Thursday, April 29, 2010

Practical Epistemology

[Heavily revised on 11/3/2011]
Wikipedia defines epistemology as "the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge". Traditionally it has led to questions like whether we can really know anything, and discussing the qualities of different kinds of knowledge like logical or mathematical knowledge.

How much attention has been paid, however, to the question "Who can I trust" -- perhaps far and away the most important epistemological question that anyone can ask. Why? Because nearly every bit of knowledge you use to live your life came from some source that you decided to trust.

What does epistemology, the relevant academic discipline, have to say about how we decide who to trust? When I go to Google and pair the word "epistemology" with any of the phrases "who do you trust", "who can you trust", and "who can I trust", the number of "hits" is about 100 for the 1st 2 cases, and 28 for the third. Those who have done more than a few Google searches will recognize how small these numbers are. E.g. if I pair "baseball" with "Who can I trust", I get not not 28 but about 1060 hits. For "music" and "who can I trust", I get 23,300 hits. Is it just that the web has so few references to epistemology? Not really. If I pair "epistemology" with "literary theory" I get 148,000 hits; with "epistemology" and "scientific investigation", I get 25,000 hits; with "mathematics", 1,890,000 hits; with "feminism", 475,000 hits.

So it seems as if I must be either very original, or perhaps very wrongheaded to want to associate the question "Who can I trust" with "epistemology". Yet if I want a true answer to questions like "What needs to be done to make my car run well, and what will it cost?" or "Could this funny looking mole turn into skin cancer?" or "Does this house I'm about to buy have a serious radon problem, or termite infestation?", for the most part I answer these questions by first asking who I can trust to answer them for me -- and in most cases, I'll only ever have at most a superficial idea how the "experts" arrived at their conclusions. So why has epistemology failed to look in that direction?

For a couple of reasons, I think. First, modern philosophy was born out of a reaction to misplaced trust, faith, or dogma. The Church, and especially the Roman Catholic Church, had set itself up as the arbiter of truth. If Galileo said he "saw" moons circling Jupiter, or spots on the Sun, the Bible and/or Aristotle, and their medieval interpretors said no, this was impossible -- and it was dangerous to allow people to claim otherwise.

Then there is the nature of philosophical proof, or demonstration. You have to go through it step by step, and "see" that the first statement implies the second, and so forth, more or less the same way that one can "see" that 2+2=4, or that if A is bigger than B and B is bigger than C, then A is bigger than C. The "demonstration" may have been written on paper by me or by Professor so-and-so, but the implicit premise of such demonstrations is that if it is a valid demonstration, and you are a qualified (at a minimum, "sane") person, it will work when run through your mind. 

Philosophical argument is supposed to be complete in itself. Statements like "Just check X's credentials and you'll see you can trust him" have no place in philosophical reasoning. A philosopher may, like anyone else, think "I should read Dr. S's book because Frank, whom I highly respect, recommends him", or "I'm not going to read this book which claims to be philosophy because the author has no credentials" -- but such decisions are not justified on philosophical grounds, and yet that is just the sort of decision that plays the greatest role in most people's search for the truth, or in particular, for knowledge that directs their actions.

In the process of deciding which doctor I should trust my life to, is there anything that is not subject to doubt? Mr. Smith had a very good outcome with Dr. X, and raves about him, but could Smith just have been lucky? Dr. Y highly recommends Dr. X but mightn't that be due to a close friendship? We may feel that we can "for practical purposes" get around such difficulties, but we cannot prove with philosophical rigor that we made the right choice.

But during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, many people realized there was such an accumulation of misplaced trust, and authorities whose claims were clearly contradicted by the natural world, that it was essential to view arguments on their own internal merit, or based on experiment ("empiricism").

The last few decades have seen a growing consciousness of knowledge as a social phenomenon.  This has, at times, taken on an anti-Enlightenment tone, in the academic world as "postmodernism", and elsewhere as good old anti-intellectualism.  In very recent times, we have seen a new discipline called "Social Epistemology", which addresses some of the questions I've raised here (I've only just learned about it, 18 months after writing the original version of this post).  It seems to be split into two factions, one of which seems too close to postmodernism and Christian intellectualism, but the other, led by Alvin Goldman, looks appealing to me as it purportedly "defends the integrity of truth and shows how to promote it by well-designed forms of social interaction. From science to education, from law to democracy, he shows why and how public institutions should seek knowledge-enhancing practices." **

I do believe we have a need for "knowledge enhancing practices", not to be implemented in some top down fashion, but I believe in the gentler spirit of Amartya Sen and Gene Sharp.  If this last statement makes any sense to you at all, I hope you will write a comment.

** Quote taken from Amazon page for this book: 


  1. I found my way here by web-searching for "practical epistemology." I also have been working with the notion that for practical purposes epistemology often is a question of "who do you trust?" or "when should I trust someone's opinion more than my own?" I've been looking around to see who has worked enough with these concepts to move me beyond my own limited insight. So it is both gratifying to see someone else thinking about this sort of thing, and disappointing that your searches haven't found much of a discussion of this topic to tap into.

  2. Thanks for your comment. It's good to hear from someone who's thought on the same lines.

    The most interesting thing I've found is called "Social Epistemology" which Alvin Goldman has worked on defining/developing for a long time.

    There is a totally different branch of Social Epistemology, which might seem dominant because they produce the journal "Social Epistemology", but this branch is too postmodern and relativist in my opinion (and in that of Goldman).

    I've felt compelled to think about such things because I believe the loss of prestige of what used to be called "mainstream media" has revealed a shocking lack of sense about what "rings true".

    If you read more of the blog, I wonder, based on your handle "Traditional American" what you will think of other parts of it. I'm inclined to think of myself as a traditional American who is disturbed by the attempts to dismantle our mixed government which produced much prosperity and the best level of education we had to that point (despite faults, like the "dole" doesn't work).

  3. Goldman's work seems worth a look. Have you found any particular books or articles particularly good? If not, I may take a look at his edited volume- "Social Epistemology: Essential Readings."

    Thinking of epistemology as ultimately pragmatic (why seek knowledge except that you are going to act on it?), I've thought that there should be some interesting approaches in the business literature. I've poked around, but can't say I've turned up anything interesting yet.

    As to "Traditional American"- I'd forgotten that I had that handle set up. It was an attempt to find a term that would convey my sense of wanting to build on what is best in our traditions. "Conservative" would be a nice term, except that it has developed strong connotations of preservation of inherited privilege, and radical economic dogmatism.

  4. It's very good to hear from someone about this. I hope you'll send me an email at so we can continue some of this offline. I'd be interested to know what you have read or thought or ...

    Rather than go deep and philosophical, I've devoted the most effort (with little to show for it) in trying to find some way to combat the epidemic of bad judgement regarding "Who should we trust". You will get a sense of it from

    This effort has also pointed me in another theoretical direction, which is Economics of Ideas, that is trying to follow the life of ideas the way economics follows the life of money and goods. While no such field exists, if there ever is one, the works of Elizabeth Eisenstein, Benedict Anderson, and my acquaintances David Waldstreicher and Richard John might be cited as trailblazing works.

    Also, I see Elinor Ostrom's _Knowledge as a Commons_ (an academic anthology) as having strong bearing on "economics of ideas".

    Goldberg has been generous in making his papers available, and you can find a "short list" at and a longer list at (this list is nice because each paper has an abstract).

    His biggest attempt to address the whole field, _Epistemology in a Social World_ can be gotten at the moment for $10.75 + shipping from Amazon (and it's Fulfilment by Amazon so you might be able to get free shipping). If you decide to get it, and follow the link to it within THIS blog posting, I'll get a small percentage.

  5. Wow. I'm thrilled to see people had the same kind of questioning I'm having now, and very happy to find out you've already found some pathways into it! :)

    I was discussing this issue in a rationality discussion group, these references will be very handy.

    If I may suggest, I think the main questions of practical epistemology should be:
    - What are the most trustworthy (and efficient) methods of acquiring knowledge?
    - How to interpret information and derive what it implies? (this seems hard to be done in a generalized way, but perhaps it is possible in particular domains)
    - How to estimate or compare the trustworthiness of a kind or source of knowledge?
    - How to take into account and deal with biases? (ideological, selection, observational, cognitive...)
    - When should one ignore or avoid altogether a kind of knowledge?

    Those questions would apply to both formal (scientific) and informal (personal experience, reports) knowledge.