Epistemic emergency

Is it premature to declare a state of epistemic emergency?

Years of absorbing findings from cognitive science have instilled a knee-jerk doubt of my own raw intuitions, especially intuitions that are accompanied by strong affect (e.g., terror) and/or general to the point of being untestable. But here is one that I have been unable to tamp down through rational analysis of evidence, and more importantly, that I am hearing expressed by many other researchers (Brashier & Marsh, 2019Britt, Rouet, Blaum, & Millis, 2019; Endsley, 2018; Hills, 2018; Iyengar & Massey, 2019; Lazer et al., 2018; Rapp & Salovich, 2018; Scheufele & Krause, 2019), if not in so many words: epistemically, we are in the shit. Human beings are hurtling toward a historically anomalous confrontation between the way our minds process information and the way information is distributed, one that may have severe consequences. The means for achieving separate groups that hold competing beliefs about descriptive, scientific matters and reinforce those beliefs through a combination of legitimate reasoning, reliance on bespoke collections of experts, out-group animosity, and mere repetition are now painfully visible, at least in outline. What then?

My initial brush with the thought that epistemic circumstances can have serious downstream effects came from Philip Gourevitch’s (1998) account of the Rwandan genocide, which he described as the first postmodern war because the two sides seemed to occupy different realities, by malevolent design. The skeptic now rejoins that it has long been known the first casualty of war is the truth. But here the casualty wasn’t the truth, Gourevitch claimed—it was the very idea of truth. Bad-faith actors didn’t sow lies alone; they also pushed the notion that lying and truth-telling are substantively the same.

Since then I have watched with growing alarm as this notion has manifested closer to home. It is now beyond dispute that bad-faith actors (the Internet Research Agency, perhaps among others) said “p” to people in the United States likely to be riled up by claims that and “not p” to people likely to be riled up by claims that not p; moreover, they sought to do so under cloak of secrecy and used channels that would appear at least vaguely legitimate. Whether they succeeded and whether they influenced national events are both disputable, but the point is that they tried, and tried hard. Other actors apparently took note and have adopted similar strategies (Bradshaw & Howard, 2018).

Much ink has been spilled about fake news, alternative facts, the post-truth era, and related concepts. I hope to conduct an analysis of the approaching epistemic emergency that abstracts away from these standard formulations for three reasons: (a) they have been politicized and so make everyone agitated; (b) they are imprecise and thus generate confusion; and (c) they have yielded a variety of explanations (it’s the self-interested politicians, it’s the social media companies) that naturally lead to finger-pointing. If one or another of those explanations turns out to be exhaustive, then let us point fingers. But I agree with Marsh and Rajaram (2019) that the growing emergency is partly a consequence of human cognition in a rapidly-changing information environment. So restricting analysis to discreet activities of trolls, politicians, tech companies, or whomever leaves out two thirds of the equation.

Chuck Prince, the CEO of Citigroup, famously said of the market conditions that led to the 2008 financial crisis, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” Well, the music is decidedly playing, because misinformation works. And it works not because people are gullible, stupid, intractably partisan, or inviolately driven by their own emotions, but for a host of more subtle reasons that I believe reflect ordinary features of cognition. Nevertheless, these features now face a most extraordinary environment. Given Prince’s astute assessment of human behavior, we should assume that if it’s not this politician/tech company/troll farm exacerbating the emergency, it will be another.

In what follows I hope to spell out exactly what I mean by an epistemic emergency. If the analysis doesn’t mollify me—it could!—then we may proceed with the hard question: what on earth to do about it. To preview, I don’t have a clue. But I agree that all hands should be on deck (Lazer et al., 2018), and I believe an ongoing, detailed review of what is known at this stage conducted through the lens of collective knowledge would be a useful contribution to the effort, if that effort isn’t hopelessly quixotic.

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