“A relentless barrage of misleading pronouncements about a given subject,” writes Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind, “can deprive one of one’s prior knowledge of that subject by muddying the waters and making one mistrust one’s own judgement.”
This sentence seems to perfectly describe the four year presidency of Donald Trump. The former President of the United States said a lot things that could not possibly be true, and didn’t seem to care whether his statements were accurate or inaccurate. There were times when he was clearly trying to mislead the nation, and times when he simply didn’t seem to know what he was talking about and made up claims that sounded good in the moment. Regardless of whether he was trying to deliberately mislead the public or not, his statements often had the same effect. They often created confusion, a buzz around a particular topic, and a dizzying array of rebuttals, of support arguments, and complicated fact-checks.
The President’s epistemic insouciance created confusion and bitter arguments that the President could spin for his own political gain. He would lie about meaningless topics and then criticize people for focusing on narrow and unimportant falsehoods. He would say random and sometimes contradictory things which would create so much confusion around a topic that people had trouble understanding what the argument was about and began to doubt factual information and reporting. The result was a blurring of the lines between reputable and fact-based reporting and hyperbolic opinionated reporting.
A clear lesson from Trump’s presidency is that we need to do a better job of holding elected officials to a higher standard with their statements. Unfortunately, it often goes against our self or group interest to hold the elected officials we favor to high standards. If we generally like a politician who happens to be epistemically insouciant, it is hard to vote against them, even if we know what they say is wrong or deliberately misleading. As many of Trump’s supporters demonstrated, it can be more comfortable to do complex mental gymnastics to make excuses for obviously inept and dangerous behaviors than to admit that our favored politician is lazy and incompetent.
Knowledge and accurate beliefs are important. We have entered a period in humanity where we depend on complex systems. Whether it is infrastructure, supply chains, or human impacts on climate, our actions and behaviors are part of large interconnected systems. None of us can understand these systems individually, and we depend on experts who can help us make sense of how we relate to larger wholes. We need to be investing in and developing systems and structures that encourage and facilitate knowledge. Using misinformation and disinformation for political purposes inhibits knowledge, and makes us more vulnerable to system collapses when we cannot effectively and efficiently coordinate our actions and behaviors as complex systems change or break. Going forward, we have to find a way to prevent the epistemically insouciant from muddying the waters and clouding our knowledge.