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23 February 2012

Epistemology and Public Discourse

As I have mentioned in the blog recently, I am teaching a Critical Thinking course for the first time this semester. The course is new to our college. It fits a role in the state-mandated core that highlights the distinctiveness of each institution within the state system. As the designated liberal arts college of the system, a course in critical thinking is quite appropriate, I believe. The course is offered by many departments/disciplines. The sociology offering takes a social problems format. As often happens, teaching this new course is really challenging me to reevaluate my knowledge and perspective. Usually, this happens within the confines of sociology proper, but given the broader nature of a critical thinking course, I find that I am reifying some unrecognized assumptions that I had brought to both my job and my worldview. In particular, I am coming to appreciate a more explicit epistemology.

Claims-making happens all around us. We encounter claims from political candidates, elected officials, journalists, pundits, bloggers, religious elites, teachers, parents, friends, etc. The ultimate question is "How do they know?" Anyone can posit a claim, and anyone with half a working brain can make those claims internally consistent. To add epistemological rigor, however, the claims must be empirically verifiable. After all, not every logical or reasonable claim is actually true. We have to look to see if they are correct. Luckily, we have a lot of existing data with which to test ideas.

Often, though, claims are made on grounds that are not verifiable. By my estimation, these kinds of claims take three forms. First, claims made on religious grounds are by definition non-empirical and thus lie outside of the realm of testing. A good example would be that "life begins at conception." Since this has a religious base (even though no religious text explicitly states such a thing), it is not refutable. "Life" has ironically been impossible for biologists to clearly define. An exception to these religious claims is when they cross over into the realm of empiricism. Creationism/anti-evolution and climate-change denial claims would be good examples.We can refute these with overwhelming evidence. Second, claims made on emotional grounds are not testable. How can I argue against the fact that you are angry or happy or disgusted? Third, claims made by intuition or "gut feeling" are impossible to address. These tend to be obvious indicators of weakness for a given issue.

Increasingly, claims-makers are getting savvy, avoiding verifiable claims and relying almost solely on one of the three types of claims listed above--especially if the claims are inconveniently falsified by empirical evidence. This is problematic as such claims are game stoppers. If we are having a public discourse about things that matter, like access to abortion or how we educate our children, we need to actually have a discussion, and this cannot happen if we make statements to which others can literally not respond.

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