The Epistemology of Social Media

social media, epistemology

Is a picture really worth a thousand words? I’m not so sure anymore. Consider this: I post a photo of myself or my family on social media.

That photo literally represents about 1/30 of a second of my life. We look so happy, right? Believe me, we wrangled, bribed, and threatened our kids to strike this pose. The smiles? Mostly forced. I’m not even sure the dog was having a good time. Ordinarily, they say facial expressions and body language do 93% of the work in communication (though some dispute this figure). But when it comes to social media, I think we have a special reason to be skeptical of what we see. Aside from the fact that we’re seeing 1/30 of a second, people intentionally put on their best faces for social media. And among the “best face” pics available, we select the very best of those! This is not truly representative of a person’s life.

The truth of this really hit me when I read Maddi Fielike’s insightful blog post, “I’m Not A Liar, But Facebook Sure Is.” In her post, she isn’t criticizing social media; I think she’s pointing out its epistemic limitations. (‘Epistemic’ refers to how we know the truth about things.) I think she’s put her finger on a special case of hasty generalization, a common informal fallacy of reasoning. (Check out my related video post about “anecdotal evidence.”) A hasty generalization happens when we form a conclusion based on inadequate evidence, or a “bad sample.”

Sample Size

burger, social media

We’ve all made this mistake–hundreds of times. For example, I visited a local restaurant for the first time to “sample” their cuisine, and they burned my burger. Without much thought, I found myself forming the belief, “This is a bad restaurant.” The error here lies in relying on a sample size that is too small. A “sample size” is just the number of things in a certain group that I have examined to learn about that group. In this case, I had examined one sample out of hundreds of meals served by the restaurant. A better conclusion could be obtained after a few dozen meal reviews. 

Judging a person’s life based on a few snap shots commits the same fallacy. Would you want to be judged based on one second of your life? I guess it depends on the second. Catch me in a really good moment, and that sounds good. But how many of us have been unfairly judged by others based on one experience? Like that trig test I failed in high school. If only I had known about sample size then! “You should let me take the test at least 10 times, Ms. Smith, just to get a decent sample size.”

Sample Bias

cheifs, social media

The epistemic problems of social media go even deeper. Not only is the sample size (1/30 of a second) too small, but it is a biased sample. A good sample is one that represents the diversity of the set. For instance, if I wanted to know how many Americans are fans of the Kansas City Chiefs, I could take a poll. Now, I want to avoid having a too-small sample, so I’ll poll 100,000 people. Seems like a good size. But if I only interview people who live within 100 miles of Kansas City, I’ll bias my sample. This is because I will predictably find a very high percentage of Chiefs fans in that geographic circle. My sample needs to represent the diversity of the set–it should include people from all 50 states.

Pics on Instagram or Facebook portray us with the same kind of bias. We pick and choose which images to post, rather than just putting up a random sampling of all our photos. Not only that, but even a random sampling of pics from my iPhone would not give you an unbiased look at my life. We don’t even take pictures of things we would not want others to see, like the time times I yelled at my kids for no good reason, or the time times I felt completely overwhelmed by life.

As Maddi Fielicke points out, we don’t always intend to deceive. We’re just posting (our best) pics, often to let family and friends know what’s going on in our lives. Neither are we setting out to make a raw documentary about the good, the bad, and the ugly of our existence. But when we sit at the other side of these displays, scrolling through other people’s Facebook or Instagram feeds, our minds automatically take these photos and try to construct a story. “These people are really happy and having an amazing time.” “This family always smiles and loves each other.” “She takes the greatest vacations ever!” “His kids are perfectly adjusted and successful!” We instinctively misinterpret their posts as a narrative of their lives.

Using Social Media Responsibly

marathon, social media

Knowing the epistemic limitations of social media, should we be more thoughtful in our use of it? Think of what we post. Social media is littered with posts like, “Hey, here’s a pic of me finishing a marathon,” or “Here I am helping underprivileged children in a third world country,” or “Here’s my kid winning first place in everything.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating our families or sharing our happiest experiences with friends. But I know that many people will automatically misinterpret my “happy” photos to mean that my life is perfect. And I know that social media contributes to depression and loneliness for this very reason. So should I rethink how I post? Should I try to give a more realistic, representative picture of my life? I admit I don’t have the answer. 

Now, what about the way we consume social media? Rather than simply avoid or ban social media, the best thing to do is install a new filter. But this filter isn’t on our phone or on our computer. It’s in our minds. What we need is to process all these happy, beautiful photos differently. When we see happy, shiny people on social media, we can resist the automatic tendency to construct that Disneyland narrative in our minds, imagining their lives to be fairy tales. We can stop our minds from slipping into comparison mode (their life/job/kid is so much better than mine). Instead, we can take a deep breath and remind ourselves that their life is a lot like ours–filled with good and bad parts. We can reflect on our own happy, shiny moments, and imagine the person in the photo as being a real human with real struggles–struggles invisible to the camera eye.

Reason, Evidence, and Politics

In the interest of well-formed and grounded political beliefs, I’m presenting a challenge.

Give me your opinion of how President Trump is doing. 

spectrum, evidenceI’m hoping to hear a variety of perspectives, since I have friends all along the political spectrum and from a variety of backgrounds. But I have two conditions: (1) it cannot be a moral criticism, and (2) you must provide empirical evidence. Why the two conditions? Well, most people I know on both sides will agree that Trump is morally embarrassing as a president (e.g., Trump’s vulgar comments about women to Billy Bush). But those who like Trump and those who dislike him speak often about either his accomplishments or errors in office. That’s what I where I want to focus. One may still reasonably argue that a man of his moral failings should not be President, but for now, that is beside the point.

Evidence Required

The second condition prevents us from merely shouting out assertions, like:

“His foreign policy is terrible,” or

“His economic policies are good for the country.”

evidenceYou’ll have to give evidence for your claim, and I want the source–give me enough information so that I can look it up myself. Saying, “His economic policy is making the stock market go up,” isn’t enough. You’ll have to give some evidence showing how his policies have directly affected the market. Saying, “His Supreme Court nominations are hurting our country,” isn’t enough either. You have to provide some reason why you think this. And it can’t simply be the fact that the nomination is a conservative or Republican. You’ll have to be more specific. Also, if you think one single policy decision outweighs anything else he might do, you’ll have to say why you think that is a reasonable view.

Let’s Avoid Partisan Reasoning

politics, evidenceImagine you are talking to someone on the other side of the political spectrum. The only way we can communicate with those who disagree is to find common ground. For instance, we all want peace, security, quality health care and education, etc. We want to avoid policies that hurt more people than they help. So instead of saying, “That’s bad because it’s liberal,” describe exactly what sort of harm the policy ultimately causes, and it ought to (ideally) be harm we can all agree on. The reverse is true as well. Also, if a policy provides a benefit to some group, does it also have costs to other groups? And do the benefits outweigh the costs? Does a policy degrade or demean human beings? Does a policy violate the Constitution in some way?

The Goal

This post aims to assemble reasons for and against the claim, Trump is doing a good job as President. In the end, I hope to have a more well-formed belief about this claim–as to its truth or falsity. And I hope all of my readers will be challenged to step out of the echo chambers of social media and backup their views. When no one ever pushes back on our opinions, we become evidentially lazy. Let’s push one another toward evidential excellence.

So, in the comments, give me one or two reasons, with evidence, for your belief about Trump’s performance in office so far. It will be interesting to see what happens!

How To Talk To Your Relatives at Thanksgiving

thanksgiving, civil discourse

Are you dreading Thanksgiving this year? Are you anticipating arguments and tension over religion, politics, and more? Well, I have the solution! Well, not THE solution, more like A solution. Well, honestly it’s not a SOLUTION so much as a way to improve things a bit. At least from your end. Right!

In the video, I share how knowing what you believe and why you believe it can make a huge difference in conversation with Aunt Gertrude this year. You don’t have to live in fear of those pesky disagreements any more. If you find the video helpful, feel free to share!

If you’re interested in the book I mention in the video (Alan Jacobs’ How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds), there’s still time to order it before Thanksgiving!  It’s a great first step toward becoming more confident in our contentious world.

(One idea I leave out of the video: approaching a conversation with confidence is great, but humility is also crucial! Never forget that you could be wrong. Confidence isn’t the same thing as absolute, dogmatic certainty.)


Epistocracy and Voting

driving, children, epistocracyIn our family of six, two of us can run for president, three of us can drive, four of us can marry, and five of us can open social media accounts. In this week’s elections, only three of us can vote. These restrictions limit our rights for good reasons. Take voting. We don’t allow children to vote because: (1) they may be unduly influenced by their parents , and (2) we assume they don’t have the requisite understanding to make a responsible decision. In other words, knowledge matters. 

This epistemic rationale takes center stage in the other restriction cases as well.  But how far should the “knowledge requirement” go? In his book, Against DemocracyGeorgetown philosopher Jason Brennan argues that voters should be required to pass a test on basic political knowledge. This would result in what he calls an “epistocracy,” or a rule by the knowledgeable. Only those who impartially educate themselves on civics and current issues (Brennan calls them ‘Vulcans’) would be eligible to vote, according to one proposal. (I encourage you to read this interview with Brennan and listen to this radio show to hear more about his intriguing ideas.)

Is Epistocracy A Good Idea?

test, epistocracyOn the one hand, competent voting sounds great. A great many of those who vote have no idea what they’re really voting for. Columnist Ilya Somin, in his Washington Post piece, writes that many people vote badly because

[t]hey often lack even basic political knowledge; and what they do know, they analyze in a highly biased way. Instead of acting as truth-seekers, they function as “political fans” cheering on Team Red or Team Blue.

So why not implement a simple knowledge test? Legal immigrants, before they can vote, must pass a civics test that many native-born Americans would fail. Why not require this for everyone?

As a passionate knowledge activist, I am generally in favor of anything that helps people improve their beliefs about important issues. But I have two main reservations about this plan.

Two Objections to Epistocracy

second amendment, arms, epistocracyFirst, from an ethical/political standpoint, universal suffrage protects us from certain dangers and should not be rolled back lightly. I tried to compare the right to vote to other rights, and I think one apt comparison is with gun ownership. The right to bear arms originally aimed to protect the citizens from the potential tyranny of their own government. We still keep some restrictions on who may own a gun, but we generally maintain high levels of freedom here. (Set aside the question of whether the second amendment still serves the original purpose.)

Similarly, not everyone uses their right to vote, but everyone could, and that’s the important thing. If voting is restricted to the epistocracy, then it is easier for tyranny to arise. Why? Because it is always easier to manipulate a few than to manipulate many, regardless of education or understanding. We can tolerate some bad voting in order to preserve this safeguard.

complex, country, epistocracySecondly, and the most relevant to my own research interests, is the problem of epistemic limitations. Several philosophers (David Estlund and Udit Bhatia to name two) have argued that the amount of knowledge needed for an elite epistocracy to effectively vote on national issues would be prohibitive. Our country is so big and so complex that it simply cannot be effectively governed by so few, simply because they lack the necessary insight and information. No matter how smart they are, they understand only what they can put their epistemic arms around. And this will always be less that what universal suffrage can collectively represent.

Ilya Somin agrees:

Even if epistocratic selection mechanisms work better than I expect them to, the resulting more competent electorate might still lack the knowledge needed to effectively monitor more than a small fraction of the activities of the large and enormously complicated modern state. That herculean task may exceed the competence of even Vulcans. Ironically, the main flaw of epistocracy may be that we don’t have the knowledge to make it work.


vote smart, epistocracyIn conclusion, the best way to solve this problem is to educate yourself and vote. Alternatively, if you know absolutely nothing about the issues at hand, you may have a moral obligation to abstain from voting. In either case, as you engage in public discourse about the elections, match your speech to your knowledge. If you haven’t looked into the issues, then just say , “I’m not sure,” or “I don’t know what to think yet.” And if you have done the homework, speak up and offer reasons for your views. And whatever you do, don’t let tribalism be a substitute for thinking!

The Legend of Ezekiel Bulver

BulverHere’s how the legend began: Ezekiel Bulver, at the tender age of five, once heard two people having a dispute. (I’ve modernized the story a bit.) The first person insisted that the sum of two sides of any triangle will always be greater than the length of the third side. The second person argued that the first person only believed that because he was a socialist.

“At that moment”, Ezekiel Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

You’ve never heard of Ezekiel Bulver? Astonishing! Anyone who wants to gain some measure of freedom from their all-too-human tendencies to use poor logic and to cut through the confusing clutter of contemporary media, needs to understand Bulver. Well, no worries–here’s a clever little doodle video to bring you up to speed . . .

*Thanks so much to the CSLewisDoodle YouTube channel!

The Other Side Is Evil (Moralized Disagreements)

us and them arroganceRarely do I come across something so closely aligned with my own goals in blogging that I use it in place of an original post. But this video is such a thing. In the context of the Kavanaugh hearings, Kyle Blanchette skillfully breaks down how we tend to view those who disagree with us as stupid or evil. This is NOT about which side is right, or even the reasons behind each side. It’s about how we judge those who disagree with us. Worth you time.

When Speech Feels Like Violence

speech, violence, angrySpeech sometimes offends, even injures, our sensibilities. Alex Jones and the decisions of Apple and Facebook to remove his content illustrate this. But there are at least two ways speech can “hurt” us. Some hurtful speech stabs to the core of our self and our sense of dignity as a human being. Other times, speech threatens us because our inadequate cognitive defenses and filters fail to protect our psyche. I want to address the second kind of scenario because it is more “up to us” than the first kind.

Epistemic Immune System

My father endured numerous chemotherapy treatments during his battle with cancer in 2002. I distinctly recall one time when his immune system was so severely compromised by the chemo that we had to wear face masks just to come into his hospital room. And if anyone was sick–forget it! A common cold could kill him. If someone walked into the room without a mask, a nurse would immediately escort them out with a stern reprimand. Ordinary germs–ones that any healthy immune system would handle easily–constituted a threat.

epistemic immune system, defenseSomething similar goes on with our beliefs. You could say we have another immune system–an epistemic immune system. Instead of protecting us against bacteria and viruses that threaten our body, the epistemic immune system protects our “worldview” (our system of beliefs about reality) against false ideas and bad logic. When our epistemic immune system is healthy, it identifies bad ideas and bad reasoning and escorts them to the mental trash bin. It also identifies good ideas and sound reasoning and allows them through unharmed, where they find eventual integration with our worldview. If our epistemic immune system functions well, we feel more secure and less fearful  because we know our beliefs will remain healthy despite our exposure to bad ideas.

We need a healthy epistemic immune system because bad ideas really can harm us. If bad ideas gain “admission” into our belief structure, they can start to cause problems. They can cause psychological anguish or pain. They can result in actions that harm us or others. They can conflict with other (good) beliefs, or erode the foundations of our worldview. We sometimes feel this in the form of cognitive dissonance or instability. Like a man on a boat for the first time in choppy seas, we wobble around, out of balance and extremely uncomfortable. We sense that any small push might send us tumbling, our worldview crashing like a Jenga tower. Every disagreement feels like a threat, like spoken violence.

Inside and Out

speech, violence, defenseThink of your worldview as a city with two lines of defense: outside the gate and inside the gate. You control what you are exposed to “outside” the gate by choosing what to read, watch, listen to, etc. But once you have seen or heard an idea, it’s through the gate and your internal mental defenses (epistemic immune system) have to do their job. It is very, very difficult to completely control what gets through your gate. It’s like movie spoilers–if you’re using social media, it’s really hard not to find out that everyone dies in Infinity War. (See!?!?) Ideas zip through the gate of your eyes and ears so fast! This is why we need a healthy epistemic immune system on the inside.

Now here’s the real crux of the matter. When our internal defenses are weak, we are too easily thrown off balance by disagreement and contrary views. Fear and insecurity rule us. So here’s what we do: we try to shut the gate. Or we at least build a barricade in front of it to block new ideas out. How do we do this? I’ve observed (even in myself) two main strategies. For one, we avoid exposure to new ideas–we become epistemic hypochondriacs. We shun (or censor) books, websites and people who disagree with us. Secondly, we use anger or outrage as a shield. Instead of looking carefully at the idea presented and constructing a reasonable response, we try to intimidate the other party into silence with loud, abusive speech.

speech, violence, angryNow before you write a nasty email or comment, let me clarify something. Remember I mentioned two ways that speech can hurt. When you’re dealing with the first sort (see paragraph 1), epistemic defenses won’t help much. This sort of deeply abusive speech that penetrates to our core does not require careful analysis and logical counterargument. It’s what the Supreme Court referred to as “fighting words.” But the other sort of “hurtful” speech–the kind that only hurts because we lack a healthy internal defense–should not be banned or censored. The challenge lies in discerning which sort you’re dealing with.


So let me offer a suggestion. Cultivate a healthy epistemic immune system. This solves much of the problem. You can do this several ways.

  1. Take a course on logic or critical thinking. Great on-line resources abound as well. For starters, try here and here. If you know of a good resource, share it in the comments.
  2. Spend some time with someone who can mentor you on these skills. Find a philosopher, lawyer, or someone else who gets paid to argue, take them out to lunch and pick their brain.
  3. Lower your shield of anger and moral outrage. A shield helps in certain cases, but overuse will only impede your mental maturation. Just like a healthy physical immune system, you need exposure to “germs” over time to develop your “antibodies.” Learn to stand your ground and respond respectfully and intelligently. Read before you dismiss.
  4. process, slow, thinkingFinally, process new ideas more slowly. Unless you’re dealing with the first kind of hurtful speech, take time to digest and consider what is being said. Then you’ll be in a better position to either accept it or thoughtfully respond.

The Secret Life of a Double Agent

van, vw, Ground Belief, hippieI was raised by hippes. They didn’t really stay hippies, though, except for the ageless Volkswagen van, a bookshelf full of Carlos Castenada novels, and a few other “hobbies.” But I imbibed much of the classic hippie ideology, including a healthy skepticism toward authority and a respect for good pot. So, it was a bit of a shock to my parents when I converted to Christianity in my junior year of college. I imagine they felt a bit like the parents of Alex P. Keaton in “Family Ties.”

Several years later, when I graduated from college and was living on my own, my father bought me a subscription to Mother Jones magazine. I walked almost exclusively in evangelical circles at that time, and I’m sure he wanted to provide some counterpoint and balance. Reading that magazine was fascinating, but the eye-opening experience came when I started receiving unsolicited mailings from various left-wing organizations. Since I was also on numerous mailing lists for right-wing, Christian groups, I would often receive two nearly identical letters, printed in the same fonts, with the same graphic design and same wording, one from the left and one from the right. Both letters would shout that the “other side” was ruining our country and would soon come for my children unless I sent money fast. The right and left seemed like mirror-images.

Double Agent

Missouri, doctor, academic, Chris GadsdenIt took another decade before I immersed myself into the world of a double agent. I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Missouri and assumed the mantle of a novice (secular) academic. Surrounded for eight years by mostly atheist philosophers, teaching freshman as a representative of the secular state, living most of my waking hours within the confines of the campus, and finally initiated as a Philosophiae Doctor by the academic elite, I became one of “them.”

I now live in a curious juxtaposition between two worlds. It is a sort of “no-man’s land.” My Christianity makes me suspect among the academics, and my academic status makes me suspect among the Christians.  Some, for sure, see me as their “agent,” infiltrating the “other side.” But for me, this has been a double-blessing. I have learned to respect, appreciate and love the “other.” And when you learn to love the “other” once, it becomes all the easier to wash, rinse and repeat with any other “other” you encounter. 

It’s All In My Head

Kant, dogmatic slumber, thinking, Ground BeliefI must confess, however, that what I prize most from this adventure is all in my head. I don’t mean that it is illusory. I mean that it is cognitive and intellectual. Like the philosopher Immanuel Kant, I was awakened from my dogmatic slumber. My core beliefs (e.g., the Apostle’s Creed) have remained solid, but I now hold quite loosely to everything that orbits around that core, and I reject completely the dogmatism that so often accompanies religion. More importantly, being a double agent trained my mind in ways I could not have achieved by any other means.

Being forced, not merely to read and understand, but to step into the shoes of my opponents, enabled me to see the strengths and weaknesses of both sides as with a microscope or X-ray vision. No system, no ideology, no institution has it “right.” The line between truth and error, between justice and injustice, as with the line between good and evil, “cuts through the heart of every human being,” as Solzhenitsyn wrote. Even if you believe that God’s Word is pure truth, the hard, human labor of interpretation inevitably works error into the dough like leaven.

The Point

So what is my point? Why the memoir? The point is this: if you want your mind (and maybe your heart) to be all it can be (sorry, Army), then become a double agent. Don’t just observe and read. Go and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your opponent, sit knee-to-knee over coffee. Find their humanity, appreciate their genius, learn from them. Incarnate yourself into their community. It doesn’t have to be grad school — discover your own way. You’ll find your mind (and maybe your heart) performing new feats of thought (and maybe love) that you hadn’t even imagined before. The end result is not a different set of beliefs, it isn’t some kind of conversion; it is a sharper mind with better understanding. It is your best beliefs held more beautifully.

Halloween, Christians, and Knowledge

Halloween knowledge ground beliefEvery October, I tread carefully on the subject of Halloween. Many people in conservative churches believe that Christians should not participate in a holiday with such unwholesome, pagan origins. Others see it as harmless fun. What should a reasonable, devout person think and do about Halloween? (This is an in-house debate for Christians, so caveat lector. If you’ve ever been baffled by the Christian fuss over the holiday, perhaps this will help.)

The Irony of Knowledge

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, speaks rather directly to the problem of “indirect” participation in pagan rituals. (If some Halloween traditions originate in druidic rites, then dressing up and passing out candy seems like “indirect” participation, at worst, to me. As long as you don’t sacrifice any animals!) St. Paul says that as Christians, we know that there is pagan rituals knowledge ground beliefonly one, true God and that all other “gods” are powerless. So, indirect participation in their rituals, such as eating meat sacrificed to a “god,” is harmless. (1Corinthians 8-10) But not all people know this, and some still fear these “gods” and their rituals.

Ironically, those who pass judgment on fellow Christians for their Halloween involvement see themselves as possessing important knowledge — knowledge about the demonic dangers of Halloween. And they see their fellow Christians, dressed up and trick-or-treating, as tragically ignorant. This, according to St. Paul, is precisely the reverse of the true situation. It is the party-goers who have knowledge, and the protesters who lack it.

Reasons to Abstain?

So why does Paul still encourage some to abstain from these “indirect” pagan connections? Paul gives an interesting pair of moral principles:

1. If you believe something is wrong, and you choose to do it, then you are acting wrongly.

So if my friend believes (mistakenly) that it is wrong to trick-or-treat, and he does it, then he violates his conscience and does wrong.

2. Don’t do anything that leads your friend to violate their conscience.

conscience knowledge ground beliefSo, I certainly don’t want to pressure my friend into trick-or-treating, and thus violating his conscience. Thus, if my participation would encourage a friend to act against his conscience, then I would rather abstain.

This is not the same as worrying about my neighbor who sits in a dark house in protest all night. I have no Halloween-related moral obligations toward them. My dressing up and sugar-binging won’t tempt them in the slightest, so their “feeling offended” is no concern of mine.

To Judge or Not To Judge

Finally, be very careful about passing judgment on others. And this can go both ways! Those with knowledge find themselves judging others for their lack of knowledge. And those who believe Halloween participation is wrong will judge those who partake. Both should reflect on Paul’s words to the Romans:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:1-4)