How the voices of experts are drowned out.
We live not in the information age, but the misinformation age — according to a number of philosophers, such as Cailin O’Conner:
Most people, including academics, who have thought about false beliefs and fake news assume that the main problem has to do with our psychological biases. We accept new information that fits our current beliefs, things like that. But we want to push back on this idea. We think that to really understand why false beliefs can persist and even spread, you need to recognize that there is a deep social aspect to what we believe. Think about where virtually all of our beliefs, true and false, come from: someone told you something. Almost everything you believe you get from others. So now think about social media and how people’s social interactions influence the way they get info.
O’Conner also notes that there is an issue of trust regarding which sources people refer to:
Basically, each group only trusts evidence coming from those who share their beliefs. If you have similar beliefs to someone, you trust them. Once you have that sort of situation, you end up with people in very different camps only listening to the people who are like them […].
Therein lies the problem, and this can often combine with a number of other variables which further complicate the issue of misinformation; these further complications, I argue, constitute a doxastic pandemic.
Variable One: Epistemic and Scientific Literacy
There are differences in the ways in which experts relate to information and the ways in which the average person relates to that same information. The expert, for example, has a greater ‘epistemic literacy’ — that is, they have a greater understanding of what constitutes knowledge, which entails a greater precision in dissecting information and relating that to a larger body of knowledge. In a more specific sense, the kind of epistemic literacy which scientific experts have is scientific literacy; the scientist has a greater understanding than does the average person regarding the scientific method, the formation of scientific theories, how to evaluate a scientific source, and how — in drawing conclusions — to relate the information within a scientific source to a larger body of scientific knowledge.
Here is an example of how this distinction in literacy can, and has, played out. Many of the symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) are similar to that of influenza. Many with low epistemic and scientific literacy take this, and similar pieces of information, and conclude that SARS-CoV-2 is just another form of influenza, or is tantamount to influenza. Virologists, however, with greater epistemic and scientific literacy, know that, how, and why this is not the case. Not only do SARS-CoV-2 and influenza differ in many substantial, microbiological ways, but they also differ in many noticeable ways — for example:
COVID-19 survivors report many more long-term effects of the infection than influenza survivors. Lingering symptoms like weakness, shortness of breath, trouble focusing and, in some cases, kidney and heart problems are much more common after COVID-19 than after influenza.
Also at play, in the general realm of epistemic and scientific literacy and not just the example above, is the Dunning-Kruger Effect:
[…] the scope of people’s ignorance is often invisible to them. This meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance) arises because lack of expertise and knowledge often hides in the realm of the “unknown unknowns” or is disguised by erroneous beliefs and background knowledge that only appear to be sufficient to conclude a right answer.
Those who lack expertise are unaware that they are unaware, whereas experts have a greater awareness of what they are unaware of. The more one is epistemically and scientifically literate, the more aware they are of the gaps in their understanding — and the more humble or insecure they may appear to be, to the non-expert, when discussing what they are an expert in. For the non-expert, unaware of what they are unaware of, it is not uncommon to project this meta-ignorance onto other people; the expert, expressing reasonable doubt regarding something which they ultimately hold to be true or to be ‘close enough’ to the truth, is thereby not taken to be aware of what they are unaware of, but instead to be either uneducated or entirely rejecting what it is they are highlighting the reasonable doubt of.
Variable Two: Proportionality and Social Media
There are significantly less experts within a given field than there are non-experts, and this — coupled with the amplification of voices by social media, and the spread therein of misinformation rooted in epistemic and scientific illiteracy — can lead to the false impression that (1) there is a general expert agreement with the position of non-experts, e.g. through non-experts taking credible sources out of context and/or generalizing particular sources beyond what the epistemically and scientifically literate expert would, and thereby produce the false impression that (2) the actual majority of experts — those who may disagree with public consensus — are not credible.
Variable Three: Trust in Experts v.s. Conspiracy Theories
While most cases within the doxastic pandemic are rooted in the first two variables, the spread of various conspiracy theories on social media (and often in person as well) can drastically further the gap between experts and non-experts by amplifying the issue of trust which O’Conner notes. First, conspiracy theories further the distrust in experts by falsely ascribing to them a motivation which is intended to invalidate the content of what they are saying. Second, conspiracy theories very often persist because they are non-falsifiable; evidence contrary to the conspiracy theory is taken by the believer to be evidence in favour of it. Using SARS-CoV-2 as an example again, there are conspiracies regarding (1) mask-wearing being a totalitarian method of controlling the public, and (2) the vaccine being a way in which the public can be injected with ‘chips’ of some nefarious kind. When the expert or the individual with a general faith in experts responds to (1) by pointing to a large body of studies which suggest that mask-wearing is one effective measure of slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the conspiracy theorist will respond with something along the lines of “You are a sheep, and you prove how the public is being controlled!” When the expert or the individual with a general faith in experts responds to (2) with strong and reasonable doubt, the conspiracy theorist may accuse them of being a part of the conspiracy.
What Should We Do?
To curb the doxastic pandemic going forward, it is important that people become epistemically and scientifically literate, and therein develop a positive relationship with experts and the ability to determine when misinformation is being spread. While most people become epistemically and scientifically literate, in a meaningful way, as a consequence of higher education, tools which enhance epistemic and scientific literacy ought to become more widely available and easily consumable. We can, and should, also push for educational reform within K-12 curricula which place a greater emphasis upon epistemic and scientific literacy.
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