Epistemology – A Discussion on Why We Know Things and the Impact on Debates

I was on a Zoom call with a friend talking about a new writing project, and we enable the auto-captioning to create a transcript in case we say anything while talking that we might want later while writing. The discussion went off the writing and into a general state of affairs piece that I enjoyed and want to share, so I cleaned up the transcript:

Host: Gun rights advocates probably are not going to enjoy this so much.

Me: Haha, I guess not. Which is a shame because the story isn’t really about that, it just features as an element and I made a narrative decision. I try not to have fictional pieces I write have a distinct slant on issues and let the prose explore it, but, again, guns weren’t the focus so I made a decision and went with it.

Host: What is it about?

Me: It’s funny – I don’t know. It was a new idea that I started writing and it was working. I have lots of distinct ideas, and whenever I put them on paper I look it over and think, “This isn’t what I was trying to do.” I know it’s wrong. This…I had no idea what it was about but on paper it looked right. I think not knowing specifically is what makes writing this go easier.

Host: With all of the discussion on gun control, you know it’s going to be a focus though. Are you worried about how gun ownership people will react to a story that is anti-gun?

Me: Wouldn’t that be something? They shoot me into changing my mind about gun control? I worry about so many things that I’ve found I stopped worrying about most things. It’s fine if people disagree on this. I’m not a gun rights expert. It’s an opinion and shouldn’t hold a ton of weight in the discourse.

Host: You don’t think individual voices matter? Just the experts?

Me: I mean, it’s a democracy, so we all have opinions and beliefs that direct what we want. Ideally, I’d like experts to be assisting people in formulating those things though. Like, if I had to prescribe one thing on guns from a purely opinion space, it would be to repeal the Dickey Amendment so data is available to people who are experienced in the area to make better recommendations. If the finding is that we should promote gun ownership and open carry is fine, then so be it. That’s what the data says. Right now it’s a lot of non-expert people with opinions.

Host: Based on what were saying earlier though, it’s not specific to this one issue.

Me: No. I think it’s all issues.

Host: So then we get into this question of people are getting information from people they consider to be experts, and that is what informs their opinion. It’s more that people are going to different experts.

Me: Yes, and I think that’s an issue with scientific literacy. Even that’s an opinion though haha.

Host: Haha

Me: Like with the medical stuff. The problem always seems to be that you have this group of people who dissent from the general conclusion on a subject, and they point to studies and nurses and doctors as the foundation of that dissent.

Host: Right. So people say to look at the data, they look at data and come up with a different conclusion, and the discussion doesn’t move.

Me: If you have 100 doctors though, and 97 of them think one thing, 2 think another, and one lone person think something else, I think our position as non-experts in the field has to be to listen to the 97 people. It’s important that we continue to question things, and that is where the other 3 are important. But until the data is there to persuade the rest then it’s not our best course.

Host: People will point to the fact that the 97 have been wrong before.

Me: And they have and will be again. It could be that the one person who disagrees with the other 99 is the one that is right. For me it’s all about the epistemology. When something is subjected to the rigours of science and 97% of the scientific community finds something, then that’s what it is. That could be wrong, but what is the reason for it being wrong? Maybe the two dissenters have a missing piece of the puzzle that changes the equation, but when that is then subjected to the rigours of the scientific process I expect it to sway the majority. When it doesn’t, that’s just a group of contrarians in my mind.

Host: The process matters as much as the conclusion.

Me: In my mind, yes.

Host: It starts to get a little conspiratorial at that point, because some of the arguments are that the real data gets suppressed by things like private interests.

Me: Which may happen. Again, I don’t know. I think more to the point, other people don’t know either. They suspect and they believe, but they don’t know. If they truly know it that definitively, then we need efforts to bring those conflicts to light.

Host: The media doesn’t help in that respect.

Me: No, I think they’ve completely fumbled the ball. At least the major players – more local journalism, I still have faith in that. The big names like FOX and CNN…I don’t have any faith in them. We’ve created a situation where they managed to sow enough doubt and distrust that it’s impossible to know who is providing fact and who is editorializing.

Host: You think it’s a both sides thing in this case? You mention FOX and CNN specifically, who are ideologically different.

Me: And I have to be careful because things become sound bites. There’s a lot of this and I think opportunity for the average person to find common ground. They have similarities, but they are not the same. That’s an important distinction. Like with the US and Russia. I’ve seen where Putin loves to whatabout the United States in discussions, and, yes, there are similarities between the countries, but they are not the same. A lot of the arguments dig into treating those things the same. If both groups do a thing, then it’s fair. Well, it’s not fair, but it’s also not that both do the thing in the same way or to the same extent.

Host: So with the media companies?

Me: I think I speak for a lot of people when I say they turn to channels like CNN and MSNBC not because they actually trust them, but because you feel like, “Well at least it isn’t blatant propaganda like I would get from FOX.”

Host: You think FOX is more deliberate about it?

Me: No…Okay, so if you are a media company, your focus is making money and delivering news is just the product. But if you’re FOX or CNN, you aren’t getting money by selling the news to consumers, right? You get money by other people handing you money, and they do that because they get them money in the form of sharing customers. Like, Coca Cola. They’ll give CNN money if CNN shows a Coca Cola commercial because then CNN viewers will hopefully go buy Coke products.

Host: Right, just an advertising model.

Me: The more viewers they can acquire, the more money they make. I think FOX started it with Roger Ailes and accelerated with the removal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine. They cornered this market of conservative viewers. I don’t know whether it was purely for commercial reasons or the extent of the political interest behind it. You know, I believe – again, I don’t know this – I believe that advertising in this space very much includes political interest. They want certain people in power because those people make it easier to do business.

Host: And if it’s easier to do business, they make more money.

Me: Right. And that cycle started to spin. Well now you’ve lost an entire segment to FOX. Whereas news used to be more local, with even the national stories coming to you via a local newscaster, now there are these national voices confirming what people believe about issues to encourage viewership. That’s where I think CNN and MSNBC and the like are similar but not the same. Because they have an editorial slant that opposes FOX, but I think that’s a strategic decision to go after the rest of the viewership market. It wasn’t an editorial decision to provide balance in the media landscape, because that doesn’t translate to viewers and money.

Host: Today we have OAN and NRA TV.

Me: Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Host: Yeah, Sinclair. All of these other conservative outlets. Many of them arguably “out-conservativing” FOX.

Me: That’s the Trump effect. I think a lot of FOX viewers – and I don’t like saying this because, well we can talk about this, too, but liberals get ridiculous with their positions, too – but I think a lot of FOX viewers were conservative but reasonable. Then Trump happened.

Host: You think it was him specifically?

Me: No, more the circumstances around it. I remember talking with people way back in the 1990s about how we needed an option other than Democrat or Republic, but a reasonable one. Third parties to this day are regarded as throw away votes because they won’t attract enough attention to be viable. Well, my concern was always, say you have 3 parties running and the majority of the countries agrees, that one guy sucks. But we cannot agree on which of the other two is the better option. It creates a situation where we could split the vote and allow the guy who sucks to win.

Host: You think that happened with Trump?

Me: Not in the national election, but in the primaries. And, I should say that this is the American electoral system. Other parties work in other countries because their electoral process protects against what I described. But back to Trump. During the primaries, the Republicans had a big field in 2016. Trump won states and lost states, but what I began to notice was that he carried a similar percentage of voters in most states. Rubio might win a state, Cruz another, but their numbers were all over the place.

Host: So even when Trump was losing, it was with a consistent base.

Me: Right. I think that was the canary in the coal mine that the media needed to take Trump seriously, and by seriously I mean stop giving him free coverage. FOX wound him up while CNN and MSNBC used him as a punchline, all of which wound up support. They have turned our elections into a mathematical game where they know how to P-hack the data to get a result.

Host: P-hacking being…?

Me: Oh, it’s a statistical thing where you take a full set of data, then present it in part or in such a way that correlations seem statistically significant. Then you can point to data and say, “See? We have proof.”

Host: To skip to the 2020 election, is that what you think happened with Biden’s win?

Me: No. He won. And I think Trump won in 2016. What I mean is stuff like gerrymandering. All the votes count with few instances of fraud, but what if we can group those votes within our system to allow certain outcomes? You know, you can take a population that is 60% Democrat voters and break them up into districts that are all Republic dominated, so those 60% of votes, counted correctly, get zero representation. The Electoral College really leans into this thing where votes matter more per acre than per person.

Host: You don’t think Kari Lake won? haha

Me: No. Arizona has been a hotbed for this sort of thing. I’ve seen several interviews with politicians and election officials out there saying things like, “All I know are Republican supporters. There’s no way a Democrat wins here without cheating.” And it creates a situation where, “If we win, it’s because we won. If we lose, it’s because they cheated.” At that point, why even bother with the elections? Just call it fascism and lean in. We aren’t going to honour the outcome of the election – a handful of us just know in our gut how it should go. It’s horrific.

Host: Politicians have always displayed that sort of partisanship though, right?

Me: Definitely. I think the big changes are the Trump Presidency, because he took all these fringe groups and handed them a sense of legitimacy and emboldened them. Then there’s the Internet, which gives everyone access to way too much information, and the average person has demonstrated they lack the literacy to discern what they are reading. The flip side of that is the proliferation of deliberate fake news that seized on that. People have recognized that readers cannot discern and use data to target misinformation at those most vulnerable, which just makes the confirmation bias that much worse.

Host: Any thoughts on how to address that?

Me: Frankly, no. I’m not an expert, but that’s kind of the whole problem, right? People disagree about who the experts are now, or whether any experts exist.

Host: We’ve gone off the project a bit, eh?

Me: Haha, a bit.

Host: Well now I hesitate to ask about immigration and mental health. Those are both prominent in the outline.

Me: They are, and it’s like the gun thing. I’m not an expert in immigration policy. I’m more knowledgeable in the area of mental health, but not an expert. The focus in the story is more about fear, paranoia, and misunderstanding, and those are populations where I definitely observe all of that.

Host: Within those communities?

Me: No, from the…I’ll say “normal” society for lack of better word right now about those communities. They are outsiders, and incidentally far more likely to be victims and with far more reason to feel fear, but society portrays them as perpetrators to be feared.

Host: When you say your observations?

Me: It’s a combination of things. Some is direct observation. Some is research. I try to get a combination of the two – like my personal experience with the mental health community supplemented by research to make sure I’m removing as much bias as possible.

Host: Where does the research part begin given everything we just discussed about mistrusting experts? How do you know the people you use for research are in that main group versus the dissenting group?

Me: So, they don’t feature in this book but I have been involved in discussions about trans rights lately. Now, I don’t know much about the trans experience. And while I do think speaking with trans people is a wonderful way to grow and to learn, they’re still people at the end of the day. They have biases, and anecdotal evidence does not translate to universal experience. It may not even translate to general experience. But then I look at things like, okay, if you were a trans person who was transitioning, where would you go?

Host: For therapy and surgery and such?

Me: Right. Where would I go for support. And I look at the community, but only to a slight extent because, especially in the age of the internet, we see that communities can get together and confirmation bias their way down the rabbit hole. So I focus on individual experience and then external validation. Which, in this case, I look at the major medical bodies. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association. Groups like that. When I see they organize around things like promoting gender-affirming care, that tells me, a not-at-all expert in the area, that I should promote it, too.

Host: I am pro trans rights, but for a minute let me highlight the counterpoint that gender-affirming care plays into a delusion and is harmful. How do you balance that when grappling with whether you can trust what you’ve read?

Me: Right, so if Frank is arguing with me about how he doesn’t support trans rights, there is a part of me that definitely thinks, “He could be right.” Because I don’t know. I believe. I have an opinion based on what I have read and experienced, but it could be wrong. My thing is always, why would I side with Frank? He’s some guy with an opinion he formed from who knows where. I got my opinion from reading stuff issued by the APA and AMA. Those are teams of medical professionals who explore these issues non-stop with the rigours of science. They could be wrong, they could be facing influence from outside sources – but if groups like the APA and AMA do not stick to the science, we lose complete faith in them in all areas and they will fail. It’s in their selfish interest to stick to the science, so even in a cynical world I trust them to do that work.

Host: The source changes based on the subject then. You mentioned trans rights, but immigration would obviously not be a matter for the American Medical Association.

Me: Right, unless it’s something specific like medical care received by immigrants.

Host: Do you ever go broad with the research?

Me: Things always start fairly broad. Despite what I said earlier about the media, Last Week Tonight has guided me.

Host: You think John Oliver is a trustworthy news source?

Me: No. haha But that’s kind of the point. One of the things I always loved about Oliver, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert was their self awareness as entertainers. FOX, on the other hand, love to insist they are news personalities. I remember Stewart confronting Tucker Carlson on CNN, and Tucker called Stewart out for not doing enough journalism. Stewart reminded him that he was on CNN, and Stewart followed a program that was puppets making crank phone calls.

Host: I love that Crossfire interview.

Me: And yet there he is on FOX with one of the top shows doing the same thing. Oliver said during one of this shows that he has an editorial slant. They take positions on issues. But, that’s the whole thing, it’s an editorial program that doesn’t pretend to be news. They admit to their positions. They research thoroughly to formulate that position, but it’s a position.

Host: So do you worry about that position influencing yours?

Me: When I say that I like Last Week Tonight as a starting point for research, it’s like writing a college paper. You wouldn’t write a paper where all your sources were Wikipedia. Last Week Tonight is, to me, like Wikipedia. But what makes it great is that if you are unfamiliar with a topic, it’s also a list of, “Here’s sources you can look at.” That gets the ball rolling. It’s not where you stop, it’s where you start. It also helps that over the years they’ve done pieces on topics where I do feel more knowledgeable, and to see their research hit all of the major points instills a lot of confidence.

Host: Any examples?

Me: I worked as a data support person for a county’s homelessness program. They were what was known as a single point of entry, so all of the regional supports would direct new people to us first for intake, and we would review their entire situation. The idea was to connect them with supports beyond just shelter to stabilize them.

Host: Stuff like substance abuse and mental health services?

Me: Exactly. Oliver has done pieces on drug abuse. Society loves to distrust drug users and blame them for their problems. I can empathize to a degree about how hard it is to view something like that as a disease. But it is. And the data is there, also to show the best methods for combating the issue. Oliver’s piece went into those methods, like needle exchanges or supervised drug use sites, so it was good to see, like, “Okay, when they researched this piece they came across exactly the data we developed and used in the field.” Anytime we can apply data and the scientific process to something, I think we must to eliminate bias and influence.

Host: That’s the big through line here. The importance of data.

Me: I always come back to epistemology. It’s not just about knowing a thing. How do we know? People say, “I’m entitled to my opinion,” and it’s like, “Sure. But why is that your opinion and why are we supposed to base public policy on it?”

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