The 2016 US presidential election and the Trump presidency have helped make visible that a variety of epistemically perilous features are far too common in the thought and behavior of Americans.
David Roberts, in a 2017 blog post for Vox, aptly labeled one such feature tribal epistemology. Roberts describes a world dominated by tribal epistemology as one in which “information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders.”
Similarly, philosopher Regina Rini identifies what she calls partisan epistemology in her article “Fake News and Partisan Epistemology.” While Roberts’s assessment of tribal epistemology is more damning that Rini’s assessment of partisan epistemology, both see the phenomena they discuss as matters of concern and worthy of our attention.
Both tribal epistemology and partisan epistemology speak to the increasing polarization of the American public as people move (both figuratively and literally) into siloed communities. These siloed communities are increasingly ideologically homogeneous. They give rise to echo chambers in which everyone else in the community reinforces the matching views of the community’s individual members. And such communities often collectively present and attack straw-man versions of positions held by those viewed as the opposition. For the particularly astute, like Bill Bishop, who published The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart back in 2009, the warning signs of the harm of epistemic tribalism have been around for a while.
A second related but distinct strand of observations has been made about how the American distrust of authority and expertise has led to an environment in which there are very few (if any) institutions or individuals who are generally agreed upon as sources of knowledge or reliable information.
Recognition of American anti-intellectualism and its consequences is nothing new. (Take, for example, Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.) But the fierce attacks on all manner of knowledge-keeping and knowledge-producing institutions like higher education, science, and the media have prompted new waves of attention including Tom Nichol’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters and Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump.
Of course, anti-intellectualism is only part of the story when it comes to explaining the current environment of fierce disagreement over which institutions can be trusted as sources of knowledge. The United States has been the recipient of many intentional campaigns to misinform and confuse. The unfolding scandal of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is currently center stage here, but small and powerful interest groups have sought to undermine Americans’ access to knowledge, along with Americans’ confidence in the institutions that produce such knowledge, on a variety of issues. A number of these campaigns to confuse, misinform, and influence have been carefully documented in works like Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.
Anti-intellectualism combined with more nefarious attempts to confuse and misinform the American public has brought the United States into a situation that I’ll call epistemic chaos. Epistemic chaos occurs when all of a society’s previously agreed upon sources of knowledge are undermined or challenged by a significant portion of the population so that society is left without any generally trusted institutions that can function as providers or arbiters of truth. In other words, epistemic chaos is a social condition in which a surplus of fierce disagreement over who or what can be trusted results in nothing being considered trustworthy by society.
Understood in this way, epistemic chaos is not an inherently bad thing. If you find yourself in a society where all the previously agreed upon sources of knowledge are corrupt and there are no generally trustworthy institutions, a chaotic environment in which there is so much disagreement over whom can be trusted that no institution gains that coveted place of trustworthy is better than an environment in which corrupt, deceptive, or incompetent institutions gain the power of trust.
However, when a society has institutions that generally function well (or well enough) as sources of knowledge, epistemic chaos is a bad thing because it makes it more difficult or impossible for many members of society to come to have useful knowledge that they otherwise could have obtained.
This is not to say that it is a good thing for institutions to ever become so trusted that they go unchallenged. That would be to replace the makings of one form of despotism with the solidification of another. Criticism and a healthy degree of skepticism are crucial parts of a well-functioning society. But the sort of ardent, angry, mindless rhetoric currently being used by many to incite outrage at rather than reflection on the work and claims of scientists, academics, civil servants, and the media are indicative of a problematic epistemic chaos rather than a healthy epistemic equilibrium based on inquiry and reasoning.
Many of the books and articles I’ve cited so far have (appropriately) attacked purveyors of epistemic tribalism and epistemic chaos on the right. But epistemic tribalism is present on both sides of the political dichotomy, and the current environment of epistemic chaos is one in which society at large is subject to. Ed Brayton posted a list of websites that he suggested liberals stop sharing links from due to the tendency of these sites to post clickbait that merely provided liberal confirmation bias. Brayton received a deluge of responses characterized by gut-instinct tribalism and a lack of critical self-reflection. Brayton put up a separate post in which his review and commentary on the responses he received provide evidence that epistemic tribalism is alive and well on the left.
Epistemic tribalism is something we all need to be watchful of—it doesn’t pick ideological favorites—and epistemic chaos is something we all currently have to deal with, but there is one more epistemic concept that I want to highlight. The source of this epistemic condition is almost always those seeking power, and its victims are almost always those whom the powerful seek to control.
In The Death of Truth, Kakutani keenly identifies a number of traits associated with this third epistemic condition. Thus, despite my general aversion to block quotes, I think the best way to begin to convey this condition is to quote her at some length. Kakutani writes that,
The sheer volume of dezinformatsiya unleashed by the Russian firehose system—much like the more improvised but equally voluminous stream of lies, scandals, and shocks emitted by Trump, his GOP enablers, and media apparatchiks—tends to overwhelm and numb people while simultaneously defining deviancy down and normalizing the unacceptable. Outrage gives way to outrage fatigue, which gives way to the sort of cynicism and weariness that empowers those disseminating lies. As the former world chess champion and Russian pro-democracy leader Garry Kasparov tweeted in December 2016, ‘The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.’ (142–3)
The bolded emphasis in the above quote is my own. The highlighted words all follow a unifying theme, encapsulated by their ultimate consequence of exhaustion of one’s critical capacity. When a deluge of mindless but unrelenting attacks on facts, truth, and knowledge (or those who seek to provide society with facts, truth, and knowledge) tax one’s cognitive capacities to the point of exhaustion, one experiences the condition of epistemic exhaustion.
For the power-hungry who seek to use epistemic chaos as a weapon for gaining power, epistemic exhaustion—along with the difficulty or inability to make epistemic judgments with confidence that often naturally accompanies epistemic exhaustion—are the end goals of sowing epistemic chaos. Thus, epistemic chaos and epistemic exhaustion cannot be fully understood without reference to each other.
Hannah Arendt, whose work in light of the current political climate is receiving increased attention, saw all too clearly the importance of the pliability that comes with epistemic exhaustion and its potential to be used by despots. In her seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (and requoted by Kakutani), Arendt writes that,
…in an ever changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” (Arendt 382.)
For those of us concerned with the survival of truth, the flourishing of critical thinking, and the rejection of authoritarianism, the identification of our society’s epistemic problems is only a first step. I don’t know what all of the rest of the steps are, but I think one of them is to use epistemology and political philosophy to try to strategize ways to counteract the epistemic damage we’re currently experiencing.
One way of doing that is to remember our history. We should be reading and thinking about the works of those like Arendt, Hofstadter, and Orwell. And we should be fighting for a culture in which exposure to such works and the cultivation of critical thinking and reasoned discoursed are the norms.
We can also appeal to contemporary work being done in social epistemology. For example, the substantial burgeoning literature on the epistemic significance of disagreement may be able to help us answer important descriptive and normative questions about epistemic tribalism. And the work of black feminist epistemologists like Patricia Hill Collins and Kristie Dotson provide a wealth of important analyses of different forms of epistemic pressure that can lead to political silencing and epistemic exhaustion.
There is a lot of work to be done, and for those of us struggling against epistemic exhaustion, this recognition is not easy. But who said that obtaining truth or safeguarding our democracy were ever going to be easy?
Mark Satta has a PhD in philosophy from Purdue University and is currently a JD Candidate at Harvard Law School.
Ben Robin says
Hi Mark, thanks for your article, I definitely think “epistemic tribalism” or “partisan epistemology” is a useful framework for looking at our current political situation. However, I’d just note one thing..
You write, “But epistemic tribalism is present on both sides of the political dichotomy, and the current environment of epistemic chaos is one in which society at large is subject to. ” This could perhaps have been expanded somewhat. This crisis in epistemological security has been the stated goal of several academic disciplines and strands of thought most commonly associated with the political left for decades now. Whether Marxist or psychoanalytic, there has been an agenda to represent hierarchies of knowledge, expertise, the media, the production of knowledge in general, as serving particular, socially specific and located interests (e.g. class interests), or deeper structures of our psychology. Latterly, the whole point of the postmodernist movement, as far as I understand it, was, in their terms, to achieve epistemic relativism, to disrupt the hegemony of basic epistemological, ontological, and metaphysical systems. So, for example, the identity politics of the contemporary left, or, another example, the persistent critique of, and deconstruction of, linguistic categorisation, and the all out assault on realism and the attempt to represent even scientific knowledge claims as ultimately “about power”. These are all, presumably, integral parts of the story about how we ended up in a situation of epistemic chaos. I do find it puzzling that we only became interested these problems – as problems – when the political right lost faith in institutions such as the media, the expert technocratic class, political class etc.. but nobody seemed concerned that the political left had been expounding the exact same narratives and ideas for decades. Presumably our concern here simply reflects our losing our grip on the presiding hegemony.
In fact, there’s strong empirical evidence of the link between these two dimensions. A key figure in Russia’s psychological-cultural warfare on the West has been Vladislav Surkov, well-versed in postmodernist literature recently translated into Russia. The heart of Russia’s propaganda machinery is Russia Today, far more influential than its Twitter bots and Facebook posts. RT has been a voice for all sorts of leftist groups, environmentalist groups, separatist groups etc. E.g. in the UK, where I am from, RT is a favourite home for the so-called “anti-imperialist left” headed by current head of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. It is also home to Alex Salmond, former head of the separatist nationalist-socialist Scottish National Party.
I might also add that Wikileaks, whose jobs has been sowing chaos and confusion amongst Western allies, always obviously a Russian intelligence organ, was also promoted by established leftist media (e.g. the Guardian) and political figures (in the UK especially since Assange is here, but I assume it is the same in the US). The mainstream left only turned on Russia and Wikileaks when they attempted to scupper the return of a Clinton to the White House. Yet nobody seriously thought that Wikileaks wasnt a clearing house for Russian intel and disinformation long before the 2016 election. So this is hardly a principled position being staked out now by Trump’s opponents, rather, it is just another case of epistemic tribalism. How we think about Wikileaks and Russia turns entirely on whether they are supporting or hurting our tribe at any particular moment.
Luke T says
I’m sympathetic with your rejoinder here, but wonder if the left’s attack on epistemological security has been less a source of greater societal Sturm und Drung because perhaps (1) that phenomenon has been a much slower roll (i.e. occurring over decades, as you say, and not in what’s arguably been a more concentrated time for the right), and (2) the leftist attack on epistemic suzerainty has frequently taken place in the discursive margins (i.e. in academia, in Marxist and psycho-analytic thought, in highfalutin’ debates about linguistics, and so on).
For my speculation here to be credible, you have to first accept my assumptions of the relative-recency of the right’s epistemic rebellion (dating back to maybe the 1990s, and some right-leaning individuals’ uncritical obsession with the Clinton family sins?), as well as the mostly-cloistered nature of the left’s critique. Well, this is my impression of things, but I am receptive (in advance) to evidence that may disabuse me of misconceptions.
Separately, you claim that “nobody seriously thought that Wikileaks wasn’t a clearing house for Russian intel and disinformation long before the 2016 election.” Maybe this is a fair statement, maybe it isn’t. But could you please humor as much, and support the assessment with some good evidence? I’m grateful for your comment to this blog-post.
Ben Robin says
Hi Luke, thanks for your thoughtful response.
Taking your last point first, re Wikileaks. I suppose I don’t have good evidence for this claim. I’m not sure what that evidence would consist of, which probably suggests my statement was a bit woolly. It’s simply based on my impression of the situation at the time and the application of some common sense reasoning. E.g. I remember having discussions with friends when Wikileaks was releasing information about US spies in Germany and other US allies, saying that such leaks were clearly designed to drive a wedge between the US and its allies and particularly to undermine trans-Atlantic intelligence cooperation (clearly something in Russia’s strategic interests). The left was resistant to drawing what seemed to be fairly obvious common sense conclusions from this, because they regarded Wikileaks, at that time, through a libertarian, anti-Western/US-imperialist/capitalist lens. Then Edward Snowden sought asylum in Russia, which, again, while not conclusively proving anything, seemed fairly indicative of the situation. Given that it appeared common sense to me at the time, and I’m sure to others (although I haven’t time to go and produce links to articles to this effect), that Wikileaks was a Russian intelligence organ, I find it difficult to take seriously the protestations that only emerged on the left after Wikileaks and Russian involvement in Trump and Brexit turned against them.
The situation in the UK is somewhat different from the US. In the UK, our political left has been overtaken by a populist insurgency that outright advocates for Russian interests, e.g. denying Russian involvement in the Salisbury chemical weapons attack, denying chemical weapon attacks by Russia’s client in Syria etc. They also have a long history of appearing on RT and writing supporting articles in outlets like the Guardian blaming crises in Syria and Ukraine and elsewhere on NATO expansion, Western imperialism, and casting Russia in a defensive role. What I’m getting at here, is that there are a lot of cross-currents between Trumpism and leftist populism that is growing in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Which complicates the left-right framework. We might also look at the fact that support for Brexit drew in a sizeable leftist constituency (including the Corbynites), and that what we call the “far right” in Europe, is actually ideologically socialist in many respects and much of its core constituency, and even its leaders, are former communists and is strong in former socialist/communist strongholds.
What is happening, in my judgement, is a crisis in liberal modernity – its hegemonic value structure and institutions – and this crisis is occurring because of the interaction of endogenous and exogenous dynamics (liberalism’s internal contradictions and external forces). Intellectual and social movements on the left and the right have been working hand in glove (though this is not conscious imo) to chip away at the hegemonic edifice of liberal modernity. On the left the project has been carried forward most clearly by Marx, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault etc, and a range of social movements that have consistently sought to insert into the public imagination that our political, cultural, and economic systems are fundamentally and radically corrupt and need to be swept away. What has changed since Brexit and Trump is simply that the so-called conservative political parties, that had become, in reality, liberal parties (committed to economic liberalism and doing nothing about social conservatism) started to lose control of their party organisations to various insurgent populist forces. Trumpism took over the GOP to whatever extent. And Brexit occurred in the UK, despite the Tory Party campaigning against it.
I think the main thrust of your comment speaks to a really interesting set of questions in all this. Forces on left and right have been assaulting the liberal order, but they attack different parts in different ways. It’s very difficult to unpick, for example, how much influence the “discursive margins” have on wider political and cultural domains. Just anecdotally, however, the influence seems powerful to me (although I sit in academic land). Most of the cultural discourse today seems to take its direct roots in the academic debates of previous decades. Our current “culture war” is precisely on the terrain envisioned by the postmodernists and other radical critical theorists, i.e. on linguistic terrain, with the two political tribes marshalling their forces over questions around identity, hate speech, sexual and gender identity, categorisation per se. Is it really tenable to argue that the academic disciplines are isolated on the discursive margins when we survey the contents of the culture war raging in traditional media and online?
I don’t really have a horse in this race. I’ve not even decided whether liberal modernity can be saved or ought to be saved. It could be that this period of hegemonic contraction will prove to be a highly productive cultural period, a return to basic principles, articulation of innovative cultural forms etc. I just think it would be helpful to get clear about our terms and what we are arguing for. E.g. Do we think the big corporate media are the guardians of democracy and the upholders of norms of universalising rationalist discourse… or do we think they represent a particular set of class or corporate interests? We can’t advance one view when we like the narratives they produce, and then flip our thinking on its head when they don’t, and expect to be taken seriously.
Ben Robin says
Just to be clear, I’m not making a sort of facile Jordan Peterson type argument here about a conspiracy of academics and French intellectuals.. there’s a whole other set of questions raised here about the historical agency of intellectuals/ideas. I’m inclined to see these as product of particular historical and social processes, i.e. liberal modernity probably produces certain counter currents that find expression all over the political spectrum. Which is why I think the really interesting question here is: to what extent are the “crises” we are witnessing products of liberalism’s internal contradictions and broad social, cultural, and economic effects..? Can liberalism be reformed and restored? Or is this a period of creative destruction..
Luke T says
Very good of you, Ben, to offer such a quick reply; much obliged.
I want to say first that — with regard to your pre-2016 Wikileaks/Russian intelligence collusion assertion — there might well be enough circumstantial evidence at hand (and a well-documented history of Russian/Soviet public disinformation operations, to boot) that it not be crazy for a disinterested observer to reasonably conclude the two parties’ cooperation may go back further than we can (right now) definitely prove. So conceded on that score. Probably some leading lights in the Western, public information sphere (i.e. our U.S. and U.K. media elites) should have more attuned to, and earlier, the two bodies’ conveniently-aligned interests.
Regarding the rest of your argument, I want to quarrel (respectfully) with you a little more. The ‘crisis of liberal modernity,’ as it’s being called, is in my estimation a fairly-prevalent thread by now. I see versions of it appear regularly today in op-eds, think pieces, and other critical writing, in leading journals across the English-speaking world. So that makes me think it is, in fact, something real. What the scope and impact of that realness is, however, remains to be debated.
And although I’m concerned about the implications of this, too, I want to conjecture that some of our anxiety and hand-wringing may be being artificially-stoked. If you prefer, that some of this ‘crisis’ may be merely being latently-accessed, under the theory that liberalism is essentially a protective guild of volunteers and elites. That is to say, what if the ingredients of anti-liberalism (flavors left and right) are always and forever constituent, and that disruptors like Trump and Palin (on the American political right) and their leftist doppelgängers (meaning Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow travelers) are just trying to break up the discursive status quo? Perform a little rhetorical trust-busting, as it were.
Is this offering way-too-charitable of terms? I have a piece I want to return to yet on the movement of ideas and discourse between (what I am calling) the margins – i.e. academic and unapologetic intellectual circles – and the mainstream. You presented a worthy challenge to my assertion on this score, which will take another post to do justice to.
In the meantime, I would very politely challenge your parting disclaimer that you personally ‘don’t really have a horse in this race.’ By your participation in and attention to this blog’s very subject matter, I would estimate you in fact have a big stake in liberal modernity, and the consequences of this public debate. All of us here do. Possibly liberal modernity should very well undergo some (overdue?) creative destruction, but considering implementation of the wholesale-alternatives seems like pretty grim fare.
Back in a bit.
Ben Robin says
Hi again Luke, some interesting points here. First, I take your point about the “crisis of liberal modernity” being something of a cliche now. I think it has some strategic value as a discourse because it ought to prompt us to consider some of liberalism’s failings, rather than slipping into the other set of cliche arguments we see, namely, that liberalism is under assault from the primordial forces of irrationalism and simply needs to be buttressed and for systems to be set back on the path of liberal progress.
Which brings me to my second point. If I understand you correctly, you’re wondering if the crisis talk is overblown and populist movements, and particularly their leaders, are just performing “a little rhetorical trust-busting, as it were”. I actually don’t find this altogether persuasive. In fact, I think it might function as something of a diversion from a addressing the deeper malaise of liberalism. I don’t think Trump or Corbyn or the National Front in France etc are providing answers to that malaise, they are just exploiting it with rhetorical blustering. However, looking beyond these movements there is serious thinking out there which provides a critique of contemporary liberalism that, in my estimation, is very fertile intellectual territory at the moment. This would include some stuff that has been discussed on PEL. Some examples: there has been a revival in Edmund Burke by certain conservative thinkers using him as a critique of liberal individualism, essentially repudiating some aspects of economic and cultural liberalism; Alasdair Macintyre has been grappling with the various maladies of modernity, as he sees it; then there is the “respectable” critique of expertise and expert knowledge. There are serious people in academia, a minority position for obvious reasons, (economists and social scientists), who are increasingly critical of their field’s predictive capabilities and claims (have you heard of p-hacking for example?)
Which brings me to my third and final point. Do I have a horse in this race? I think you’re quite right that I clearly do, in the sense of having an interest in the preservation of a certain type of discursive space, exemplified by PEL. But it isn’t clear to me which current political forces would actually align with this goal. PEL’s discourse is a model of liberalism in the sense outlined to some extent by Mill and people like Rorty, but these are no longer the rules being advanced by so-called “progressives” who have adopted a much more theory-laden and power-infused understanding of public discourse. They might want me to preface each post on here with a summary of my class position (this is actually a policy recently announced by the UK Labour Party with respect to any journalists posting on the BBC website), or my racial/gender/ethnic identities etc. More importantly, since I think that there is real substance in the critiques of liberalism, some of which I outlined above, and wonder if the retraction of the liberal hegemony might not generate a useful creative and productive space, it isn’t clear to me what the content of my horse really is. This is just an admission of ignorance, or my thoughts being in the process of development. But it seems to me that a diminishing of liberalism’s hegemony might enable a greater flourishing of ways of life, a more genuine plurality of human experience and values, and thus some of the bad stuff might be worth some of the good. Or maybe I’m playing with fire!
Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read my long, rambling comments!
Luke T says
I think I understand your argument a little better now, Ben. I might have been talking past, so hopefully I can clarify my point of view.. I totally agree that the wave of populism we’re seeing (in the U.S., U.K., France, and elsewhere) is 100% bluster. It’s just interesting to me that it has stoked such a public discussion over epistemology, dovetailing with this blog-post here (by author Mark Satta) that’s catalyzed our conversation.
I was taking your original talk of the unraveling of liberal hegemony to be of the Mill and Rorty variety. It’s clear to me now that you were speaking of something different, and so that makes your argument more persuasive I think. Parenthetically, can we speak of a Mill-ian or Rorty-ian dominance in Western political discourse? In other words, putting aside momentarily the Burke and MacIntyre meditations, it appears that there’s a decent amount of resistance leftover (or just reflexive anxiety) about living in a space of negotiated values and truth. Insisting on a wide berth of normative determination, that is (in the ‘classic liberal’ sense, though I know that vocabulary has also come in for abuse of late) gives a significant minority of citizens in industrialized, Western democracies some evidently-real pause.
Shouldn’t that give us even greater concern, arguably, and perhaps (what’s more) give color and placement to the dog we have in this fight? This is where I was going with my musings. Perhaps you’re right, that it’s too easy a straw-man to counter that a perpetually-irrational, reactionary mob is simply waiting out there to be unleashed from its cage, and bring our enlightened liberal project to its inglorious end.
I accept that, but then what are the terms we should use to describe the morphing of (very understandable) populism into a (seeming) epistemological quandary? Possibly I’ve circled back now to the beginning of this conversation, in which case I will simply rest, and express my thanks to you once again.
The discursive traffic between intellectual spaces and popular space is something I still want to revisit, but it will have to wait until I can organize those thoughts.
I love it! I believe the role of philosophy is to continue demolishing “common standards of evidence.” Only through philosophy will we ever reveal that tribal/partisan “factual” territories are formed entirely of thus-es, therefore-s, and ergo-s.
Few really doubt actual science. Science gives us “A few college students performed an inexpensive experiment some number of times (we don’t know how many) and published when they got interesting results.” Who disagrees with that? It’s the ergo-s we’re fighting over–and we should be.
I get a kick out of the yard signs that say “In this house, we believe in science.” What science? Do you believe life begins at conception? Do you believe x and y chromosomes only fit together two ways? I do, and I’m sure you do. But you might consider me a “denier” if our ergo-s don’t match.
We have to accept a few things just to have a conversation, but we no longer benefit from enormous conceptions of truth. We should have the humility to approach our adversaries with, “Here is my OPINION.”