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Epistemic tribalism and epistemic chaos would not be welcome imports from America

By John Wright - posted Thursday, 9 April 2020

There have been times in history when finding out the truth – or at least what was generally accepted as the truth – was fairly unambiguous and straightforward. There was only one authority, or at most just a few, you could look to. Throughout much of our history this authority was the church. Fairly recently, in historical terms, there has also been science: Until very recently, scientific consensus is the authority nearly all of us would have looked to if we wanted to know about the natural world. There were also a fairly small number of authoritative sources a person might look to if they wanted to know about current affairs. If you lived in Britain, it might be the BBC, in the US, perhaps the New York Times, in France, Le Monde, and so on. You might not know the truth yourself, but there did not seem to be much confusion about what sources to look to in order to find it.

But now things are very different. Almost everyone has access to the internet. And on the internet, you can find a wealth of arguments and evidence to support even the most outlandish ideas. For example, googling 'Proof the Earth is Flat' yields over 100,000,000 results. Of course, not all of those sites claim to prove the Earth is flat, but many do. (Interestingly, googling 'Proof the Earth is Round' yields "only" 53,000,000 results: an immense number but only about half the number of "proofs" it is flat.)

What is the average person to do when, at the press of a button, they can find literally millions of "proofs" for any thesis they care to nominate and a comparably vast number of "proofs" for its opposite? Commentators and researchers in the US have argued that in the face of this overload of contradictory information people are resorting to epistemic tribalism. They choose to believe what their tribe – the group they see themselves as belonging to – tells them is true. Once they have made this commitment to their tribe, it is easy to go the internet and find a wealth of evidence in support of their chosen view.


Of course, a citizen might make a sincere attempt to arrive at a balanced overview of these opposing perspectives. But this, it has been argued, can lead to epistemic chaos. The sincere citizen can find millions of articles telling them that global warming is real and millions telling them it is not real, unreadably many articles tell them Trump is guilty of abuse of power, just as many tell them he is innocent, untold articles tell them the mainstream media is hopelessly skewed to left, just as many tell them it is hopelessly skewed to the right. And so on. Faced with this unmanageably vast overload of contradictory information, the citizen gives up. They don't know what to believe. Epistemic chaos has ensued.

Observations such as these might make some of us to wish to return to the old days when our access to different sources of information was for more limited. But this surely is not possible. Unless we wish to embrace a system that strictly controls what may be published, the information revolution has unleashed a genie which cannot be put back in the bottle. The challenge seems to be to find some way of retaining free speech while avoiding, as far as possible, a slide in to epistemic tribalism or epistemic chaos.

What, then, can be done? Unfortunately, commentators on this topic can be very pessimistic, with some of them admitting they do not see a solution.

But still, there may be some reason for optimism. In our society there are institutions that do seem to be reasonably effective at getting to the truth. Two of these institutions are science and the court system. Both of these combine a mixture of free expression or free inquiry with certain constraints. Brian Leiter argues that although the court system is concerned with the evidence-based pursuit of the truth, it does so within a highly structured system: there isn't free speech in the sense of "anything goes". Science possibly comes closer to free speech in the sense that the expression of all sorts of ideas are in principle permitted, but a system of peer review ensures only contributions of sufficient quality get published. Finally, there is another much more recent institution that seems to be reasonably good at giving us reliable information. Wikipedia allows contributions from anyone and everyone, although a team of editors eliminate inaccurate information. The prestigious scientific journal Nature found Wikipedia to be about as reliable as Encyclopedia Britannica.

Finding a way of avoiding epistemic tribalism and epistemic chaos, without falling in to authoritarianism, will of course be difficult. But perhaps not impossible: in science, the courts (and Wikipedia) truth is discovered or recorded, not imposed by authority. The fact that there are some institutions in our society that have managed to do this surely gives us some grounds for optimism.

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About the Author

John Wright lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. He has published books in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and ethical issues of economic rationalism.

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