• Quassim Cassam

Epistemic Insouciance

The following is based on a paper called ‘Epistemic Insouciance’ that is due to be published in the Journal of Philosophical Research. The Washington Post recently reported that President Trump ‘bragged that he made up facts’ at a recent meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. According to the Post Trump boasted about telling Trudeau that America has a trade deficit with Canada even though he had no idea whether that was true.

The dictionary defines insouciance as a casual lack of concern. What Trump displayed in his encounter with Trudeau was a casual lack of concern about the facts. His insouciance was what might be called epistemic insouciance. This looks like a straightforward example of an epistemic vice, though not one that until now has been named by philosophers. If recent political events in the U.S and UK are anything to go by it is one of the defining epistemic vices of our age. Epistemic insouciance of the kind displayed by Trump means not caring about whether one’s claims have any basis in reality or any evidential backing. It means being overly casual and nonchalant about the challenge of finding answers to complex questions, partly as a result of a tendency to view such questions as less complex than they really are. Epistemic insouciance means viewing the need to find actual evidence in support of one’s views as a mere inconvenience, as something that is not to be taken too seriously. It is a particular form of not giving a shit.

The main intellectual product of epistemic insouciance is bullshit in Harry Frankfurt’s sense. As Frankfurt famously observed, even a liar is respectful of the truth since it matters to him that his statements aren’t true. The bullshitter, Frankfurt says, just doesn’t care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. This not caring is an intellectual attitude, and it is this attitude that the notion of epistemic insouciance tries to capture. Bullshit is not an attitude and nor is being a bullshitter, that is, being disposed to spout bullshit. Epistemic insouciance is the attitude that makes one a bullshitter and causes one to spout bullshit.

It’s easy enough to see that epistemic insouciance is an epistemic vice. Epistemic vices are reprehensible character traits, attitudes or thinking styles that obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. On the one hand, not caring about the facts is an attitude for which a person can be criticised. On the other hand, it is hard to see how not caring about the facts or the evidence can be anything other than an obstacle to gaining knowledge. Not only did Trump not know whether what he said to Trudeau was true, he didn’t care to know. His attitude prevented him from knowing by making him indifferent to the truth. For Trump, the truth or falsity of what he said to Trudeau just didn’t matter.

An attitude that is in the roughly same ballpark as epistemic insouciance is contempt. Indeed, one might think that contempt is the essence of epistemic insouciance. There is contempt for the facts, contempt for evidence and, in the case of some politicians, contempt for the public. It is debatable, though, whether contempt is necessary for epistemic insouciance. Other sources of this attitude might include arrogance and laziness. For example, one might argue that the real problem with some epistemically insouciant politicians is not, or not just, that they are contemptuous but that they are what Heather Battaly in her book on virtue calls ‘slackers’. They don’t care enough about the facts to be contemptuous of them.

The Brexit debate in the UK provides some support for this view. Both Boris Johnson and David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, are often blamed for a lack of seriousness about the complexity and pitfalls of the U.K’s attempts to disentangle itself from the EU. Both have been accused of idleness, of playing fast and loose with the facts, and of treating everything as a joke. Both are presumably capable of asking and answering difficult questions but neither can be bothered. If they are slackers that is already enough to explain their epistemic insouciance, without the supposition that they are motivated by the kind of contempt that is evident in other cases. Yet, even if they aren’t motivated by contempt, their conduct might be said to display contempt for the facts.

It is instructive to compare epistemic insouciance with what Jason Baehr describes as ‘epistemic malevolence’, defined as opposition to knowledge, either to knowledge as such or to another person’s share of knowledge. A rich source of examples of epistemic malevolence is research in the emerging field of agnotology, the study of the production and maintenance of ignorance. One famous example is the tobacco industry’s attempts to generate and maintain public ignorance concerning tobacco’s impact on health. The story of this exercise in fact fighting is told by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book Merchants of Doubt. The story begins in the 1950s with the discovery that smoking causes cancer. The tobacco industry was thrown into a panic by this discovery and it responded by hiring a public relations firm to challenge the scientific evidence. The firm recommended the creation of a Tobacco Industry Research Committee which would fund research to cast doubt on the link between smoking and cancer. Doubt was the key. In the words of a notorious memo written by a tobacco industry executive, “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

What Oreskes and Conway describe as the ‘tobacco strategy’ was a policy rather than an attitude, the policy of spreading misinformation about the dangers of smoking with the aim of making it harder for smokers to know the facts. Conceptually the distinction between epistemic insouciance and epistemic malevolence is between not caring about something and actively opposing it. Epistemic malevolence is different from epistemic insouciance precisely because it is not a matter of being excessively casual or nonchalant about the challenge of finding answers to complex questions or tending to view such questions less complex than they really are. Whatever else the tobacco industry can be accused of it isn’t that. Unlike the epistemically insouciant, the epistemically malevolent don’t find the need to find evidence in support of their views a mere inconvenience. They are in the business of actively undermining what, in private, they recognise as good evidence in favour of the views they seek to undermine. It is because the epistemically malevolent do care what the evidence shows or what the facts are that they are in the business of subverting the evidence or putting forward ‘alternative facts’. The tobacco industry cared very much what the evidence showed about harmful effects of smoking and many industry executives gave up smoking when they saw the evidence. What they didn’t want was for their customers to do the same.

The distinction between epistemic malevolence and epistemic insouciance tracks the distinction between lies and bullshit. The tobacco strategy involved lying about the scientific evidence. Did Trump lie to Trudeau? Not if, as Trump subsequently claimed, he had no idea whether what he was saying about the trade deficit was true. In Frankfurt’s terminology, he was not even responding to the truth in the sense that a liar responds to the truth. He was bullshitting, in exactly the way one would expect given his epistemic insouciance. Contempt, arrogance and laziness can all be detected in President Trump’s remarks and in his subsequent boasting about his wrong-footing of Trudeau.

Yet, despite the relatively clear conceptual distinction between epistemic insouciance and epistemic malevolence they can be hard to distinguish in practice. The active promotion of political and economic ignorance seems to be the policy of senior politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, not unlike the tobacco industry’s promotion of scientific ignorance. For example, the denigration of experts by pro-Brexit politicians in the UK was a form of epistemic malevolence. By undermining the public’s confidence in economic experts these politicians made it extremely difficult for the economic implications of Brexit to be widely known. Yet some of these same politicians also displayed what is recognisable as epistemic insouciance. Exactly where epistemic insouciance ends and epistemic malevolence begins is sometimes hard to say, and both are clearly detectable in the conduct of senior politicians in the U.K and U.S. Facts, for these politicians, are boring. Indeed, according to a major funder of the pro-Brexit campaign, the campaign to remain in the EU failed precisely because it had featured ‘fact, fact, fact, fact, fact’.

The result of these trends is government by what the Financial Times described last year as an ‘insouciant, inexperienced political class’. The insouciance of our political masters isn’t just insouciance in the ordinary sense but what I have been calling epistemic insouciance. It isn’t just politicians who are epistemically insouciant but the epistemic insouciance of those responsible for deciding complex national issues is potentially ruinous. Naming an epistemic vice neither brings it into existence nor makes it much easier to combat. Nevertheless, once the epistemic insouciance of many of our political leaders is recognized for what it is we can at least start to think about what might be an effective response.

A TED Talk on epistemic vices by Quassim Cassam is available here.

©2020 Professor Quassim Cassam

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