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(14,180 posts)
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 12:18 PM Aug 2012

You've Got to Show Me: The (New) Epistemological Crisis

Author's Note: This is my newest essay published on my blog. I am cross-publishing here, because I so value DU's many contributors and great thinkers and would love to hear your comments and feedback. I will endeavor to respond to all who post substantive replies.

An article I came across last week got me to thinking about epistemology, the sub-discipline of Philosophy that determines what we know and how we come to know it. Turns out voters in Missouri have now granted themselves the right to skip classes and classwork if the subject matter or presentation violates their religious beliefs. I'm not an attorney, but this new law presumably also means that parents who object on religious grounds to their children being taught the principles of natural selection and evolution in Life Sciences classes in public school can pull their children from those classes:

"Last week, Missouri voters gave themselves the right to pray without state interference. But some science educators are worried that the seemingly innocuous referendum on the 7 August ballot, which passed overwhelmingly, could also undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Amendment 2 "is a lawyer's dream" because of its vagueness, says Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which tracks efforts by groups that oppose evolution. While the amendment begins by declaring that all residents "have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences," it also lists several situations in which that right must be protected. Rosenau is worried about one particular clause: "that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs."

Those words give students the legal right to skip assignments related to evolution if the subject matter conflicts with their beliefs, Rosenau says. And that exemption could extend throughout their scholastic career, he adds, since evolution is not just taught in one lesson but remains a recurrent theme throughout science education. The amendment also leaves a hole in their coursework, he says, as it provides no guidance on any substitute lessons."


What caught my eye was the final sentence, a paraphrase of Joshua Rosenau's comments. The new amendment provides "no guidance on any substitute lessons." So what exactly will those children and students learn about the origins and development of life in the universe? And how will its validity be measured and evaluated against the validity of the theories of natural selection and evolution? The Scientific Method - built around the simple schema of Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment and Conclusion - now has a challenge to its very existence, as epitomized by the broad support for Missouri's Amendment 2. But what shall replace the Scientific Method?

We face a new epistemological crisis in this country. The crisis has been brewing for well over 50 years but, I would argue, since the advent of the internet has reached epidemic proportions. In an age where every URL is created equal and where precedence goes not to knowledge which is tested in the cauldron of the scientific method but rather by which spurious link comes up first in a Google search, how are we to evaluate statements and data to see whether they accurately represent truth or reality?

Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, argued that the history of science could be explained by anomalies in a prevailing paradigm reaching the point where a 'crisis' occurs, such that the existing paradigm must be overthrown and replaced by a new paradigm. Think Einstein replacing Newton or Darwin replacing the Biblical account of Creation. The point is that internal contradictions within an older established order reach such a fever pitch that the older order no longer suffices. That crisis now besets the very mechanisms by which our culture arbitrates what it calls knowledge. The epistemological crisis is now upon us and it is hard to forsee the new paradigm that will replace the ancien regime.

Were one to turn to the media to arbitrate and decide upon 'Truth,' one might be sorely disappointed these days. According to the Pew Center, public faith in the media is at historic lows:

"For the second time in a decade, the believability ratings for major news organizations have suffered broad-based declines. In the new survey, positive believability ratings have fallen significantly for nine of 13 news organizations tested. This follows a similar downturn in positive believability ratings that occurred between 2002 and 2004.

The falloff in credibility affects news organizations in most sectors: national newspapers, such as the New York Times and USA Today, all three cable news outlets, as well as the broadcast TV networks and NPR."


While the survey says that the public no longer believes the media, one might be tempted to still believe that the media itself still offers some claim to "objectivity." But one would be hard-pressed to find any examples of that. A media that blithely equates statements of fact about Romney (Romney has not and still refuses to release his tax returns) with the Swiftboat slanders about John Kerry (belied by Kerry's service records and contemporaneous accounts) as though the two are somehow equivalent shows how far from credibility the media has fallen. The media no longer has any special claim on the truth, if it ever did.

The old authorities - Church, Academia, Media, Government - have broken down, but no new authority has risen to take their place. Those of us who looked to the Occupy Movement as a new source of epistemological authority -- a crucible where competing theses were tested and through dialogue and the testing of experience rejected or accepted -- found ourselves dismayed by the constant Babel of voices. When the ideas of those opposed to the flouridation of water receive the same level of credence as ideas about global climate change, well Houston, we have a problem.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a very interesting article in the online edition of Smart Money about self-publishing and the demise of the great publishing houses and the thousands who are employed there. I was struck by the author's penultimate paragraph, for it turns out that self-publishing is the material manifestation of this epistemological crisis. When everyone fancies him- or herself an author and there are few if no barriers to electronic publication and distribution, what will prevent a terrifying cacophony of voices from polluting the Commons?

"Self-publishing will produce a tsunami of books. Very few will be financial successes. Very few will be any good. Sifting your way through the chaff for the wheat will be much harder than browsing through a bookstore. I suspect the best-selling few, like Fifty Shades of Rubbish, will "crowd out" the rest. Once upon a time Internet cheerleaders talked about the so-called "fat tail," the idea that the Internet would make marginal products profitable. The reality seems to be the reverse: The overwhelming dominance of the few."


I have often called for a latter-day Martin Luther to tack a new 95 Theses upon the doors of the Academy. But now I fear that the Reformation (v 2.0) would not accomplish much. We are, I fear, destined to live through an age of epistemological anarchy for many years to come. The Scientific Method, that system of knowledge which ushered in vaccines, space travel and good nutrition may become simply another cult among many other cults of knowledge. More to be pitied, I suppose. But again, how shall we evaluate the world we live in and representations about it for their truthfulness? How will we know what we know?

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You've Got to Show Me: The (New) Epistemological Crisis (Original Post) coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 OP
Thanks for this and well done. Kudos. Some comments, off the top - pinto Aug 2012 #1
Thank you so much for your considered response. I agree that 'anarchy' may coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #2
Glad to respond. Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment and Conclusion include pinto Aug 2012 #3
9-11 was not at all the intent of my essay. But it was observing the 9-11 Truth Movement coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #4
Ah, got it. pinto Aug 2012 #5
Very thought provoking and unfortunately, an accurate account of the state of humanity. lindysalsagal Aug 2012 #6
"The need for compassion right now outweighs the need for truth" - Both are coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #9
Great post MyshkinCommaPrince Aug 2012 #7
I wonder if you might be thinking of Alvin Toffler's idea of 'Future Shock' which coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #10
There will be changes, certainly muriel_volestrangler Aug 2012 #8
An excellent response (and a future I hope readily comes to pass!). Just out of curiosity, what coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #11
Missouri's constiution amendment is very bad - a sneak move by creationists muriel_volestrangler Aug 2012 #14
'Darwin made it up' - I mean, you really can't make shit like that up :) As usual, an awesome coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #15
Two problems, first you assume the school system is about education. CK_John Aug 2012 #12
Hmm, I'm not sure I ever explicity made either assumption here. But I share coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #13
Somehow the will to remain ignorant is over shadowed by truth no matter how long it takes. nanabugg Aug 2012 #16
I never thought I would find myself citing that war criminal Rumsfeld, but his coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #17
Man, I hate to beat a dead horse, but not one day after I posted this, along comes coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #18
Oh, so you're the one responsible for Akin pinboy3niner Aug 2012 #19
ROTFLMAO - Thanks, I needed that! Alma and I are coalition_unwilling Aug 2012 #20


(106,886 posts)
1. Thanks for this and well done. Kudos. Some comments, off the top -
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 01:07 PM
Aug 2012

"We are, I fear, destined to live through an age of epistemological anarchy for many years to come."

That seems a stretch to me. I see the changes in the old authorities you mentioned more as an evolution than anarchy. Don't see the scientific method being overturned, for example. Challenged in some ways, yet those challenges may well turn out to be tempests in a teapot.

And that evolution extends beyond church, academia, media and government. Brought to mind the unintended, but inevitable, consequences of ship and train travel's growths. Improvements in astronomical reckoning, solar reckoning, standardized time, clocks, map making, machine tooling, navigation standards, scheduling, etc.

The knowledge gained stood the test of time. A bit of a disjointed response, yet I think it applies to what we know and how we came to know it.

(aside) I bemoan Missouri's vague legislation for the loopholes mentioned. Yet remain hopeful that parents choose a full and open educational experience for their kids. It's one of those gifts that keep on giving.

Thanks for your post ~ pinto

(ed for clarity)



(14,180 posts)
2. Thank you so much for your considered response. I agree that 'anarchy' may
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 01:27 PM
Aug 2012

be too strong a word, although I was keying off the new Missouri law and the lacuna it creates, i.e., natural selection can be tossed out but no provision made for anything to replace it.

I happen to be a strong believer in the Scientific Method and take assaults upon its legitimacy very seriously. That explains the genesis of the essay. But it's something I've been knocking about inside my head ever since 9-11, when the 9-11 Truth Movement sprang up to challenge the official narrative, compromised as it was by Zelikow et al.'s presence in formulating it. At one point, I read an article that claimed that some 40% of New Yorkers did not believe the "official narrative" in all its particulars. I consider myself "agnostic" on the 9-11 question and do not believe its final chapters have yet been settled.


(106,886 posts)
3. Glad to respond. Observation, Hypothesis, Experiment and Conclusion include
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 01:47 PM
Aug 2012

verification as part of the process. Didn't catch any relation to the 9/11 attacks in your post. If that's the point, I need to step out of further discussion. Thanks.



(14,180 posts)
4. 9-11 was not at all the intent of my essay. But it was observing the 9-11 Truth Movement
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 01:51 PM
Aug 2012

grow up alongside the Official Narrative that first prompted me to think of the epistemological crisis. (My main argument with the 9-11 Truthers is that. AFAIK, they can't use science to "prove" much of anything. Their ideas seem to me to fail Karl Popper's notion that a hypothesis must be 'falsifialble' for it to be scientifically valid. That is, there must be some possible set of data that would render the hypothesis false for it to be a valid hypothesis. With the 9-11 Truth movement, all such data simply gets folded into ever-larger conspiracies. I apologize to any Truthers out there, if I have mis-characterized your positions. My characterizations are based upon my experiences with the 9-11 Truth folks I met at Occupy Los Angeles and other venues in Los Angeles and some reading I did on the subject.)

Only included 9-11 to explain the genesis of my idea about the epistemological crisis.


(20,168 posts)
6. Very thought provoking and unfortunately, an accurate account of the state of humanity.
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 03:31 PM
Aug 2012

I'm not any kind of historian, so, this is in no way a criticism. Keep writing and keep posting here on DU.

Anyway, I wonder if this is a new phenomenon? It seems the holy roman empire had a lock on the truth, as did the English, and the Roman Catholic church. Even Nazism was taken as truth for a number of years.

I wonder if we are a species that is so mired in the acquisition of our own basic needs for food shelter and love that we'll bend the truth however and whenever we desire.

I think the availability of knowledge on the internet and the ability for individuals to publish will ultimately provide the truth to many of our longest unanswered questions. However, I seriously doubt whether humans will be able or willing to accept the truth when it runs contrary to the meeting of their basic needs.

What we're seeing now is a handful of greedy people without conscience who are willing to treat life and others as a game to be played without meaningful consequences.

I think the need for compassion right now outweighs the need for truth.

But that's just my uninformed opinion.

Getting essays like yours out there is certainly the start we need.



(14,180 posts)
9. "The need for compassion right now outweighs the need for truth" - Both are
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 05:07 PM
Aug 2012

equally necessary, imo, and deserve equal weighting.

I like the internet, don't get me wrong, and I certainly do my share of participating in it. But I have my doubts as to whether it will ever serve as an effective crucible for knowledge. Sure, the truth may be there on the internet but blended in amongst a multiude of sites propagating falsehood and with few or no mechanisms to discern.

Thank you for the compliments. I really love putting my stuff on DU (and DailyKos) because the learning and thinking base here is so broad.


(611 posts)
7. Great post
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 03:43 PM
Aug 2012

Thank you. It seems like Marshall MacLuhan (or someone applying MacLuhan's ideas, somewhat later) predicted something like this, as a result of information overexposure as more and faster information media became prevalent.

Or I may merely misunderstand your post and/or MacLuhan. Apologies, if that's the case.

Well, I've got Woody Allen right here....



(14,180 posts)
10. I wonder if you might be thinking of Alvin Toffler's idea of 'Future Shock' which
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 05:08 PM
Aug 2012

definitely exists in parallel with the epistemological crisis I am postulating. I have not followed Toffler recently, so I'm not sure where his thoughts have recently been tending.

Thank you for the compliment.


(100,967 posts)
8. There will be changes, certainly
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 04:12 PM
Aug 2012

While the availability of information sources that are quicker and/or cheaper than the existing ones (newspapers, TV, radio, publishing houses) does put pressure on them to lower their standards - hence the less trust we have in them - there are ways that new technology also helps form new avenues for accessing reliable information.

At the moment, my job involves a lot of fact-checking - and my primary source is the online access to a very large array of reference books I can get through my county council - the equivalent of a good city library reference section. So that's paid for by our taxes, and I hope that will continue to be a viable model for the publishers to continue to produce such tomes, and to keep them up to date. Such a model has 2 choices - either the user pays per access or with a regular fee, or it's supported through taxes at some level of government (as, in a sense, my primary news source, the BBC, is - a flat fee per household with a TV, that you pay whether or not you watch BBC TV). A society which is willing to fund a collective publisher, that checks quality, arranges for new projects, and so on, will be able to continue this. A libertarian society would have to do it through fees and reputations of competing publishers - or people would have to take what they get for free, and depend on their own judgement to sort the good from the bad.

There are new models appearing, in some areas of knowledge. We have the Wikipedia model - never 100% reliable at any given moment, but with the sheer weight of numbers of editors, it is said to rival published encyclopedias in reliability now. There is online publishing of peer-reviewed research, which is increasing the numbers of people that can access it, and thus potentially correct it, or benefit from it for their own projects. We also have access to far more people to talk to than before, so that we can find more people who we trust, intellectually, to be reasonable judges, and so their reviews of publishers, authors and so on are useful to us, in keeping down the potential chaos that the new information anarchy could unleash.



(14,180 posts)
11. An excellent response (and a future I hope readily comes to pass!). Just out of curiosity, what
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 05:12 PM
Aug 2012

do you make of Missouri's seeming step backward? According to the article I cite in my OP, the measure passed with overwhelming support.


(100,967 posts)
14. Missouri's constiution amendment is very bad - a sneak move by creationists
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 05:57 PM
Aug 2012

Yes, it was heavily supported - 82.7% in favour ( http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Missouri_Public_Prayer_Amendment,_Amendment_2_%28August_2012%29 ), but that could be because what appeared on the ballot was highly misleading, because it didn't mention the opting out from lessons that they disagree with for religious reasons:

Official Ballot Title:

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure:

That the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed;
That school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools; and
That all public schools shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

It is estimated this proposal will result in little or no costs or savings for state and local governmental entities.

Fair Ballot Language:

A "yes" vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that neither the state nor political subdivisions shall establish any official religion. The amendment further provides that a citizen's right to express their religious beliefs regardless of their religion shall not be infringed and that the right to worship includes prayer in private or public settings, on government premises, on public property, and in all public schools. The amendment also requires public schools to display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

A "no" vote will not change the current constitutional provisions protecting freedom of religion.

If passed, this measure will have no impact on taxes.


Nothing there about lessons, eh? It sounds perfectly reasonable. All about rights to voluntarily do things, that you might think already apply. There's no clue about this section of the language to go in the constitution:

that the General Assembly and the governing bodies of
17 political subdivisions may extend to ministers, clergypersons, and other individuals the
18 privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General
19 Assembly or governing bodies; that students may express their beliefs about religion in
20 written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of
21 their work; that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic
22 assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs


So it would have taken a major campaign to tell people that the wording on the ballot was only part of how their state constitution would be amended. A highly dishonest move by the Missouri lawmakers to set up the ballot question like that. So whether the citizens supported the actual proposal about the lesson content, we just don't know. But we do know their lawmakers are crapweasels - either those who voted for that ballot wording, or those who didn't kick up enough of a fuss over the blatant dishonesty that it wasn't revised.

It does leave Missouri vulnerable to a generation of half-educated people, ruined by their parents. The disingenuous "don't worry" from the Catholic Mike Hoey - that 'any student who opts out of a biology lesson, he says, “will need to face the consequences” of missing those lessons' doesn't take into account crap like this from neighbouring Kentucky:

Legislators in the Kentucky state senate are concerned about the presence of evolution in the state science standards and associated end-of-course testing. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader (August 14, 2012), "Several GOP lawmakers questioned new proposed student standards and tests that delve deeply into biological evolution during a Monday meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Education. In an exchange with officials from ACT, the company that prepares Kentucky's new state testing program, those lawmakers discussed whether evolution was a fact and whether the biblical account of creationism also should be taught in Kentucky classrooms."

State senator David Givens (R-District 9) told the Herald-Leader, "I would hope that creationism is presented as a theory in the classroom, in a science classroom, alongside evolution," while state representative Ben Waite (R-District 10) went so far as to dispute the inclusion of evolution. "The theory of evolution is a theory, and essentially the theory of evolution is not science — Darwin made it up," Waide was quoted as saying. "My objection is they should ensure whatever scientific material is being put forth as a standard should at least stand up to scientific method. Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny."


With the state constitution allowing students to opt out of evolution lessons, they will inevitably try to get them taken out of any tests or class rankings too, just like some Kentuckian(?) fundamentalist lawmakers want.

But I don't know if this is particularly new - the fundamentalists tried things like this before, in various guises.


(14,180 posts)
15. 'Darwin made it up' - I mean, you really can't make shit like that up :) As usual, an awesome
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 10:38 PM
Aug 2012

and thorough response - thank you for that. As I wrote in my OP, I was struck by the fact that parents and students are seemingly empowered to opt out of natural selection but no provision has yet been made for any other competing body of knowledge or theory to replace it. Hence my use of the term 'crisis'.

N.B. I came of age in southwestern Missouri and had the good fortune to have science classes (physics and biology) taught by reasonably competent teachers. My home town (Lamar) was in the middle of the Ozark Bible Belt but the fundies did not seem to have exercised much influence over the school's science curriculum, fortunately. This was back in the 70s, mind you, and things may well have changed in the years since.


(10,005 posts)
12. Two problems, first you assume the school system is about education.
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 05:20 PM
Aug 2012

It is nothing but a way to turn out a qualified labor force and currently we not longer need a labor force.

Two, you assume the elected ones are interested in the "students" and their right to be stupid. No, they are just covering their ass so the feds don't cut off their funds due to low test scores.

Going to school is required, getting educated is for my kid not yours.



(14,180 posts)
13. Hmm, I'm not sure I ever explicity made either assumption here. But I share
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 05:31 PM
Aug 2012

some of your feelings toward our 'school system,' which certainly seems to mirror the substructure upon which it is placed. One could say the school system also faces a 'crisis,' because the social need for which it existed - turning out that 'qualified labor force' - no longer exists and thus the very need for a 'school system' becomes contested territory.

As to the second problem\assumption, I would respond that elected officials are primarily interested in getting and retaining power with all other considerations secondary. However, the voters of Missouri overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2, so I'm not sure where that leaves us, as far as elected officials serving the public or being served by it.



(2,198 posts)
16. Somehow the will to remain ignorant is over shadowed by truth no matter how long it takes.
Sat Aug 18, 2012, 10:44 PM
Aug 2012

Remember, people once thought the earth was flat.



(14,180 posts)
17. I never thought I would find myself citing that war criminal Rumsfeld, but his
Sun Aug 19, 2012, 10:42 AM
Aug 2012

distinction\Zen koan between 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' seems a propos here. To wit, I know that I don't know as much about Darwin's theory of Natural Selection as I should and that would be a 'known unknown.' But there are matters that I don't know that I don't know (the deadly 'unknown unknown').

Or maybe that's a distinction without a difference.

The 'crisis' is basically this: one group in society believes in and uses the Scientific Method as a way to settle upon knowledge and another group does not even know what the Scientific Method is. For that latter group, the Scientfic Method is an "Unkown unknown."



(14,180 posts)
18. Man, I hate to beat a dead horse, but not one day after I posted this, along comes
Mon Aug 20, 2012, 02:26 AM
Aug 2012

the Republican Senatorial Candidate Todd Akin to prove my point.

You cannot make this shit up.

I am feeling eerily prophetic tonight.

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