Archives For Disagreement

Author Information: Paul Faulkner, University of Sheffield,

Faulkner, Paul. “Fake Barns, Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 16-21.

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The Twitter feed of Donald Trump regularly employs the hashtag #FakeNews, and refers to mainstream news outlets — The New York Times, CNN etc. — as #FakeNews media. Here is an example from May 28, 2017.

Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names …

… it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by the fake news writers. #FakeNews is the enemy!

It is my opinion that many of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the #FakeNews media.[1]

Lies and Falsehoods

Now it is undoubted that both fake news items and fake news media exist. A famous example of the former is the BBC Panorama broadcast about spaghetti growers on April Fool’s Day, 1957.[2] A more recent, and notorious example of the latter is the website set up by Cameron Harris to capitalise on Donald Trump’s support during the election campaign (See Shane 2017).

This website published exclusively fake news items; items such as “Hillary Clinton Blames Racism for Cincinnati Gorilla’s Death”, “NYPD Looking to Press Charges Against Bill Clinton for Underage Sex Ring”, and “Protestors Beat Homeless Veteran to Death in Philadelphia”. And it found commercial success with the headline: “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse”. This story was eventually shared with six million people and gained widespread traction, which persisted even after it was shown to be fake.

Fake news items and fake news media exist. However, this paper is not interested in this fact so much as the fact that President Trumps regularly calls real news items fake, and calls the established news media the fake news media. These aspersions are intended to discredit news items and media. And they have had some remarkable success in doing so: Trump’s support has shown a good resistance to the negative press Trump has received in the mainstream media (Johson 2017).

Moreover, there is some epistemological logic to this: these aspersions insinuate a skeptical argument, and, irrespective of its philosophical merits, this skeptical argument is easy to latch onto and hard to dispel. An unexpected consequence of agreeing with Trump’s aspersions is that these aspersions can themselves be epistemologically rationalized. This paper seeks to develop these claims.

An Illustration from the Heartlands

To start, consider what is required for knowledge. While there is substantial disagreement about the nature of knowledge — finding sufficient conditions is difficult — there is substantial agreement on what is required for knowledge. In order to know: (1) you have to have got it right; (2) it cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong; and (3) you cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. Consider these three necessary conditions on knowledge.

You have to have got it right. This is the most straightforward requirement: knowledge is factive; ‘S knows that p’ entails ‘p’. You cannot know falsehoods, only mistakenly think that you know them. So if you see what looks to you to be a barn on the hill and believe that there is a barn on the hill, you fail to know that there is a barn on the hill if what you are looking at is in fact a barn façade — a fake barn.

It cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong. This idea is variously expressed in the claims that there is a reliability (Goldman 1979), sensitivity (Nozick 1981), safety (Sosa 2007), or anti-luck (Zagzebski 1994) condition on knowing. That there is such a condition has been acknowledged by epistemologists of an internalist persuasion, (Alston 1985, Peacocke 1986). And it is illustrated by the subject’s failure to know in the fake barn case (Goldman 1976). This case runs as follows.

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Henry is driving through the countryside, sees a barn on the hill, and forms the belief that there is a barn on the hill. Ordinarily, seeing that there is a barn on the hill would enable Henry to know that there is a barn on the hill. But the countryside Henry is driving through is peculiar in that there is a proliferation of barn façades — fake barns — and Henry, from the perspective of the highway, cannot tell a genuine barn from a fake barn.

It follows that he would equally form the belief that there is a barn on the hill if he were looking at a fake barn. So his belief that there is a barn on the hill is as likely to be wrong as right. And since it is likely that he has got it wrong, he doesn’t know that there is a barn on the hill. (And he doesn’t know this even though he is looking at a barn on the hill!)

You cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. This condition can equally be illustrated by the fake barns case. Suppose Henry learns, say from a guidebook to this part of the countryside, that fake barns are common in this area. In this case, he would no longer believe, on seeing a barn on the hill, that there was a barn on the hill. Rather, he would retreat to the more cautious belief that there was something that looked like a barn on the hill, which might be a barn or might be a barn façade. Or at least this is the epistemically correct response to this revelation.

And were Henry to persist in his belief that there is a barn on the hill, there would be something epistemically wrong with this belief; it would be unreasonable, or unjustified. Such a belief, it is then commonly held, could not amount to knowledge, (Sosa 2007). Notice: the truth of Henry’s worry about the existence of fake barns doesn’t matter here. Even if the guidebook is a tissue of falsehoods and there are no fake barns, once Henry believes that fake barns abound, it ceases to be reasonable to believe that a seen barn on the hill is in fact a barn on the hill.

Truth’s Resilience: A Mansion on a Hill

The fake barns case centres on a case of acquiring knowledge by perception: getting to know that there is a barn on the hill by seeing that there is a barn on the hill. Or, more generally: getting to know that p by seeing that p. The issue of fake news centres on our capacity to acquire knowledge from testimony: getting to know that p by being told that p. Ordinarily, testimony, like perception, is a way of acquiring knowledge about the world: just as seeing that p is ordinarily a way of knowing that p, so too is being told that p. And like perception, this capacity for acquiring knowledge can be disrupted by fakery.

This is because the requirements on knowledge stated above are general requirements — they are not specific to the perceptual case. Applying these requirements to the issue of fake news then reveals the following.

You have to have got it right. From this it follows that there is no knowledge to be got from the fake news item. One cannot get to know that the Swiss spaghetti harvesters had a poor year in 1957, or that Randall Prince stumbled across the ballot boxes. If it is fake news that p, one cannot get to know that p, any more than one can get to know that there is a barn on a hill when the only thing on the hill is a fake. One can get to know other things: that Panorama said that such and such; or that the Christian Times Newspaper said that such and such. But one cannot get to know the content said.

It cannot be that you are likely to have got it wrong. To see what follows from this, suppose that President Trump is correct and the mainstream news media is really the fake news media. On this supposition, most of the news items published by this news media are fake news items. The epistemic position of a consumer of news media is then parallel to Henry’s epistemic position in driving through fake barn country. Even if Henry is looking at a (genuine) barn on the hill, he is not in a position to know that there is a barn on the hill given that he is in fake barn country and, as such, is as likely wrong as right with respect to his belief that there is a barn on the hill.

Similarly, even if the news item that p is genuine and not fake, a news consumer is not in a position to get to know that p insofar as fakes abound and their belief that p is equally likely to be wrong as right. This parallel assumes that the epistemic subject cannot tell real from fake. This supposition is built into the fake barn case: from the road Henry cannot discriminate real from fake barns. And it follows in the fake news case from supposition that President Trump is correct in his aspersions.

That is, if it is really true that The New York Times and CNN are fake news media, as supposed, then this shows the ordinary news consumer is wrong to discriminate between these news media and Christian Newspaper Times, say. And it thereby shows that the ordinary news consumer possesses the same insensitivity to fake news items that Henry possesses to fake barns. So if President Trump is correct, there is no knowledge to be had from the mainstream news media. Of course, he is not correct: these are aspersions not statements of fact. However, even aspersions can be epistemically undermining as can be seen next.

You cannot think that you are likely to have got it wrong. Thus, in the fake barns case, if Henry believes that fake barns proliferate, he cannot know there is a barn on the hill on the basis of seeing one. The truth of Henry’s belief is immaterial to this conclusion. Now let ‘Trump’s supporters’ refer to those who accept Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media. Trump’s supporters thereby believe that mainstream news items concerning Trump are fake news items, and believe more generally that these news media are fake news media (at least when it comes to Trump-related news items).

It follows that a Trump supporter cannot acquire knowledge from the mainstream news media when the news is about Trump. And it also follows that Trump supporters are being quite epistemically reasonable in their rejection of mainstream news stories about Trump. (One might counter, ‘at least insofar as their starting point is epistemically reasonable’; but it will turn out below that an epistemological rationalization can be given of this starting point.)

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Always Already Inescapably Trapped

Moreover, arguably it is not just the reasonableness of accepting mainstream news stories about Trump that is undermined because Trump’s aspersions insinuate the following skeptical argument. Suppose again that Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media are correct, and call this the fake news hypothesis. Given the fake news hypothesis it follows that we lack the capacity to discriminate fake news items from real news items. Given the fake news hypothesis combined with this discriminative incapacity, the mainstream news media is not a source of knowledge about Trump; that is, it is not a source of knowledge about Trump even if its news items are known and presented as such.

At this point, skeptical logic kicks in. To illustrate this, consider the skeptical hypothesis that one is a brain-in-a-vat. Were one a brain-in-vat, perception would not be a source of knowledge. So insofar as one thinks that perception is a source of knowledge, one needs a reason to reject the skeptical hypothesis. But any reason one ordinarily has, one lacks under the supposition that the skeptical hypothesis is true. Thus, merely entertaining the skeptical hypothesis as true threatens to dislodge one’s claim to perceptual knowledge.

Similarly, the fake news hypothesis entails that the mainstream news media is not a source of knowledge about Trump. Since this conclusion is epistemically unpalatable, one needs a reason to reject the fake news hypothesis. Specifically, one needs a reason for thinking that one can discriminate real Trump-related news items from fake ones. But the reasons one ordinarily has for this judgement are undermined by the supposition that the fake news hypothesis is true.

Thus, merely entertaining this hypothesis as true threatens to dislodge one’s claim to mainstream news-based knowledge about Trump. Three things follow. First, Trump supporters’ endorsement of the fake news hypothesis does not merely make it reasonable to reject mainstream media claims about Trump—by the fake barns logic—this endorsement further supports a quite general epistemic distrust on the mainstream news media—by this skeptical reasoning. (It is not just that the mainstream news media conveys #FakeNews, it is the #FakeNews Media.)

Second, through presenting the fake news hypothesis, Trump’s aspersions of mainstream media encourage us to entertain a hypothesis that insinuates a skeptical argument with this radical conclusion. And if any conclusion can be drawn from philosophical debate on skepticism, it is that it is hard to refute sceptical reasoning once one is in the grip of it. Third, what is thereby threatened is both our capacity to acquire Trump-related knowledge that would ground political criticism, and our epistemic reliance on the institution that provides a platform for political criticism. Given these epistemic rewards, Trump’s aspersions of the mainstream news media have a clear political motivation.

Aspersions on the Knowledge of the People

However, I’d like to end by considering their epistemic motivation. Aren’t groundless accusations of fakery straightforwardly epistemically unreasonable? Doesn’t the fake news hypothesis have as much to recommend it as the skeptical hypothesis that one is a brain-in-a-vat? That is, to say doesn’t it have very little to recommend it? Putting aside defences of the epistemic rationality of skepticism, the answer is still equivocal. From one perspective: yes, these declarations of fakery have little epistemic support.

This is the perspective of the enquirer. Supposing a given news item addresses the question of whether p, then where the news item declares p, Trump declares not-p. The epistemic credentials of these declarations then come down to which tracks matters of evidence etc., and while each case would need to be considered individually, it would be reasonable to speculate that the cannons of mainstream journalism are the epistemically superior.

However, from another perspective: no, these declarations of fakery are epistemically motivated. This is the perspective of the believer. For suppose that one is a Trump supporter, as Trump clearly is, and so believes the fake news hypothesis. Given this hypothesis, the truth of a mainstream news item about Trump is immaterial to the epistemic standing of a news consumer. Even if the news item is true, the news consumer can no more learn from it than Henry can get to know that there is a barn on the hill by looking at one.

But if the truth of a Trump-related news item is immaterial to the epistemic standing of a news consumer, then it seems that epistemically, when it comes to Trump-related news, the truth simply doesn’t matter. But to the extent that the truth doesn’t matter, there really is no distinction to be drawn between the mainstream media and the fake news media when it comes to Trump-related news items. Thus, there is a sense in which the fake news hypothesis is epistemically self-supporting.

Contact details:


Alston, W. 1985. “Concepts of Justification”. The Monist 68 (1).

Johnson, J. and Weigel, D. 2017. “Trump supporters see a successful president — and are frustrated with critics who don’t”. The Washington Post. 2017. Available from

Goldman, Alvin. 1976. “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge”. Journal of Philosophy 73:771-791.

Goldman, Alvin 1979. “What Is Justified Belief?”. In Justification and Knowledge, edited by G. S. Pappas. Dordrecht: D.Reidel.

Nozick, R. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Peacocke, C. 1986. Thoughts: An Essay on Content. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Shane, Scott. “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece”. The New York Times 2017. Available from

Sosa, Ernest. 2007. A Virtue Epistemology: Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zagzebski, L. 1994. “The Inescapability of Gettier Problems”. The Philosophical Quarterly 44 (174):65-73.

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Author Information: Alan Irwin, Copenhagen Business School,

Irwin, Alan. “Agreeing to Differ? A Response to Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 11-14.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image credit: Broo_am (Andy B), via flickr

What is the purpose of criticism? Is it to challenge and provoke, to establish new kinds of dialogue and mutual learning, to silence or to give voice? And what happens when we do not agree? Is disagreement an impediment or a driver to change? Is it a way of testing out arguments and building a mutually-enlightening dialectic? Or is open disagreement a fundamental problem which makes further discussion impossible?

I should quickly say that I do not write in these terms because I feel criticized or especially disagreed with by Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s very fine and reflective paper—nor do I have devastating criticisms and disagreements to offer them.  But I am struck by the parallels between writing a critical response to academic colleagues and the handling of criticism and disagreement within public participatory exercises. To move to the main theme of these comments, should agreement be the purpose of academic/public debate or does this imply a stepping away from difficult issues, a failure of nerve or even a form of manipulation?  Should one focus on what we share or on what divides us?

The Value of Disagreement

With inevitable irony, I think one important area of agreement between myself and these two authors is that we all value disagreement and have a suspicion of public participatory processes which seek to push this aside or to conceal the existence of contradictory views. As I read Jeroen Van Bouwel and Michiel Van Oudheusden, there is a basic problem with many participatory formats which seek agreement (or what they call ‘consensus’) and serve to delegitimize conflict and disagreement. In a careful analysis, they present different models of democracy but also critically (that word again) reflect upon the ‘consensual-deliberative model of public participation in technoscience’.

From their perspective, ‘consensus is enacted as an epistemic and political ideal that, implicitly or explicitly, renders undesirable the prospect of protracted conflict and the unfeasibility of conflict resolution. Nonconsensual conceptions and possibilities of change, conflict and democracy are thereby mostly left out of the equation.’ (Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden 2017, 3) Instead, they are drawn to more agonistic ways of thinking. They also challenge the current ‘meta-consensus’ around public engagement ie the consensus over the ways such exercises are theorized and invoked—or perhaps the ‘consensus over consensus’ (my awkward formulation not theirs).

There is much more to say about Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s thoughtful discussion than I can summarize here, including the presentation of two cases, a reflection on different models of democracy and an important inter-connection of STS and political theory. I strongly invite the reader to read their paper on these and other points. Certainly, I think the authors succeed in bringing new perspectives to what has often been a rather stale discussion of ‘public engagement—democracy or disappointment?’ within the academic literature (on this see Irwin et al 2012).

In critical response, I will—in the most constructive interpretation of ‘criticism’—focus on the relationship Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden present between disagreement and consensus-seeking within participatory exercises. To bring in one further aspect of their discussion, how should we think about the role of ‘closure’ in this context and also their proposed notion of ‘disclosure’? In line with the positive valuation of disagreement and conflict, ‘disclosure’ is seen as opening up a fresh perspective on participation: ‘disclosure does not imply a begrudging acceptance of the impossibility of actors to reach a shared solution for a social problem; rather, conflict between them is valued positively as the guarantor of political struggle.’ (Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden 2017, 10) Their argument, as I see it, is not necessarily in favour of disclosure over closure, but rather that we need to augment our ways of thinking and acknowledge the possibility of protracted conflict as well as agreement.

So how does the constructively-minded critic react to all this? My response—apart from the previous appreciative summary—is to point to three issues which I think deserve to be discussed in greater depth. It may be that my comments are more normatively-inclined than Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s rather balanced paper. Instead, my thoughts are best read as reflections stimulated by their text rather than disagreements with it. All are intended to move the field of ‘public engagement: studies and practice’ further forward.

On Consensus

First of all, I think the authors do well to portray consensus not simply in the common ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sense of a rather weak state of agreement but also as a faith in the common good and a commitment to building a shared culture. In fact, it is one of my own publications (with Maja Horst) that is drawn upon here so it is hard for me to differ (Horst and Irwin 2010). However, and in contrast to the approach taken in Van Bouwel and Van Oudheusden’s paper, the Danish ideal of consensus (at least from our perspective) does involve the acceptance both of fundamental disagreement and of the inability to achieve resolution on every issue (see Horst 2010). It asks what are for me some key questions: ‘how do we proceed when we are not in agreement?’; ‘how do we live together with conflict?’; and, not least in current troubled times, ‘how can we face disagreement directly and without fear of negative consequences?’.  This is of course an ideal and not necessarily what one sees at a daily level within the Danish state—although notice the relative stability in that country of multi-party governments whose internal disagreements are at least as important as what they have in common. My point is that an orientation to consensus-seeking does not have to mean a ‘begrudging acceptance’ of disagreement. It can be that it starts with this acceptance and builds from there.

The authors’ approach to these issues is to put forward new conceptions and ideals that contrast with ‘consensus discourse’. My own argument is, firstly, to acknowledge that ‘consensus’ can take several different forms but, secondly, to suggest that we may have much more to learn from previous experience of ‘consensual’ conflict handling than the authors’ approach implies. For me, concepts like dissensus, disclosure, conflictual consensus and agonism are valuable—but they should be seen as part of the consensual ideal rather than a contrast to it. Of course, here I also reveal my own commitment both to vigorous (dis)agreement and to finding collective ways of handling conflict—and even being made stronger by it.

On Institutional and Political Contexts

This takes me to my second point of discussion. If we accept the argument that official approaches to public engagement around the world often back away from disagreement and conflict, then it is also necessary for us as ‘critical’ scholars to consider the institutional and political contexts within which such assumptions are generated and performed. Why this persistent pattern? Is it caused by a culture of ‘scientism’ whereby complex socio-technical issues are reduced to a reductionist matrix of risk? Is it due to a deeper institutional urge for control, and resistance to the troublesome uncertainties often emphasized within public discussion? Is it because issues such as nanotechnologies and new approaches to healthcare have the potential to become ‘wicked problems’ for government institutions in particular: crossing departmental jurisdictions, spinning in several directions at once, easy to open up but hard to close down? Or is it because there are economic pressures at work which make it difficult even to imagine that the answer to any proposed innovation will be ‘no thanks’?

Having observed civil servants struggling both to ‘make space’ for participation activities in the face of sceptical ministers and suspicious stakeholders, and to move forward with what are often ‘hot’ issues in a distinctly ‘cold’ environment, it seems to me vital that we understand the institutional and cultural forces at work. We should also ask why, after so much criticism from all sides, initiatives in public participation actually persist. Without examining the relevant organizational and political contexts, it seems to me that we are doomed to a not very subtle revision of the old deficit model: why don’t policy makers understand? What if they understand more than we acknowledge, but simply find that our concepts and models miss the point as they see it?

On Opening and Closing

My third observation is the most general of all. And I have to say that it is influenced by a mood of pessimism concerning the current state of world politics (I am hoping this will pass—both the politics and my mood). I too share the enthusiasm for opening problems up rather than closing them prematurely down (Stirling 2008), for challenging the manner in which issues are framed for debate, and for bringing criticism and disagreement forward more visibly, directly and vigorously. Our critical training as social scientists and humanities scholars encourages this and (although I can’t speak for everyone here) our own political sensibilities have often been sharpened by critique of the orthodoxy, the closed agreement and the establishment stitch-up.

But does this lead us to under-value the art of closure, the process of finding ways to make agreements, understandings and policies stick even when the disagreements persist and the uncertainties show no sign of dissipating? To take an obvious example, does the world need more ‘disclosure’ right now around climate change or is it actually more interesting (and challenging) to imagine the kinds of closure which might be fruitfully established—and the acknowledgements of dispute and difference upon which these should be built? In the era of Brexit, starkly-polarized US politics and global warming, certain consensual ideals seem more important and powerful than ever.

Should we focus on what we share or what divides us? The answer for me can only be ‘both’. I am grateful to Jeroen Van Bouwel and Michiel Van Oudheusden for providing us with the foundation for doing exactly that.


Horst, Maja. “Collective Closure? Public Debate as the Solution to Controversies about Science and Technology.” Acta Sociologica 53, no. 3 (2010): 195-211.

Horst, Maja and Alan Irwin. “Nations at Ease with Radical Knowledge: on Consensus, Consensusing and False Consensusness.” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 1 (2010): 105-126.

Irwin, Alan, Torben Elgaard Jensen, and Kevin Edson Jones. “The Good, The Bad and The Perfect: Criticizing Engagement Practice.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 1 (2012): 118-135.

Stirling, Andrew. “‘Opening Up’ and ‘Closing Down’: Power, Participation, and Pluralism in the Social Appraisal of Technology.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 33, no. 2 (2008): 262-294.

Van Bouwel, Jeroen and Michiel Van Oudheusden. “Participation Beyond Consensus? Technology Assessments, Consensus Conferences and Democratic Modulation.” Social Epistemology (2017): 1-17. doi:10.1080/02691728.2017.1352624.

Author Information: Carlo Martini, University of Helsinki,

Martini, Carlo. “Review of Jonathan Matheson’s The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 4 (2016): 29-32.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:


Image credit: Palgrave Macmillan

The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement
Jonathan Matheson
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
190 pp.

Philosophical interest in the topic of disagreement has mushroomed in the past couple of decades. Philosophers want to know whether, and how, a rational person should change or not change her beliefs, when discovering that someone disagrees with her on a certain matter. Matheson’s book is a well-written and thorough review of the recent literature that has dealt with the problem of epistemic disagreement, as well as a compelling argumentative monograph in support of one of the conciliatory stances that has been proposed in the literature dealing with epistemic disagreement. The book covers the two most prominent stances that are currently dominating the literature: the conciliatory stance and the steadfast stance. The two stances are actually families of possibly rational positions that one can take in a situation of disagreement, and Matheson defends a specific conciliatory position called the “split-the-difference view”.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida,; Katelyn Hallman, University of North Florida,

Matheson, Jonathan and Katie V. Rivers. “Taking Issue: A Review of Bryan Frances’ Disagreement.Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 1 (2016): 7-9.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:


Image credit: Polity Press

Bryan Francis
Polity, 2014
224 pp.

There is a burgeoning literature on the epistemic significance of disagreement. Bryan Frances’ book, Disagreement, is a well-written and thorough introduction to the epistemic issues surrounding this philosophical issue. This timely book is introductory in nature and provides an excellent launching point for entering into the contemporary debate on the epistemic significance of disagreement. Disagreement borders both theoretical and applied issues in epistemology with a focus on real-world applications. Frances’ book exemplifies careful and systematic philosophical thinking and employs the method of cases. The book progresses in a systematic manner, with clear definitions, accessible examples, review chapters, as well as sample study questions. To help student and professor alike, the book also has progress summaries scattered throughout. The book is split into two sections: the first clarifies the central questions relevant to the epistemology of disagreement and the second analyzes some intuitive answers. In what follows we will provide an overview of the book and raise several critical points.  Continue Reading…