Epistemically Malevolent & Epistemically Insouciant

Epistemically Malevolent & Epistemically Insouciant

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.

More on Hiding Our Motives

Deception is a big part of being a human being. If we try, we can all think of times when we have been deceived. Someone led us to believe one thing, and then we found out that something different was really going on the whole time. If we are honest with ourselves, we can also see that we clearly try to deceive others all the time. We make ourselves seem like we are one thing, but in many ways, we are not exactly what we present ourselves as being. Sometimes we truly are genuine, but often, we are signaling a particular behavior or trait to a group so that we can be accepted, praised, and get some sort of future benefit. In order to do this really well, we create stories and ideas about why we do the things we do, deceiving even ourselves in the process. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wright in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “We hide some of our motives…in order to mislead others.”

 

This is not a pretty idea of humans, and expressing this idea is an admittance that we sometimes are not as great as we like to make everyone believe. This is not an idea that is popular or that everyone will be quick to admit, but I believe that Simler and Hanson are right in saying that it is a huge driving influencer of the world around us. I also don’t think that accepting this about ourselves ends up leaving us in as sad, cynical, and dejected of a place as one might think. Humans and our social groups are complicated, and sometimes being a little deceptive, doing things with ulterior motives at their base, and behaving in a way to signal group alliance or value can be a net positive. We can recognize that we do these things, that we are deceptive, and that we deceive others by lying about our motives, and still make a good impact in the world. The altruist who donates money to the Against Malaria foundation may tell himself and everyone he knows that he donates because he wants to save people’s lives, but truly he just gets a warm glow within himself, and that is perfectly fine as long as the externality from his status seeking behavior is overwhelmingly positive (looking in the mirror on this one).

 

If we don’t accept this reality about ourselves and others then we will spend a lot of time trying to work on the wrong problem and a lot of time being confused as to why our mental models of the world don’t seem to work out. In my own life, recognizing status seeking behavior, self-deception, and motivated thinking helps me to be less judgmental toward other people. I recognize that I have the same capacity for these negative and deceptive behaviors within myself, and I choose (as much as I can) to redirect these types of behaviors in directions that have the greatest positive social impact rather than in the direction that has the greatest personal benefit for me and my feelings. Ultimately, I encourage us to be honest about the fact that we are sometimes rather dishonest and to build our awareness in a way that is easy on ourselves and others for behaving as humans naturally behave, but still nudges us in a direction where we create positive externalities where possible from these ways of being.