Tag Archives: post-truth

Epistemic triage

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about epistemic dependence and the idea that we need to trust experts because we are unable to verify everything ourselves as life is too short and there are too many things to think about.  However, this approach exposes us to the risk of being misled and Julian Baggini has suggested that this risk is increasing with the growth of psychology, which has allowed more people to master methods of manipulating us, that has led to ‘a kind of arms race of deception in which truth is the main casualty.’  He suggests that when we are presented with new information then we should perform an epstemic triage by asking:

  • Is this a domain in which anyone can speak the truth?
  • What kind of expert is a trustworthy source of truth in that domain?
  • Is a particular expert to be trusted?

The deluge of information, which streams in front of our eyes when we look at the screens of our phones, computers and televisions, seems to leave most of us grasping for a hold on reality.  Perhaps we should treat it all as fiction until have performed Baggini’s triage, at least on the sources of the information streams, if not also the individual items of information.

Source:

Julian Baggini, A short history of truth: consolations for a post-truth world, London: Quercus Editions Ltd, 2017.

Traditionalist tendencies revealed

Thank you for the supportive comments in response to my post on January 4th about to blog or not to blog [see ‘A tiny contribution to culture?‘].  They dispelled any lingering doubts about continuing to write every week.  When I first started writing this blog, I didn’t have an editor.  Then, for a while an English literature graduate, who I know well, acted as my editor.  He didn’t run off with the butler but his enthusiasm waned and I am very grateful to my current editor, who ensures that my narrative threads are not severed or [too] tangled and my sentences are complete.

Feedback is a tricky thing because often it only comes from a small but vocal minority; so, how much notice should one take of it?  We live in a world where the ‘customer’ is always right and a response to feedback is often an expectation.  I felt some pressure to respond to last week’s comments and they were positive – it becomes almost an imperative when the comments are negative, even when expressed by a tiny minority of ‘customers’.  This might be appropriate if you are running a hotel or an automotive service department but seems inappropriate in other settings, such as education.  Engineering students need to develop creative problem-solving skills and research shows that students tend to jump into algebraic manipulation whereas experts experiment to find the best approach.  This means that engineering students need to become comfortable with the slow and uncertain process of creating representations and exploring the space of possibilities, which is achieved through extensive practice, according to Martin and Schwartz. Not surprisingly, most students find this difficult but are uncomplaining; however, for some it is not to their liking and they provide, often vocal, feedback along these lines.  This is fine and to be expected.  However, in the post-truth world of higher education, many administrators and governments appear to value the views of these vocal students more highly than the experts delivering the education – at least so it seems much of the time.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t evaluate the quality of educational provision but perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask our students after they have had the opportunity to experience the impact of their education on their post-university life as well as considering the impact of our students on society.  Of course, this would be much more difficult for administrators than collating a set of on-line questionnaires each term.  However, it would have a longer time constant which would be more conducive to evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes in curricula and pedagogy.  Now I sound like a traditionalist when I have been trying so hard to be a post-modernist!

References

Martin L & Schwartz DL, A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking, Visual Studies, 29(1):80-93, 2014.

Martin L & Schwartz DL, Prospective adaptation in the use of external representations, Cognition and Instruction, 27(4):370-400, 2009.