25 January 2021

Epistemology Has Consequences

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
- Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire.

About 50 million American adults (a third of U.S. voters, this may be an under estimate because it omits non-voters who share similar beliefs) readily believe all manner of things that are deeply disconnected from reality and are simply aren't true in a provable manner.

Some of these things include the false belief that there was massive election fraud in 2020 that caused Trump to lose an election that he actually won, the belief that climate change is false, the belief that COVID-19 is a hoax or is on a par with the flu, the belief that mass gatherings without masks or social distancing or vaccines does not spread a dangerous disease, the belief that information from sources such as mainstream media sources, medical experts, and higher educational institutions is completely unreliable, the belief that evolution is bunk while Young Earth Creationism is real, belief in QAnon Conspiracy theories, etc.

People are entitled to their own opinions and have different interests, but they aren't entitled to their own facts. A world where a third of the electorate has grossly inaccurate views about reality and facts is deeply dangerous to democracy and to the future of the United States. There is plenty of room for disagreement left in a world where we are fighting about values and which true facts are most important without having to have disagreements over things that are objectively true and provable. The fact that someone says that it is raining on a sunny day, doesn't make the actual state of the weather a matter of opinion.

The roots of our current predicament are buried in the Second Great Awakening in U.S. history, in the early 19th century, and associated concepts like Christian Fundamentalism and Biblical Literalism. These religious movements and concepts put the Bible at the apex of authority in determining the truth about the world.

One of the first places that the implications of this manifested in the U.S. political and legal system was in the First Amendment freedom of religion court battles over teaching evolution in schools, for example, in the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, since this well established scientific concept was at odds with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis in the Bible.

Creationism isn't a product of lack of information. One might have reasonably suspect that this was the source at some point, but the ubiquity of the Internet and progress in K-12 science instruction over the last few decades has pretty much definitively ruled that out as a cause.

Every middle school and high school biology class discusses evolution and other forms of science which are inconsistent with creationism, and even if they didn't, ideas inconsistent with creationism (in its less sophisticated young Earth variety that is the naive interpretation of the Book of Genesis in the Bible) are deeply embedded in mainstream popular culture and unavoidable.

Instead, Young Earth Creationism is the product of a deliberate decision to prioritize Biblical Literalism as a source of accurate knowledge about the world over science, the K-PhD educational establishment, mainstream media, and so on.

The philosophical choices that adherence to creationism (and other aspects of Biblical literalism) requires someone to make in their epistemology is the gateway and lynch pin to all of the other things that a large segment of Americans on the right, especially Evangelical Christians, believe that are grossly at odds with science and observational evidence.

Once you make a choice that science, educators, the mainstream media, the government and should be disregarded because they contradict a literal reading of the Bible, the constraints that prevent the rest of us (including hard core European political conservatives who adhere to non-literalist forms of Christianity) are gone. Therefore, pseudo-science, actual fake news, and mood affiliation can swoop in to fill the vacuum when some highly authoritative figure within the movement (like a televangelist or former President Trump) who is a source of knowledge below the Bible but above reliable mainstream sources, endorses these ideas.

This is why this subset of perhaps 50 million Americans are profoundly more vulnerable to the "Big Lie" than the rest of us.

When I say "deprogramming" in my previous post at this blog, that prompted some active commentary, something which I view as a top priority in the post-Trump era, the main issue I am getting at is trying to get these folks to recognize that the way that their epistemology priorities the reliability of sources of information is broken.

There is more than one way to do that, which basically boil down to various strategies for coping with cognitive dissonance

Devout mainstream Christians often decide that there are domains in which Biblical and religious authority is paramount, and there are other domains in which secular sources are paramount (evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould called these domains "magisteria"). 

Some people deconvert or change religions, which is one of the reasons for mass secularization in Europe and the United States in the last century or so (sooner in Europe by a couple of generations, at least, than in the United States, in part, due to the division between church and state in the United States that left people discontented with the established religions in European countries with more choices and left the church with less pressure to avoid tensions with secular authorities).

Some people convince themselves there secular sources are fake as descriptions of reality but that pretending they are real to be able to function in the world is a bit like honoring the rules of nature that apply in a video game or to understand a fantasy novel, knowing full well that video games and fantasy novels don't describe reality. 

But the prospects for American if a large share of those 50 million people don't do something to address the fact that they are participating in making decisions for all of us in a democratic society based upon a worldview that is deeply disconnected from reality are dire.

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