Against Street Epistemology

by Eponym6 min read25th Apr 201928 comments

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According to https://streetepistemology.com/publications/street_epistemology_the_basics , street epistemology is a "conversational technique" which is intended to be "a more productive and positive alternative to debates and arguments." Street epistemologists assume a role similar to Socrates in Plato's dialogues, asking questions of his interlocutor to try to create a realisation of ignorance in them. The goal of street epistemology is to find incoherences in people's beliefs, and to convince them of the value of "scepticism."

A street epistemologist tries to remain calm and pleasant throughout the entire interaction, and to build rapport at the beginning in order to make their interlocutor comfortable with the exchange. After introductions and rapport are established,they can ask their interlocutor to identify a belief and give an approximate level of confidence in it (on a scale of 1 to 10). The early stages of the conversation, after identifying the belief, are devoted to making the belief clear and precise so that there is as little ambiguity as possible, and less wiggle room if and when incoherences are found. Terms are defined, clarifying questions are asked and answered. To confirm that the belief is understood, before trying to undermine it, the street epistemologist will try to give a paraphrase of the view that his interlocutor finds charitable and acceptable.

Having pinpointed what the claim is, the street epistemologist then asks which methods the interlocutor used to arrive at their confidence level in this belief. This is the very first question in what might be called the cross-examination stage, and it reveals what sort of incoherence is being sought in these conversations. Street epistemology is all about finding poorly articulated or unarticulated spots in people's epistemological views. One the interlocutor has given a few answers and it comes time to dive into them, the website recommends focusing only on "one or two" of the methods listed, ideally those that are identified as most important. The idea here is to ask many questions about the methods and sources of evidence, hoping that at some point there will be a stumper that causes the interlocutor to notice mistakes or incoherence in their thought. Whether the street epistemologist succeeds is identified partly by observing their body language during the interaction: the website mentions, for example, that looking up in thought to avoid eye contact might be a sign.

Crucially, during this whole process the street epistemologist is told to avoid talking about the content of the beliefs or the particulars of the evidence. Again, the point is to find holes in the interlocutor's epistemology, not per se with the belief itself. The conversation is a step removed from the belief, instead focusing on examining the epistemology on which the belief is supposedly based. For that reason, street epistemologists are also instructed to avoid presenting additional evidence or advancing arguments against the interlocutor's position. To do any of this is described on the website as getting "pulled in the weeds" and "sidetracked." The questions and of the conversation should only be about the one or two methods chosen earlier.

That's enough of a sketch that I can dive into my thoughts. Street epistemology strikes me as misguided in a couple of ways. First, because it treats scepticism as a positive position or worldivew, abstracted from the intentional content , rather than an attitude toward particular beliefs or proposals. ("Sceptical about what?" "Oh, just sceptical in general.") Second, because it assumes that people's ability to articulate and defend epistemological methods has any special bearing on the warrant for their belief.

On the first, we've already seen that people who practice street epistemology have the explicit aim of spreading scepticism, and that in doing so they consider dealing with the particular content of the beliefs "getting stuck in the weeds." The mode of conversation, the Socratic chain of questions and answers, is abused in order to avoid having to deal with the particular evidence or content. Usually, someone is sceptical toward some belief for some reason. Those reasons will normally have to do with the content of the belief, the associated evidence or arguments, and so forth. Yet street epistemology suggests, by what it chooses to ask about and through the premises of the questions, that people should be sceptical that they can know anything. It suggests that the methods they use are so faulty that knowing the particulars of the belief is extraneous information.

It is only after the series of questions successfully undermine the interlocutor's sense of their epistemic foundations, not just for the belief in question, but in general, that the conversation ever goes back to the particulars and context of the initial belief. And then, it is only to point out that the interlocutor's responses to the questions imply that it is unwarranted. The problem with this is that in any earnest form of enquiry, the relevant context of the particular judgements has to be considered from the very beginning. A claim, even if successful, that one of several methods was faulty or unreliable does not itself touch on the veracity of the belief.

The point here is analogous to one often made about logical fallacies. While it may be true that affirming the consequent is invalid, it does not follow that any instance of affirming the consequent is unsound. In order to determine that, we would have to consider the content of the premises and the balance of the evidence for or against them. Indeed, going into those details is also necessary to determine whether the particular method in this case was faulty. Reconstructing an argument presented in natural language into a symbolic form requires grappling with the meaning of the claims. Logical structure can be discerned only by knowing the meaning and content.

On the second issue, it may be the case that the interlocutor has never made their methods of knowing sufficiently explicit to articulate them accurately in a conversation, if they are even aware of vaguely what those methods are. It depends on how experienced they are at thinking about the particular topic at hand. Because of this, they might mischaracterise the relevant methods in order to provide a enough detail to satisfy the norms of the conversation. Asking a relatively intellectually inexperienced person (on the topic at hand) to elaborate on their methods is a bit like trying to ask a novice at the gym why he leaned forward when going down into a squat, and whether that was good or bad. There are definite reasons that any more experienced powerlifter will perceive right away, but the novice won't know where to look in his experience to find the answer (although it is there, in his experience).

Rather than asking them outright to give explicit reasons for a belief for the purpose of questioning them, it would be much better to have them give several minutes of uninterrupted, free-association thoughts about the subject, and then try to tease out their reasoning from there. This closely resembles the best practices in witness interviews developed by forensic psychologists. It's the best way to ensure that you are not relying on a potentially non-existent explicit understanding in your questions, and to avoid biasing their statement about the beliefs and evidence with the wording and direction of your questions.

This gets at a broader point which people tend not to consider, which is that most forms of theoretical knowledge are more like the knowledge of how to play the piano than they are like knowledge of what you ate for breakfast. They are driven by craft, which is passed down by both written and oral traditions through training and schooling.

Training in biology, for example, involves spending time having the best techniques, mnemonics, and interpretations of the relevant material or activity explained to you by experts who have already mastered them to some degree. Learning and remembering facts is part of it, but there is also skill and experienced judgement in how a biologist designs an experiment, in how they set up the laboratory equipment to conduct it, and in how they interpret and organise the results for publication. There needs to be a sense, at every step, of what's appropriate, what's relevant, what's fruitful, and so forth. This also applies to our ability to use the five senses in extremely normal ways. Something as quintessential as noticing what's in your visual field is an activity which you can spend your entire lifetime honing and teaching, as visual artists do.

Street epistemology tries very hard to be neutral in several ways: with respect to evidence, arguments, the tone and tenor of the conversation, and even the particular methods that are called into question. One motivation behind this is that the conversation is not about the street epistemologists' views, whether epistemic or in terms of the content of the belief in question. The conversation is supposed to be exclusively about the interlocutor's epistemic methods relative to one of their views, methods which are explored in such a way that their internal contradictions reveal themselves over the course of impartial questions.

What I've tried to argue, though, is that street street epistemology smuggles in many assumptions about epistemology. It is hardly neutral about it in the way it assumes and requires. By avoiding the context and content of the beliefs, street epistemology adopts a view in which knowledge is a nexus of propositions connected by chains of reasoning. These chains are formed by "epistemic methods" (analogous with proposed rules of inference) which may or may not be reliable (analogous with valid). Someone is warranted to believe a proposition only if they can show that they arrived at it by a reliable method. Because of this, people of varying levels of skill and practice in the relevant activities are held to the same epistemic expectations. They are all equally expected to articulate their beliefs in such a way that they can identify, not only the evidence for them, but also some methods used to obtain and assess the evidence. They must also be able to defend these methods as generally reliable, when abstracted from the context of the particular belief. Even if this standard were good, which I hope I have at least called into question, this would be unreasonable. People with little to no ability to engage in epistemological discourse may still be warranted to have beliefs.

Street epistemology tries to characterise the conversation as conceptually neutral. Yet its take on the Socratic method bakes in so many assumptions about epistemology that it is very easy to disagree, in at least four ways: a) with the implicit epistemology, b) with the characterisation of the discourse implicit in the premises of the questions, c) with the aim and structure of the line of questioning, and d) with the content of the questions, including the content excluded by them. I provided examples of disagreement along all these lines in the discussion of craft above. To address any of these problems, though, requires stepping outside of the framework of street epistemology, because it requires that the street epistemologist, the questioner, express positive views. This ends the Socratic mode of a series of questions and answers, and gets "stuck in the weeds" of discussing the content of beliefs.

In order to seek, in good faith, to help improve an interlocutor's beliefs, I would suggest doing exactly what street epistemologists are advised against in the online guide. Go to the particulars of the belief and the relevant context. Engage directly in argument. Look at varying examples of evidence. Do not be afraid of frustration or heated exchanges, since often that is an important sign for both people that they have reached a crucial problem in the discussion that needs to be resolved. Teach relevant skills if the other person lacks them. Perhaps most important, expect the conversation to last off and on for a long time in the context of acquaintance or friendship, rather than as a one-off exchange with a stranger.

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I think there's no need to go into detailed discussion of all the things attributed to SE in this post, but being a host of a Russian SE community, I'll be happy to answer any particular questions if you have them.

I think I'll start by saying some thoughts that come to mind and maybe we'll expand from there.

First of all, street epistemology (SE) is a tool and not an ideology. So for me it's certainly not "all about finding poorly articulated or unarticulated spots in people's epistemological views". It's about having the best conversations I can have. And if I know how to improve my conversations in any way, I would just do that. When I think about SE I think about unpacking the belief in question and discussing the reliability of the ways of reasoning being used. It's not at all necessary to find flaws in reasoning, the interlocutor (IL) can easily turn out to be better equipped than ourselves, and then we can learn from her, and not the other way around.

So, having said that, those articles on the website are to be considered as some particular understanding of the method by different interested people, and not as some official rules to be applied in your conversations using SE. As much as I like what I think I've learned from SE, I have lots of disagreement with some of the things written in those articles too. For example, I also don't like the part from the website article where it suggests to "ask questions that, when answered, lead to a contradiction of your interlocutor's assumptions or hypotheses". Probably it's just a poor choice of words, but one can assume that the purpose is to find contradictions, which it is not.

So the criticisms in the OP are somewhat fair if SE is considered a literal application of what's said in the articles from the website, but I would suggest against it.

Now about "avoiding presenting additional evidence or advancing arguments against the interlocutor's position".

I wouldn't suggest avoiding arguments whatsoever. I would even suggest for it but with a small catch: first make sure the interlocutor is interested in your arguments and that she will probably find that particular kind of argument valid for herself in that context. For example, your IL says that she is against legalization of prostitution because it makes people involved worse off, and you believe that it's just plain wrong and people involved have a better say on this subject (I'm not saying that's the case, it's just for the sake of an example). So instead of just saying, "But it's wrong because those people themselves want it, and they know better than anyone what's at stake here", just ask first, "Would you be interested in learning the opinion of people directly involved, and how could their opinion influence your own stance on the question?" If the IL is interested and can find it potentially important to know, then feel free to present that evidence. And another point is that after such a question the argument itself will probably be more welcome. But if your IL is not interested, then you would have wasted your effort anyway, and you should probably just continue unpacking her belief by questions like, "Why do you think people involved would be worse off?" etc.

And if both the parties are ready to just present arguments and evidence to each other straight away and honestly assess them, and possibly shift their positions if the evidence suggests it, then yes, you don't need SE at all in that situation.

It's just a set of tools which you can use in situations you see fit for it. Learn from it whatever you think is useful for you, and feel free to improve on that.

I seem to recall “street epistemology” being popular among the Russian Less Wrong community. Perhaps one of them could comment, telling us of their experiences with it? Does “street epistemology” as practiced by Russian LessWrongers resemble what is described in the OP? How does it play out in practice? How fair are these criticisms?

The criticisms are somewhat fair if SE is considered a literal application of what's said in the articles from the webside, but what we practice doesn't resemble what's described in the OP. I've written a comment below.

I didn't know "street epistemology" was a thing, but over the years I've run into a few people who thought asking incisive questions was a good way to make conversation with me. I usually start ignoring them after the second or third question, because to me that's just not what conversation is about! If someone consistently fails to tell me anything new or surprising (even when directly prompted), what's the point of talking? Thankfully, LW has many people who, upon joining a conversation, openly state their beliefs and give interesting arguments for them instead of trying to snipe others. Scott is maybe the brightest example, I try to imitate him whenever I can.

I love it when someone asks me a question that gets me to teach myself something. This happens on Facebook once in a while, often by accident. If someone seriously tries to help me find the basis of or implications of or flaws in my thinking, I appreciate it. This may be a personal problem. I love answering certain questions, even when they don’t teach me anything. I am not always good at looking at things from a different perspective. Sometimes even a really ignorant question can spark off a new realization for me.

I've met a university professor who asked me lots of questions, but avoided giving me her own opinions. I felt left in the dark and suspicious of her intentions. My impression was that she used her belief that heated arguments don't lead anywhere as an excuse to shield herself from judgment.

That said, I, like her, but unlike the OP, think heated arguments are indeed counterproductive. Ideally, each person should expose both what they know and what they don't know and aim to build on each other's ideas. I find discussions on LW to be good examples of what I mean. Of course, one needs to balance that ideal with status preservation, especially at work.

In order to seek, in good faith, to help improve an interlocutor's beliefs

But it isn't the set of any specific beliefs that SE is about. Think about it as "improving credence calibration by accounting for justification methodology". What would be your advice then?

At its core, SE is merely coaching people in asking the Fundamental Question of Rationality. As an SE-er, it's my way of Raising the Sanity Waterline. It's excellent at circumventing the Backfire Effect.

There are as many motivations for SE as there are practitioners.

I'm a bit confused just what you are really against about street epistemology. It seems, as you describe it, that street epistemology may often not be an appropriate means to achieve ends you care about, nor necessarily even the ends the proponents of street epistemology care about, but this just seems to be saying that this relatively obscure thing of street epistemology is ineffective at serving certain purposes. So what then is there to be against, other than perhaps unskillfulness?

Maybe I'm just thrown by your post's title and you meant this more to just be "here's why street epistemology is ineffective" or something like that?

I gave a bunch of concrete criticisms. For those reasons I think it's flawed as a practice and approach to discourse. What's there to be confused about?

Well, when someone says they are "against" something I usually expect there to be a presentation of reasons why the thing one is against should be avoided. I came away from reading this with a sense that you found plenty of things you didn't like about street epistemology but not much of an argument towards a norm that excludes it. That made me curious if there was something more you didn't say that causes you to title the post "against street epistemology" where there is some norm/ought you meant to advance that I didn't pick up on out of the various reasons you find street epistemology either unlikeable or failing to satisfy some criterion, including criteria street epistemology thinks it fulfills.

Put another way, you told me a bunch of reasons why street epistemology sucks at some things, but didn't really tie together for me why that matters to you or convince me why that should matter to me, and that's the kind of thing I expected from a title like "against street epistemology".

If a practice is flawed and fruitless, isn't that a reason to avoid it? That was the idea, anyway. What I said about it has to do with its structure and content, not with what I "dislike" about it.

But is it really fruitless? Yes, you showed it's flawed, but I can immediately imagine ways it might achieve what seems to be its goal of getting people to notice better how they came to think what they think and throw it into a light where they might re-examine those reasons and move towards reflective equilibrium. Maybe it's not the best way to do it, but it's a way that likely works at least sometimes for some people or else I would expect it wouldn't have been so salient to you as to be worth writing about (compare the way no one has to write a post explaining why giving yourself concussions to lose weight is a bad idea—it's got no proponents, no reasons to think it would work, and probably no kernel of value that might be doing something in a less-than-optimal way but still doing something in the expected direction).

That's what I'm trying to get at: why do you think it's fruitless? I see arguments showing it has problems, but not a clear line of reasoning to show me that those problems make it not worth it weighed against whatever benefits people who promote it believe it delivers. If I was a proponent of street epistemology I'd read this and say "yeah, sure, it's not a perfect method, but on balance it's better than not doing it so I'm going to keep doing it" and being neutral I read this and say "yeah, okay, I see, there are a few problems, but every method has some problems for some purposes, so I remain neutral on it and am not swayed either way". Again, since you say "against", I anticipated and wanted to ask if there was some argument for "against" rather than "neutral but better informed of the caveats".

street epistemology suggests, by what it chooses to ask about [....] that people should be sceptical that they can know anything.

That isn't entirely neutral... although it's hard to see how you could say or do anything that is entirely neutral.. but it is well warranted. Epistemologists have identified a lot of specific things laypeople get wrong, and moreover have general arguments to the effect that it is hard to know anything.

it treats scepticism as a positive position or worldivew, abstracted from the intentional content , rather than an attitude toward particular beliefs or proposals. (“Sceptical about what?” “Oh, just sceptical in general.“)

Are you saying that global scepticism is wrong or indefensible? Or just that it is presupposition of the street Epistemologist's, and so that the problem is done kind of bias.

It suggests that the methods they use are so faulty that knowing the particulars of the belief is extraneous information.

In my experience, when laypeople use special pleading, they are overwhelmingly likely to be using it fallaciously. If you are offering philosophical therapy to people, it is reasonable to assume they are inclined to overconfidence and under generalisation, just as it is reasonable to assume they aren't eating enough vegetables.

Are you saying that global scepticism is wrong or indefensible? Or just that it is presupposition of the street Epistemologist's, and so that the problem is done kind of bias.

The second is closer to what I'm saying. SE makes a whole bunch of loaded assumptions about knowledge and method which are baked into the structure of the conversation but which the conversation is designed to avoid discussing. Hence what I say in the last two paragraphs.

In my experience, when laypeople use special pleading

What does this have to do with special pleading?

I'm using "special pleading" to summarise the opposite of rule based epistemology, the thing you think is excluded. (I'm not actually all that the clear what it is. Some examples would be useful).

The second is closer to what I’m saying. SE makes a whole bunch of loaded assumptions about knowledge and method which are baked into the structure of the conversation but which the conversation is designed to avoid discussing. Hence what I say in the last two paragraphs.

To repeat: some assumptions have to be made, and the ones that SE makes are fairly standard.

You demonstrate ignorance of skepticism. If one is skilled in critical thinking, one is skilled in skepticism. There is NO other method better for understanding objective reality. What Street Epistemology attempts to do is subtly teach this skill. Once learned, the theist can easily find out for themselves that all religion is false.

This is a legitimate question, and I'm not trying to set you up for a sort of "gotcha" response, I actually want to know; what would be a more reliable way of coming to be confident in beliefs than rational skepticism? My understanding was that the entire point of rational skepticism is not to fundamentally doubt everything, but to just double check, using critical thinking, the reliability of claims currently believed and claims proposed for belief. This seems like a foundationally effective toolset to increase confidence in beliefs across the board. However, it sounds like you're saying that applying such a blanket methodology is insufficient and/or not generalizable enough? If this is correct, if you could please elaborate on what you think would be a more robust epistemological model, that would be great, thanks!

"Questioning is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen. It is assuming a superiority, and it is particularly wrong to question a man concerning himself. There may be parts of his former life which he may not wish to be made known to other persons, or even brought to his own recollection."

Samuel Johnson, as quoted in Boswell's Life.

This doesn't seem like good advice to me.

I had not heard of street epistemology before, but I am glad it has been brought to my attention, the better to defend myself against strangers seeking deep conversations with passers-by. I notice that their "basics" guide linked in the OP makes no reference to the truth of the beliefs the s.e. seeks to undermine, although in fairness, their "complete guide" linked on that site does.

I'd like to see one of these street epistemologists in conversation with someone like, say, J. Budziszewski, someone at least as well-armed as they are.

Holding true beliefs for bad reasons is still bad epistemology.

J. Budziszewski

I had a bet going with myself as to whether the defense of special pleading was going to have religious motivations.

Thanks for bringing his work to my attention, looks very interesting.

Oh those guys! Lmao Shoot, they're easy. They try to pin you to their definitions of your beliefs, which agreeable people will agree to, sensing no trap.

I'm sure that there are Street Epistemologists that are guilty of this, but that's literally opposite of what I encourage or practice.

Are "they" literally and explicitly Street Epistemologists?

Beautifully done, but they are not honest. The effects are as intended, like conditioning for a cult. Break them down, confuse them, and of course, fill 'em back up.