“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.
Over the last few years I feel as though I have seen an increase in the number of news outlets and reporters saying that we now live in a post-truth society. The argument is that truth and accuracy no longer matter to many people, and that we live in a world where people simply want to believe what they want to believe, regardless of the evidence. This argument is supported by documented instances of fake news, by a former US president who didn’t seem to care what the truth was, and by politicians and every day people professing beliefs that are clearly inaccurate as a type of loyalty test. This puts us in a position where it becomes difficult to communicate important information and create a coherent narrative based on accurate details surrounding the events of our lives.
Two concepts that Quassim Cassam discusses in his book Vices of the Mind can help us think about what it means to be in a post-truth society. Cassam writes, “one can be epistemically malevolent without being epistemically insouciant.” To me, it seems that a post-truth society depends on both malevolency and insouciance to exist. I find it helpful to see that there is a distinction in these two different postures toward knowledge.
To be epistemically malevolent means to intentionally and deliberately attempt to hinder and limit knowledge. Cassam uses the example of tobacco companies deliberately misleading the public on the dangers of smoking. Company executives intentionally made efforts to hide accurate scientific information and to mislead the public. In recent years we have seen epistemic malevolence in the form of fake-news, misinformation, and disinformation intended to harm political opponents and discourage voter turnout for opposing political parties.
Epistemic insouciance doesn’t necessarily have a malicious intent behind it. Instead, it is characterized by an indifference to the accuracy of information. You don’t need an intentional desire to spread false information in order to be epistemically insouciant. However, this careless attitude toward the accuracy of information is in some ways necessary for false information to take hold. Individuals who care whether their knowledge and statements are correct are less likely to be pulled in by the epistemically malevolent, and less likely to spread their messages. However, someone who favors what the epistemically malevolent have to say and is unwilling to be critical of the message are more likely to engage with such false messaging and to echo and spread malevolent lies. Even if an individual doesn’t want to be intentionally misleading, insouciance plays into malevolence.
This helps us see that our post-truth society will need to be addressed on two fronts. First, we need to understand why people are epistemically insouciant and find ways to encourage people to be more concerned with the accuracy and factuality of their statements and beliefs. External nudges, social pressures, and other feedback should be developed to promote factual statements and to hinder epistemic insouciance. This is crucial to getting people to both recognize and denounce epistemic malevolency. Once people care about the accuracy of their beliefs and statements, we can increase the costs of deliberately spreading false information. As things exist now, epistemic insouciance encourages epistemic malevolency. Combating epistemic malevolency will require that we address epistemic insouciance and then turn our attention to stopping the spread of deliberate falsehoods and fake news.
My last post was about epistemic insouciance, being indifferent to whether or not your beliefs, statements, and ideas are accurate or inaccurate. Epistemic insouciance, Quassim Cassam argues in Vices of the Mind is an attitude. It is a disposition toward accurate or false information that is generally case specific.
In the book, Cassam distinguishes between lies and epistemic insouciance. He writes, “lying is something that a person does rather than an attitude, and the intention to conceal the truth implies that the liar is not indifferent to the truth or falsity of his utterances. Epistemic insouciance is an attitude rather than something that a person does, and it does imply an indifference to the truth or falsity of one’s utterances.”
The distinction is helpful when we think about people who deliberately lie and manipulate information for their own gain and people who are bullshitters. Liars, as the quote suggests, know and care about what information is true and what is false. They are motivated by factors beyond the accuracy of the information, and do their best within their lies to present false information as factual.
Bullshitters, however, don’t care whether their information is accurate. The tools that work to uncover inaccurate information and counter a liar don’t work against a bullshitter because of their epistemic insouciance. Liars contort evidence and create excuses for misstatements and lies. Bullshitters simply flood the space with claims and statements of varying accuracy. If confronted, they argue that it doesn’t matter whether they lied or not, and instead argue that their information was wrong, that they didn’t care about it being wrong, and as a result they were not actually lying. This creates circular arguments and distracts from the epistemic value of information and the real costs of epistemic insouciance. Seeing the difference between liars and epistemically insouciant bullshitters is helpful if we want to know how to address those who intentionally obstruct knowledge.