This post is messy. It may be hard to follow. It certainly isn’t polished. I’m working through my thoughts and publishing it in the raw, formative state it emerged in.
I’ve talked a bit about epistemology before, in Ontology and Epistemology of Post Truth, Addressing the Epistemology of Post-Truth, and Annotation & Personal Epistemology. It’s a subject that intrigues me, and one I probably won’t let go for a long time.
Today I read danah boyd’s SXSWEdu keynote “You Think You Want Media Literacy… Do You?”. It’s a rich and challenging read–not because it’s difficult but because it makes you think. And it’s chock full of epistemology.
Her keynote is about the idealized push for media literacy and the drive for critical thinking. She makes it clear that her intention is to examine and interrogate contemporary media literacy and critical thinking praxis. I noticed right away there is a major epistemological undertone. She’s not just talking about how media literate the population is, she’s talking about their beliefs about knowledge and knowing, and what role education has it in. And, as if to make it more clear, she starts it all off, big and bold, with epistemology. Specifically, epistemological warfare.
But things get a little more complicated from there. I’m thinking about epistemology from a different angle. If you turn your head and squint you can see the subfield of personal epistemology emerge from educational psychology, which emerged from the historical, philosophical use of epistemology.
Take this quote boyd pulls from Cory Doctorow:
We’re not living through a crisis about what is true, we’re living through a crisis about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology. The “establishment” version of epistemology is, “We use evidence to arrive at the truth, vetted by independent verification (but trust us when we tell you that it’s all been independently verified by people who were properly skeptical and not the bosom buddies of the people they were supposed to be fact-checking).”
The “alternative facts” epistemological method goes like this: “The ‘independent’ experts who were supposed to be verifying the ‘evidence-based’ truth were actually in bed with the people they were supposed to be fact-checking. In the end, it’s all a matter of faith, then: you either have faith that ‘their’ experts are being truthful, or you have faith that we are. Ask your gut, what version feels more truthful?”
Doctorow is distinguishing between two epistemological methods: the “establishment” and the “independent.” It’s clear from his examples these are different ways of coming to know, but there is more there. From a personal epistemology standpoint his example of the “establishment” would fall into an absolutist personal epistemology framework. The knowledge may be coming from evidence, but it’s still coming from an authority and being transmitted down to the “knower”. The shift to the seemingly less desirable alternative facts epistemological method follows the evolution of personal epistemology. The knower grapples with the concept of Truth vs truth, and comes to a subjective framework. No one has the answers, so everyone has their answers. Neither example comes to that elusive contextual framework, where knowledge is created by the knower and based on the evidence that best fits the situation.
boyd’s commentary highlights the critical missing piece so important to personal epistemology, emphasis mine:
Let’s be honest — most of us educators are deeply committed to a way of knowing that is rooted in evidence, reason, and fact. But who gets to decide what constitutes a fact? In philosophy circles, social constructivists challenge basic tenets like fact, truth, reason, and evidence. Yet, it doesn’t take a doctorate of philosophy to challenge the dominant way of constructing knowledge.
Its not just a difference of what constitutes knowledge, but who contributes to it–creates it.
This is an area where I think formal education really falls on it’s face. boyd observes you don’t need to be a doctorate, or a philosopher, to challenge ways of thinking. You don’t need to be a doctorate or a philosopher to be a knowledge creator either; but our education system often sets it up that way. K-12 education sets up the “establishment” with an authority handing down knowledge from isolated individuals. College, and years outside the formal education system encourage a questioning of these authorities, a move into “independent” models. It generally isn’t until graduate school, or after many years experience in a career, that you are seen as a knowledge creator.
I lost my train of thought, so I’m going to jump to the next portion that stood out to me.
To once again quote boyd:
No matter what worldview or way of knowing someone holds dear, they always believe that they are engaging in critical thinking when developing a sense of what is right and wrong, true and false, honest and deceptive. But much of what they conclude may be more rooted in their way of knowing than any specific source of information.
If we’re not careful, “media literacy” and “critical thinking” will simply be deployed as an assertion of authority over epistemology.
An assertion of authority over epistemology. This really struck me.
I am very interested in changing people’s personal epistemolog(ies). Their tools, frameworks, perspectives on how they can interact with knowledge. I think education’s role in personal epistemology is a missing piece of the conversation we need to be having.
But is it ethical to do so? Who am I to say that one epistemological framework is more desirable than others? Is it different wanting to change personal epistemology than their overall epistemology? Can you even do such a thing?
I’ve lost myself again. My academic thoughts come in scattered bursts nowadays. I’m hesitant to share this in it’s ugly, unfinished state. I could save it, working on it over time; but if I do I fear I’ll never publish. At least if I put it out now you all can give me feedback and we can work on thoughts together, picking up the mess of threads I’ve left out today. Please don’t hesitate to contact me to clarify anything I’ve said here, or to pick up this conversation further.