Distributing the Epistemic Burden, Matthew R. X. Dentith

SERRC —  December 24, 2016 — 3 Comments

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, ICUB Fellow, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nl

Editor’s Note: As we near the end of an eventful 2016, the SERRC will publish reflections considering broadly the immediate future of social epistemology as an intellectual and political endeavor.

Please refer to:

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Image credit: Fabrizio Angius, via flickr

Call me self-interested, but as the festive season approaches, and (some) duties relax, I find I now have the time to consider those pernicious thoughts which are the dull echoes at the back of my mind. ‘What is it about social epistemology’, they rattle (like a certain Dickensian spectre) ‘that keeps you working right up to Christmas eve?’

My work, thus far, has been the analysis of how epistemic agents like ourselves work out how we judge the warrant of particular conspiracy theories. It is interesting work (at least personally), and occasionally it makes one paranoid (as evidenced by increasingly plausible conspiracy theories concerning the recent US presidential elections). Yet one cannot appraise conspiracy theories alone. Indeed, the vast number of them we seem to encounter on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis can sometimes make one think ‘Stuff this for a lark!’ and retreat into the kind of scepticism of conspiracy theories generally I (and other philosophers) have argued is prima facie unprincipled. As such, the issue which motivates me (and, I argue, is a central concern when it comes to the whole social epistemological project) is how we distribute the epistemic load when it comes to assessing complex claims.

After all, if I asked you to appraise and judge all the conspiracy theories you know, you would never have time for coffee, let alone breakfast. Judging the merits (or lack thereof) of specific conspiracy theories is a hard task, given they are oft complex claims, made up of different types of evidence, and relying on the testimony of persons who may, or may not be experts. Yet traditional treatments of how we judge and appraise conspiracy theories usually rely on individual epistemic agents working out on their own what to believe, with some hand-waving towards claims about ‘and taking into account what the experts say…’

Surely, though, the model of how we appraise any complex claim about the world is one where individual epistemic agents rely not just on their own epistemic abilities, but also that of their epistemic peers? Rather, we distribute the cognitive load throughout our epistemic communities. Now, any conspiracy theorist worth their salt will reply ‘But what about the possibility that the epistemic community is conspired, or filled with disinformation agents?’ Awkward as it seems, we cannot easily dismiss such a reply, given that any historically or politically literate person can provide us with examples of conspiracies where certain groups abused appeals to authority, or subverted public institutions. As such, how we distribute the epistemic burden when it comes to appraising and judging conspiracy theories is a (to my mind) a central (and thus interesting) question in social epistemology, because it allows us to interrogate a far more fundamental set of questions—what duties (if any) do individual epistemic agents have when hearing some conspiracy theory, and what should we require (if anything) of other epistemic agents in our communities? We can get to the answer to those questions via a whole range of different cases, but it turns out (for me at least) talk of belief in conspiracy theories seems the most obvious route.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Confronting the Loss of Stability and Consolation, Robert Frodeman « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - December 24, 2016

    […] Matthew R. X. Dentith, “Distributing the Epistemic Burden”. […]

  2. Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized, Steve Fuller « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - December 25, 2016

    […] Matthew R. X. Dentith, “Distributing the Epistemic Burden”. […]

  3. Social Epistemology and Social Accountability, Frank Scalambrino « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - December 26, 2016

    […] Matthew R. X. Dentith, “Distributing the Epistemic Burden”. […]

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