In the previous post, I remarked that psychological explanations alone cannot account for the prominence of false beliefs. Rather, we must look beyond the individual to understand how beliefs take shape. In this and the next few posts, through the lens of social epistemology, I consider the social nature of our knowledge, beliefs, and values. I begin, in this post, by exploring the topic of testimony and considering how underlying epistemic mechanisms enhance the spread of misinformation regarding non-human animals.
Much of what we know about the world does not result from detached individual thinking. What may appear to be individualistic epistemological enquiry involves dependence on other agents to supply true and reliable information. As Alfano and Klein suggest, reliance on others is not only unavoidable, but “in the best cases, it is empowering, greatly increasing the scope of our knowledge” (Alfano & Klein, 2019, p.1). However, reliance on others to convey true and reliable information has potential negative consequences.
When we acquire information or form a belief on the basis of what others have told us, we are relying on ‘testimony’. Knowledge acquired through testimony depends not only on a single agent’s cognitive faculties, but on other individuals. A restrictive account of testimony suggests that a speech-act only counts as testimony when a speaker intends to present evidence to a hearer. However, on a more permissive account of testimony, testimony can be understood as tellings in general, with no specific intended audience (Sullivan, 2019, p.21). A permissive account of testimony is better-fitting for a modern epistemic environment, in which epistemic agents often present testimony to the world at large, rather than a specific hearer.
According to Steup & Neta (2020), “to acquire knowledge of ‘p’ through testimony is to come to know that ‘p’ on the basis of someone’s saying that ‘p’.” For example, if my friend bursts through the door, umbrella in hand, and I ask “Is it raining?”, to which they reply “no”, then I have come to know this on the basis of testimony. However, as I have suggested, testimony should be more accurately understood in a more permissive sense than solely in-person agent-to-agent utterances; thus including communication through news articles, blogs, social media posts, and information communicated through television, radio, books, and other media (Steup & Neta, 2020). For example, if I turn on the news to see the weather report to determine whether it is raining – this is also a form of testimony.
Reliance on others as a conduit of knowledge raises a number of interesting (and overlapping) questions, for instance, about who we should listen to, and why we should listen to them. What conditions make someone an epistemic authority? How can we be sure that this person is trust-worthy?
The rest of this post will be guided by two key topics that impact our testimonial knowledge: attention and trust. As it will become clear, these topics are highly inter-related. Attention can be understood as who or what we listen to, given that our attention is a finite resource and given our cognitive resources have become strained as a result of a changing epistemic environment in which we are exposed to more information than ever before.
The second topic, which has received significantly more direct consideration in social epistemological literature, is trust. The fact that we give attention to a source of information does not mean that we trust that source of information, and as such, it may have little effect on our beliefs. Therefore, attention, in this sense, can be understood as a prerequisite for trust. However, these dimensions of testimony are interconnected, therefore trust can also act as a prerequisite for attention.
In philosophical literature, attention is invoked in a variety of ways. However, when referred to by social epistemologists, the term is generally employed to refer to those from whom we ought to accept testimony. In other words, who we should be listening to, to gather information about the world.
Consider an example from one of my previous posts. It is quite common to hear people, in defending the consumption of animals, suggest something along the lines of I need meat to be healthy. There is a common misconception that a vegetarian diet is unhealthy, as one cannot consume enough protein without eating animals. However, as I have suggested earlier, this is not the case. Others, however, would brush this comment aside, and respond along the lines of: you don’t need meat to be healthy. I get protein from other sources… In fact, consumption of meat is unhealthy. The question arises, then, as to whose testimony we should accept. According to Piazza et. al. (2015, p.115), we are more likely to pay attention to information that fits with our existing beliefs, and reject information that conflicts. So, in this case, it is likely that the meat-eater will agree with the first statement, while the vegetarian will agree with the latter, and more attention will be given to the sources that support their respective views.
Similarly, we are more likely to give attention to information that has a sense of familiarity. This phenomenon, often referred to as the ‘recognition heuristic’, also means that we are, according to Alfano & Skorburg, “more likely to encounter ‘big’ things (on whatever criterion dimension) than ‘little’ things”. (Alfano & Skorburg, 2018, p.240). In other words, if you have heard something, for example, the supposed positives of regenerative farming, it is because people are talking about it. Whereas if the negatives of this practice are not commonly discussed, you are unlikely to give attention to these concerns when they are raised. In addition, according to O’Connor & Weatherall (2019, p.4), we are more likely to pay attention to information from sources that we already trust. As I suggested earlier, I have framed attention as a precondition for trust, however, this suggests that trust can also act as a precondition for attention.
The distribution of attention is also influenced by external influences, such as laws and regulations. Often, these influences can shape what we see such that information is never introduced to our epistemic environment.
For example, many countries have introduced anti-whistle-blower laws that apply to the agricultural industry, more commonly referred to as ‘Ag-Gag’ laws. Ag-Gag laws prohibit individuals from documenting the mistreatment of non-human animals on farms and other animal-agriculture facilities. In Australia, a number of laws have been introduced to prevent those concerned for non-human animals from exposing their mistreatment, such as strengthening laws for trespass. Most recently, laws have taken the shape of suppression orders (also sometimes referred to as ‘gag orders’), which restrict the publishing of any content that documents abuse of animals on Australian farms. In 2019, the Australian Government passed the Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Act 2019, which introduced penalties for anyone who“transmits, makes available, publishes or otherwise distributes material”that may incite trespass, property damage, or theft, on agricultural land – with a possible maximum penalty of 5 years. This Act would likely dissuade many people from attempting to obtain photographic evidence of the mistreatment of non-human animals. As such, information that has a negative impact on the operation of animal-agricultural operations is either not obtained, or withheld out of fear of prosecution, thus not reaching a point where it receives public attention.
The shape and extent of our epistemic networks has also changed dramatically in the last half-century. In the paper, Trust in a Social and Digital World, Mark Alfano and Colin Klein highlight a number of dimensions in which our information ecology has shifted; Volume, Velocity, Veracity, Variety, and Voice. They note that we have access to more information than ever before, we are able to access this information faster, the information we can access is more accurate, there are more diverse sources of information, and on the flipside, we also have an increased ability to make ourselves heard (Alfano & Klein, 2019, p.2).
As I have alluded to, although this shift in our epistemic environment has advantages, namely, access to accurate information (and as such, likelihood of accurate beliefs), there are also clear downsides. The interaction of the five dimensions outlined above presents challenge for our epistemic accuracy. More specifically, the ability to direct our attention is challenged. As Alfano and Klein suggest, accurate sources of information “must be sifted from the spammers, trolls, practical jokers, conspiracy theorists, counterintelligence sock-puppets, liars, and ordinary uninformed and misinformed citizens who also proliferate online”.(Alfano & Klein, 2019, p.2).
There is an endless supply of information in an online epistemic environment, and deciding which information to pay attention to is not a simple task. But it should be said that a goal of a well-intentioned epistemic agent ought to be to obtain accurate information about the world. Granting attention to misinformation creates the potential for it to be incorporated into one’s beliefs, and further, creates space for it to proliferate. In addition, not only must accurate sources of information be separated from erroneous sources; in instances when one gives attention to unreliable sources, epistemic structures may be formed to silence other sources of (accurate) information. These structures take the shape of ‘echo chambers’ and ‘epistemic bubbles’(also referred to as ‘filter bubbles’) -mechanisms that limit the information we see, undermine trust, and reinforce existing beliefs (Nguyen, 2020, p.141-142).
Above, I have framed trust as following from attention.That is to say, we must first pay attention to a source of information before we decide whether to trust that source. However, as I suggested above,trust can also be seen as a filtering mechanism in the determination of who we grant attention to. It is important to keep both of these perspectives in mind in the following discussion.
In the book chapter Trust and Reputation as Filtering Mechanisms of Knowledge (2019), Gloria Origgi identifies a number of overlapping mechanisms that determine the degree of trust we have in other agents, including reliability of the speaker, reliability of content, deference to authority, reputational cues, robust signals, emotional reactions, and moral commitments (Origgi, 2019, p.80-83). I will not detail all of these mechanisms here; however, I will provide a brief overview of how some of these mechanisms impact who an epistemic agent trusts, and to what degree they trust them.
Inferences that are made about the reliability of the source of information are a key consideration in the determination of trust. If our interlocutor has provided us with accurate information in the past, we are likely to trust that they will provide accurate information again, regardless of whether the information is concerning a similar subject matter to what the source has provided testimony on in the past. To illustrate this simply, if you had accurately pointed me in the direction of a café for breakfast last week, and another yesterday, when I ask you to direct me to a café for breakfast today, I would trust your testimony. Whereas I would not give the testimony of a complete stranger the same weighting. This is a simple example, of course. Regarding more complex matters, in evaluating the reliability of a speaker, we sometimes need to attribute expertise (a topic that I will consider in an upcoming post), which can impact how we interpret information that is being communicated. Similarly, we make inferences about the content and structure of information when determining whether to trust it. According to Mercier and Sperber (2017), information that is logically coherent has a higher probability of being perceived as true. However, as I have noted above, information that confirms our existing beliefs is also accepted more easily.
Origgi claims that the most influential mechanism in the determination of trust is deference to norms. She states, “one cannot learn how to navigate a field of knowledge without deferring to others, to practices, teachers, common sense, in short to everything that structures the epistemic landscape of that field” (Origgi, 2019, p.82). In other words, we learn and adopt norms from an early age, through deference to authorities. As such, our beliefs are conditioned in a way that makes it difficult to question internalized norms. When it comes to consumption of non-human animals, it is fair to say that this is a norm that, in our present society, is reinforced from an early age.
In addition to the disposition to trust another being determined through reflective reason, emotion and other heuristics also play a role. For example, something as seemingly minor as facial expressions can influence the amount of trust that one places in another. Judgments like these, while made quickly, can also withstand additional information to the contrary, with initial impressions often persisting, and undermining the foundations for trust (Origgi, 2019, p.83). Jules Holroyd and Katherine Puddifoot, building on Elizabeth Fricker’s approach to epistemic trust (1995), suggest that we should adopt a critical stance in the evaluation of credibility of a testimonial source. However, in line with Origgi, one’s perspective about who to trust is often guided by biases and prejudices (Holoroyd & Puddifoot, 2019).
Similarly, in the book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (2007), Miranda Fricker describes how our judgement about whether a source is credible, and preceding this, whether we even pay attention to a source, is guided by prejudices concerning a speaker’s social identity. Fricker refers to this as ‘testimonial injustice’ (1). In cases of testimonial injustice, certain individuals have a credibility deficit, effectively dismissed as knowers. As these foundations for trust are undermined, important testimonial evidence is often overlooked (Fricker, 2007, p.17-19).
To give an example in this context; concerns of animal rights activists might be dismissed simply in virtue of these concerns being voiced by animal rights activists. In other words, when certain individuals draw attention to the fact that non-human animals are unnecessarily harmed and killed, their concerns are dismissed, for example, with claims like they don’t know what they’re talking about.
In a similar way, experts in this context may have their opinions dismissed simply in virtue of other aspects of their social identity. For example, a female ichthyologist (who is an expert on fish nervous systems), arguing that fish feel pain, might have her claim dismissed, whereas a male fisherman (non-expert in regard to fish nervous systems), claiming that fish don’t feel pain, may be given greater credence. Likewise (and unjustifiably, I must add), a male ichthyologist’s testimony would, for many people, carry more weight than a female ichthyologist’s testimony. In the examples that I have given here, epistemic injustices have been committed.
In the paper Endogenous Epistemic Factionalization (2020), O’Connor and Weatherall explore a phenomenon that they refer to as epistemic factionization, in which groups of agents with highly correlated and polarized beliefs emerge. They draw attention to the fact that people discount evidence that is espoused by others who do not share their beliefs, while testimony from peers that hold common beliefs is trusted and accepted more readily (O’Connor & Weatherall, 2020, p.4).
To give a simple illustration, I noted in one of my previous posts how the idea of “humane” meat actively works to undermine the concerns of animal rights activists, by making their ideas seem extreme and unjustified, while also portraying farmers as victims of the activists, ultimately to draw attention away from the other victims in this picture – the animals. Consider an article released on News.com.au that paints animal rights activists in a negative light: ‘Hundreds of militant vegans storm Queensland farmer’s property’ (Loomes, 2019), complemented with the subtitle “Shocking video shows the confronting moment a group of militant vegan activists stormed the property of a Queensland cattle farmer”. If I hold an existing belief that It’s okay to consume non-human animals, then I am more likely to trust and accept this article as a source of information. In contrast, if I do not hold the common belief that consumption of animals is okay, I am less likely to trust and accept the argument of this article.
While the intention of the research in O’Connor and Weatherall’s paper is to show how grounding trust in shared belief leads to polarization, it should also be clear that it also leads to inadequate incorporation of all available evidence, as evidence presented by those who do not share common beliefs is either (a) dismissed completely, or (b) given little credence as a result of prior beliefs and trust dynamics. Following from this, beliefs formed in this manner are likely to conform with existing beliefs. This could also be understood as a downside of conformity, tendency to align one’s own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, to those around oneself – which I consider in my next post.
*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.
 Fricker also identifies a second variety of epistemic injustice, hermeneutical injustice, which she defines as “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to a structural identity prejudice in the collective hermeneutical resource” (Fricker, 2007, p.155). It is possible that this variety of epistemic injustice can also be applied to concerns for increased moral consideration of non-human animals, however I do have the capacity to explore this concept here.
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