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.

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.)

 

Dealing With Doubt (Podcast), Part 2

Twenty-One Pilots, doubtTwenty-One Pilots captivates their audience, in part, because of their honest portrayal of a complex and often painful mental life. Along with anxiety and depression, they talk about their own struggles with faith and doubt. In their song, “Doubt,” Tyler Joseph writes:

[I’m] scared I’ll die of uncertainty
Fear might be the death of me, fear leads to anxiety
Don’t know what’s inside of me

Later in the song, he says that he’s “shaking hands with the dark parts of [his] thoughts.” This kind of experience isn’t unique to people of faith. The song can apply to a variety of contexts. But it poignantly portrays what many believers go through in their private moments.

I do love poetry and song, but I think there is also a place for careful thought and analysis to inform our beliefs. Joseph doesn’t answer the question, “Is it a sin for a Christian to doubt God?” or “What do I do with my doubts?” And that’s OK. But as a philosopher, part of my calling is to tease out these questions more precisely, so that  our worldviews can become more coherent and logical.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 2 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” Philosopher Andrew Moon (Virginia Commonwealth University) has influenced my thinking a great deal in this area. I borrow Moon’s distinction between “verb doubt” and “noun doubt,” and show how it helps us understand the relation between doubt and faith. I also discuss, in this episode, some of the problem passages in the Bible that seem to portray doubt as sin.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

Dealing With Doubt

doubt, faith, beliefWe all deal with doubt, no matter what you believe. It is a normal, healthy part of a thinking life. But doubts can cause distress and anxiety for many of us, especially when we think it’s wrong to have doubts, or when we really want to believe something.

Most of us experience significant doubts between middle school and college, when we really start asking questions. Too often, when we go to adults or teachers for help, they dismiss our concerns or imply that there is something wrong with us. (I suspect this is because most adults also have unanswered doubts!) Tragically, this can cause many young people to abandon their beliefs prematurely.

In this podcast episode, I share Part 1 of a presentation I gave last year on “The Myth of Certainty: Dealing With Doubts In the Christian Faith.” I think the model I propose helps anyone who wrestles with the interplay between doubt and belief, whether Christian or otherwise. This model is still a work in progress, so feel free to push back on it or ask questions.

It’s only about 20 min, so take some time to listen and share your own thoughts. Thanks!

Responsible Religious Belief Q&A

responsible belief, SASHAThis video records the Q&A after talk I gave to the University of Missouri SASHA club (Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, and Agnostics). The title was “Responsible Belief,” and I shared with them a model of how beliefs are formed and evaluated responsibly. That went about 30 min. Then, we had Q&A and everyone stayed. It was a wonderful conversation and one of the highlights of 2015 for me. At some point, I may post the original presentation.

I’ve broken the 30 min of Q&A into 3 separate videos, and this is Part 1. If you’re interested in how a Christian might respond to being put on the hot seat in front of a lot of smart people, you’ll enjoy this!

 

Is There Scientific Evidence for God?

evidence, scientific evidence for God, science

I thought this would be a nice follow up on my recent podcast, where Dr. Kenny Boyce and I discuss this very same question about scientific evidence for theism. This video captures a message I gave at First Baptist Church of Holton, KS two years ago. In the talk, I aim mostly to encourage and equip Christians, but there are certainly great principles of persuasion applicable to anyone! Some will detect the influence of William Lane Craig on my presentation. I studied with Dr. Craig at Talbot School of Theology and he continues to be an intellectual and spiritual role model. Feedback is welcome. Do you think these arguments constitute scientific evidence for God? Why or why not? If not, what is your definition of ‘evidence?’

Stephen Hawking, Philosophy, and Theism, Part 2

hawking, authority, testimony, science, physicsMy second “official” podcast  (on Stephen Hawking) is now available on iTunes! Here’s the iTunes link. If you don’t have iTunes, you can listen on Sound Cloud. Feedback on the podcast, including production features, is welcome.

I continue my interview with Dr. Kenny Boyce, Asst. Prof. of Philosophy at the University of Missouri. This episode focuses on the work of Stephen Hawking, who passed away on March 14, and the implications of his work for philosophy and theology.

In part 2, we focus on three main topics, all centered around the epistemology of science. First, we discuss the difference between realism and anti-realism in science and how this affects arguments for or against God. Second, we explore whether science can say anything about the evidence for God. Third, we talk about the “god of the gaps” objection to theism that is commonly raised by skeptics.

This one is a bit longer than the first, and I still have enough material left over for another podcast! We’ll see if it ends up becoming Part 3.

Thank you Dr. Kenny Boyce!!!!

Kenny Boyce

Dr. Boyce (the one on the right.)

Kenny’s website.

 

Rushing Into Fake News

Mike Leach, fake newsJust had to post this story as a classic example of bad believing. (AKA, bad epistemology.) Football coach Mike Leach allows himself to be suckered in by “fake news,” and compounds the error by broadcasting it to thousands in his twitter feed. Ironically, Leach has a brilliant offensive mind when it come to football. He probably uses “fakes” (deception) in his plays all the time, and expects the defense to fall for them. Let this serve to encourage you to always proceed with extreme caution when processing things on the internet. Especially conspiracy theories.

Should I Change What I Believe?

Magdalen College, Oxford, C.S. LewisIn the summer of 2017, I visited the University of Oxford and walked the flower-covered grounds of Magdalen (oddly pronounced “Maudlin”) College. I imagined myself retracing the steps of C. S. Lewis as he first wrestled with the idea of faith in God. He describes his conversion this way:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” (emphasis mine)

Lewis experienced a process that everyone goes through at one time or another. We start with a belief, we encounter something that unsettles that belief, and then we either find a way to retain our belief, or we change to a different belief. Personally, I don’t think we can directly control what we believe, but we can often indirectly influence the process. But how do we decide what to do when we feel that unsettling?

Winds of Change

weather vane, changeOnly in the last few years have I come to appreciate the expression “winds of change.” When there is a change in air pressure in one place, you feel that change in the form of air moving quickly in or out of your location. That moving air brings a change in weather. (Apologies to any meteorologists out there for my crude description.) Sometimes we feel the “winds of change” in our mental life. Something is unsettled and moving. We encounter new evidence (either in the form of an experience or a set of reasons presented to us) against our view of something and our belief becomes unstable.

The question is, what should we do when we feel that unsettledness? It seems there are several possibilities:

  1. Do nothing. I can take a passive stance and just let the winds of belief blow me wherever they will. Change? Sure! Anytime, any belief.
  2. Stick my head in the sand. I can ignore the new evidence and distract myself from thinking about it further, until I can hopefully just forget about it. Then I will avoid anything that reminds me of that evidence.
  3. Investigate. I can check out the new evidence and test it’s quality or seek corroboration. I can also seek counter-evidence (reasons to doubt the new evidence) and additional evidence for the position I currently hold. Once this is done, I can move toward a new position or affirm my current one.

Something about the first approach appeals to us. It takes no effort, for one. It also sounds so flexible and open-minded. But while flexibility and open-mindedness can be virtues, you can have too much of a good thing. One danger with this approach is that some evidence is misleading evidence.

evidence, knifeEver read a good murder mystery where someone tries to frame another person for the murder? Jenna plants a bloody knife in Jake’s house, she transfers money into his bank account, etc. The average person sees these “clues” and believes Jake must be guilty. But a good detective doesn’t form conclusions quite so quickly or easily. They hold out, they investigate and test the evidence. This sort of reactionary believing happens on social media all too often. We swallow “fake news” or posts that turn out to be hoaxes or just mistakes. So, it seems better to form beliefs more carefully, but without losing flexibility and open-mindedness.

Believe it or not, approach #2 also has a virtue. If all your current beliefs are true, then the head-in-sand technique can help you avoid ever forming a false belief! But it will be at the cost of ever learning any new truths. And besides, I know that my current stock of beliefs isn’t perfect. #2 isn’t as safe as it seems.

Investigation

Of the three options, #3 provides the best way to ensure you are moving toward the truth, or at least toward the most reasonable belief. If you care deeply about having true and reasonable beliefs, then it is wise to invest some time in investigation when you experience an “unsettling” in your worldview.

san francisco, beliefsMy senior year in college, I flew west for a summer mission initiative in San Francisco. My room mate in the dorms, Jasper, didn’t at all fit into the box of what I thought an evangelical college student should be. He had long, crazy hair, dressed in a sort of “grunge” style, and (gasp) listened to secular music! So I thought I was more “mature” than Jasper in my Christian faith, since I wasn’t as “worldly.”

By the end of the summer, however, it became clear that not only was Jasper more mature in his faith than I was, but he emerged as the spiritual leader of the entire mission. Over those 6 weeks, I watched Jasper carefully, and I saw enough evidence in his life to “shift” my belief about secular music. When I returned home from California, I had changed my view and finally felt the freedom to re-embrace my favorite band, U2. (I know how ironic that sounds, given that U2 are very Christian in their message.)

I’ve also experienced times where my view has been challenged, and after investigation, I’ve held my ground. I’ve even moved to a position of “I don’t know” on a few topics. It’s not about which position you take, it’s about responsibility. I want to be responsible with my mind and my beliefs, the same way I try to be careful what I eat and assimilate into my body. (I wrote about another time I changed beliefs here.)

Flexible, but Discerning

earthquake, beliefsI actually went back to live in California for a few years, about a decade after that summer mission. Loved it. Except for the earthquakes. When you feel that rumbling, and your picture frames start rattling off the shelves, it’s quite unsettling.

Sometimes we feel that rumble in our worldview when we have new experiences and talk to people with different perspectives. But we don’t have to respond in panic and fear. Quality buildings are strong, but also flexible, to better withstand quakes. We need that, too. Stay flexible and ready to adjust as needed when the quake comes. We can stop and decide to take some time to investigate. “It is the mark of a mature mind,” Aristotle says, “to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.” Hold that idea (and the evidence) in your hand and give it a good hard look. Then you can rationally, responsibly discern whether to toss it, table it, or move toward it.

Criticism, Knowledge, and Authority

Learning about informal logical fallacies turns young philosophy students into gun-slinging logic vigilantes. I love how this comic (courtesy of Existential Comics) portrays the phenomenon.

fallacy man, authority, belief fallacy man, authority, belief

But, as Alexander Pope wrote, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” In his Essay on Criticism, Pope critiques the critics, warning them of trying to evaluate beyond their skill. The essay (written in verse) holds great wisdom, well-worth the hour it might take to read through. One takeaway is this: if you plan to engage in criticism of a view, be sure you know what you’re talking about. Otherwise your photo may end up on Wikipedia’s Dunning-Kruger Effect  page. “Drink deep, or taste not the Peirian spring.”

The Appeal To Authority

hawking, authority, testimony, scienceOne of the fallacies mentioned above that gets frequent abuse is the “appeal to authority.” Those who have only sipped at the Peirian Spring misunderstand this concept, and so make two common errors: 1) they accuse others of it falsely, and 2) they become oblivious to their own appeals to authority. Let me illustrate a little.

Fallacious appeal to authority:  Brett claims that beer causes Alzheimer’s Disease. Conrad replies, “That’s silly.” Brett says, “My friend, Dr. Swanson, said it. Therefore, it’s true.”

Legitimate appeal to authority: Mark claims that black holes emit radiation. Kenny says, “But nothing can escape from a black hole.” Mark retorts, “Stephen Hawking has argued powerfully for this and talks about it in his book, A Brief History of Time.” 

What’s the difference? For one, Stephan Hawking clearly satisfies any reasonable criteria for being a legitimate expert on black holes. It is not at all clear that Dr. Swanson is an expert on Alzheimer’s. Conrad may not even know who Dr. Swanson is.  Second, Brett bases his argument solely on the word (hearsay) of Dr. Swanson, while Mark offers at least one checkable resource. Third, Brett fashions his argument in deductive form. But an argument from authority should take inductive form, i.e., the evidence from authority does not guarantee the conclusion–it only makes it more likely to be true.   A fourth mistake sometimes made in appeals to authority, though not in this case, is when someone misquotes or misrepresents an expert.

We All Do It

court room, testimonyThe bottom line is: we all rely on legitimate appeals to authority, and rightly so. Testimony (information transmitted to us from other persons, as in court) acts as one of at least five sources of knowledge (inference, memory, perception, and consciousness being the others). I simply cannot help but rely on the words of other people to help me form my beliefs about the world, like when my daughter tells me she is at a friend’s house. And I especially rely on those who have expertise in various areas: scientists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc.

But I still need to treat authority carefully. When I decide whether to believe something I read or hear, I should make sure I know the source. Not all sources — people, publications, websites–are created equal. I would check to see whether the writer/speaker is an expert or is quoting an expert. And I still use reason and background knowledge to filter the expert’s claims. I address some of these ideas in this 2 minute clip from a talk at the University of Missouri Skeptics Club:

(You can see this video, “Responsible Believing,” in it’s entirety here.)

 A Final Paraklesis

pipe, health, authority, testimony(I like the Greek word ‘paraklesis’ because it can mean both “encouragement” and “exhortation.”) Sometimes extra caution is required. I may take risks, at times, with my own health–like when I indulge in pipe-smoking. But I should think twice about the health risks when recommending such things to others. Similarly, I am sometimes negligent with my epistemic health–like believing something without sufficient consideration. But I try to exercise extra caution and care when conveying ideas (teaching, writing, speaking, using social media), based on authority, to others. Take an extra moment to ask, before you post or assert something based on authority,

  • Is the authority legitimate? (not always an easy question)
  • If the issue is controversial, have I portrayed it as one-sided by only quoting one expert?
  • Is the authority an expert in the relevant field?
  • Did I accept this expert’s word uncritically, or have I checked it out?
  • Have I represented the authority accurately?

And before you draw your fallacy six-gun and dispense epistemic justice on someone, ask whether they might be making an appropriate appeal to authority.