengths. While this does not guarantee that the review is honest, it tends to be a good indicator of a lack of bias. I also look for consistency across the reviews. For example, if reviews for a laptop consistently mention that the screen is not very good, then that serves as some evidence that this is true of the laptop (or that a hired gun has been busy cranking out reviews). Some companies, such as Amazon, link reviewers to their reviews and this can be useful for getting a better picture of the reviewer’s credibility and expertise. For example, if a reviewer has reviewed numerous books in an area and always takes a measured approach in her reviews, then this increases the credibility of her reviews.
Another factor to look for is the time factor. Many reviewers review the product as soon as they get it, which can (in some cases) be a problem. For example, a review of an Android tablet written right after the person opens the box and fires it up will not tell you much about its actual battery life or ease of use in various tasks. Some reviewers post updates to their reviews, which can be useful.
While five star reviews should be greeted with a critical review, one star reviews often demand special attention. In some cases, of course, the rating is deserved. However, one star reviews are sometimes inflicted unfairly. First, as mentioned above, people try to game the system. Second, the review might be based on an unusual experience with the product that would generally not be a factor for most users. For example, a certain percentage of electronic devices arrive with problems (such as a defective battery) and this should be taken into account when reading a review that gives a product one star for a failed battery. Naturally, if the same problem appears over and over again in reviews, then that makes it a point of concern. Third, one star reviews are sometimes due to a reviewer not using the product properly or not understanding the product. For example, I have seen reviews attacking a product for not doing something that it was never intended to do. Fourth, some one star reviews are criticisms not of the product but of something else, such as the shipping time or the seller. While these can be relevant factors in buying a product from a specific seller, they really are not relevant to assessing the product. A fifth point of concern is that one star ratings are sometimes used in retaliation.
Naturally, you cannot go wrong buying my books.
Shortly before ordering the successful hit on Bin Laden Obama released his long form birth certificate. The Washington Post recently conducted a poll to see the impact of this release.
On the one hand, I thought that it might have little impact. After all, it seemed reasonable to think that if the short form did not convince people, then a long form would have no greater effect. On the other hand, since some of the birthers had been demanding the “real” birth certificate as proof, it seemed possible that they would accept the sanctification of their demand as proof.
Interestingly, the Washington Post’s poll results show that there has been a significant change since April 2010. In 2010 20% of the adults polled claimed that Obama was born outside the United States. This has fallen to 10% in 2011. The largest change was among Republicans. In 2010 31% of Republicans claimed they believed Obama was born outside of the US. In 2011 only 14% held this view. For conservative Republicans, the change has been from 35% to 16%. Interestingly, 7% of Democrats, 12% of Independents, and 3% of liberal Democrats still claim they believe he was born outside of the US.
While other factors might be involved in the decline, it seems reasonable to consider that the release of the long form birth certificate had some impact. It also seems reasonable to take into account the fact that certain notable conservatives, such as Rove, have been critical of the birther approach. It is also worth considering the fact that movements generally tend to lose members over time as people move on to other things.
While the percentage of people who believe that Obama was not born in the US has declined significantly since 2010, it is still rather worrying that 10% of those polled still hold to this belief. After all, the evidence seems to be rather overwhelming.
Interestingly, the people who still claim to believe that Obama was not born in the United States tend to admit that they lack definitive evidence for their claim. Rather, they seem to take the line that they have suspicions about Obama’s place of birth. This could be taken as being more of an expression of dislike for Obama as opposed to a significant epistemic failure.
I suspect that the birthers will never vanish completely. After all, conspiracy theories often have an amazing endurance. There are, for example, still people who claim that the moon landings were faked.
The end of the world has been predicted numerous times and has yet to come to pass. However, the past failures of the world to end as predicted has not deterred new predictions. The latest prediction is based on an interpretation of the bible and the date set is May 21, 2011. If this is correct, then we do not have that much time left.
Interestingly enough, the bible (Mark & Matthew) seems to clearly state that no one (other than God) can know the hour or the day when the end will come. As such, to use the bible to predict the day of the end would seem to be somewhat problematic. After all, if the bible is accurate, then it would be accurate in regards to the claim that the day cannot be known. If that part is not accurate, then this would cast doubt on the parts that are used to make predictions about the end. Naturally enough, folks who calculate the end of days always have a response to the claim that this day cannot be known and perhaps they are right.
Not surprisingly, I am rather skeptical about May 21 being the end. After all, there have been numerous other attempts to calculate the end from the bible and these have all failed. As such, there seems little reason to believe that this new calculation is correct. Unless, of course, the new calculation is such that its methodology and content are both reliable. I am inclined to suspect that this is not the case. However, we do not have long to wait for an answer.
If the end does not arrive on May 21, the result will probably be the same as what occurred with other failed predictions: a new prediction will be offered based on the claim that the original calculation was off to do some (until then) unknown error in the calculations or in the interpretation of the textual evidence. The group that accepts the prediction will lose some members due to the failure, but others will accept the changed prediction. However, if the new prediction does not come to pass (or is set too far in the future) then the group will gradually lose membership and fade away.
In any case, it is not clear how useful a correct prediction would be. Given that we have no real way to confirm the predictions until the day arrives to confirm or disprove it, it makes little sense to change one’s life on the basis of such predictions. Unless, of course, the change is one that would be a good idea anyway. However, to quit one’s job or abandon one’s family on the basis of such a prediction would seem to be a bad idea. After all, such things would seem to have no impact on what is supposed to occur in the end and would have a negative impact should the prediction turn out to be wrong.
In any case, we’ll have the answer soon enough.