Thursday 22 February 2018

On Folk Epistemology

Mikkel Gerken is associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark. In this post he writes about his new book ‘On Folk Epistemology. How we think and talk about knowledge’.

A central claim of my book, On Folk Epistemology. How we think and talk about knowledge, is that some folk epistemological patterns of knowledge ascriptions are best explained by cognitive biases. I argue that this approach to folk epistemology yields diagnoses of some hard puzzles of contemporary epistemology. So, On Folk Epistemology seeks to contribute to some prominent debates in contemporary epistemology. For example, I criticize contextualism, pragmatic encroachment, knowledge-first epistemology etc. If you want to check it out, there is an introduction and overview here.

In this blog post, however, I will emphasize why the study of folk epistemology is an important task. In a nutshell, it is because folk epistemology is extremely consequential. Consider, for example, the roles of knowledge ascriptions in our social interactions. We acquire the ability to think and talk about knowledge early in life. Moreover, mental and linguistic ascriptions and denials of knowledge remain extremely prominent in adulthood. Indeed, linguistic knowledge ascriptions are arguably among the most important speech acts that we engage in on a daily basis.

To ascribe knowledge to oneself or to someone else is a powerful speech act that gives the proposition said to be known a special status. Often it indicates that we are in a position to act on the proposition. Moreover, the subject to whom knowledge is ascribed is often given a stamp of social approval or disapproval. Just consider phrases such as “she is in the know” or “he doesn’t know what he is talking about.” Consequently, knowledge ascriptions are central to many of the social scripts that govern social life. So, if our knowledge ascriptions and intuitions about them are biased, we’d want to understand how and why. After all, we do not want to make our decisions about whom to trust and how to act based on biased judgments.

Understanding the biases of our folk epistemology is all the more urgent given that they may lead to social injustices. This may be the case if biases reflect stereotypes that pertain to gender, race or class. Folk epistemological biases are particularly relevant to distinctively epistemic injustices. While epistemic injustices may be caused by general “identity prejudices”, folk epistemological biases are especially relevant.

After all, they may lead us to mistakenly regard someone who in fact knows that p as not knowing it. Thus, biases of our folk epistemology may lead to “wrongs done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower” which is Miranda Fricker’s initial conception of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007). At present, we do not know enough about whether folk epistemological biases interact with biases pertaining to gender, race or class. Here I think of On Folk Epistemology as providing part of a framework for further research on epistemic injustice.

Another reason to study folk epistemology is that biases associated with it may be exploited for less than noble purposes. Consider, for example, what I call epistemic focal bias. Simplified, it may occur when an error-possibility is made salient and we automatically process it as if it is relevant to knowledge – even when it is not. This may result in false negatives: Cases where the subject in fact knows that p but is mistakenly regarded as a non-knower. Consequently, epistemic focal bias may be exploited to manufacture doubt or illusions of ignorance. 

For example, I may stall some action that rests on a known fact by raising an error-possibility. If I do so in a clever way, you will be less inclined to regard yourself and others as knowing the fact in question. But, if so, you are less likely to act on it. For instance, climate change deniers excel in making salient various error-possibilities to the proposition that global warming is caused by CO2 emissions. Even though many of these error-possibilities are epistemically irrelevant or even rebutted, raising them in the right context may effectively motivate the claim that we do not know that global warming is caused by CO2 emissions. Of course, the biases of folk epistemology are only part of the broader account of why climate denialism remains prevalent. Yet it may be an important and poorly understood part of the full story. Fortunately, the study of folk epistemology may help to improve our understanding of it.

More generally, On Folk Epistemology provides some cautious optimism about the idea that epistemologists may play an important part in an inter-disciplinary effort to resolve epistemic injustices that arise from biases inherent in our folk epistemological presuppositions and practices. Identifying and diagnosing folk epistemological biases is intrinsically valuable. But it also marks an important area for applied epistemology as well as a novel interdisciplinary research field.


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