How do we create the right ‘environment’ for public debate?

Unthinkable: Knowledge is an ‘epistemic good’ to which everyone should have access

People of all political hues have concerns about the quality of public debate today. All too often reason plays second fiddle to prejudice. Facts go unchecked, lies are spread and self-censorship is rife as rival tribes stalk social media seeking opportunities for taking offence.

Who is responsible for maintaining a healthy atmosphere? Is it up to each one of us to weed out bad behaviour? Or has the state also a role to play in trying to limit the spread of toxic commentary and poisonous falsehoods?

The environmental analogy is a useful one, says Shane Ryan, an Irish philosopher based at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan who has a special interest in epistemology, the theory of knowledge. He argues that we need to protect and enhance the "epistemic environment" in the same way we have an obligation to care for the planet – and this means action at both individual and collective levels.

Ryan, this week’s Unthinkable guest, says he is keen to get across the idea that “knowledge and other epistemic goods are valuable”. What he is proposing in epistemic environmentalism, he says, “is a way helping us to think about the factors that bear on whether we attain or miss out on these valuable goods”.


What are the hallmarks of a healthy epistemic environment?

Shane Ryan: “This will depend on one’s epistemic value theory. Plausibly, however, an epistemic environment that is working well is one in which knowledge will generally either be available to members of the relevant society or passed on to them.

“Different societies may have different mechanisms by which this happens. Availability might, for example, involve being able to ask and get an answer from the knower, or being able to access a record, perhaps on the internet or in a library.

“Circulation can be from media publications distributed to a wide audience, personal distribution by individuals to selected audience by word of mouth, group chats, and tweets. It’s also important for the quality of an epistemic environment that there are mechanisms that enable agents to receive testimonial knowledge of relevance for them.”

How can I help to improve my epistemic environment?

“There are a number of things that we as individuals can do. Plausible virtues of a good testifier are accuracy and sincerity. If we accept this and care about the quality of our epistemic environment, then as testifiers we should try to tell the truth and try not to mislead people by what we say.

“An epistemic environmentalist today has the opportunity to make significant contributions via informative blogging to wide audiences, as well as reviewing and recommending changes to online content, such as Wikipedia. Of course one could also be an educator and contribute to the growth of other good intellectual agents who in turn will contribute to the quality of the epistemic environment.”

How can technology be used to protect the epistemic environment?

“The epistemic environment might be protected in a couple of ways from the ill epistemic effects of mass circulation of fake news. One approach is to sanction individual users for circulating fake news. Another approach is to sanction social media platforms for facilitating the mass distribution of fake news. Either approach, however, raises free speech concerns.

“An alternative approach is mitigation. Such an approach wouldn’t attempt to formally prevent the distribution of fake news but would rather mitigate any epistemic harm done by its circulation. This could be done by requiring social media platforms to attach an indication as to the trustworthiness of a source of news.

“News coming from RTÉ could, by default, be marked with a green flag, news coming from an unknown source could be, by default, marked with an amber flag, while news coming from a known regular distributor of inaccurate or misleading news could be marked with a red flag.

“Social media platforms could, when a post with a news story appears, also make available a link to Wikipedia-style page discussing the accuracy and broader context of that news story. Such a page could provide the basis for altering the flagged trustworthiness status of a news story.”

Has the state a role in all of this?

“I think the state does have a role to play in the epistemic environment for the same sort of reasons it has a role to play in the environment in relation to clean air and so on. This position will face resistance from some theorists.

“A lot of the discussion will focus on the proper role of the state in a liberal democracy. One idea here is that it’s not the state’s place to decide which testimony is acceptable and which is not acceptable. Another idea is that the state playing a role in the epistemic environment opens the door to Big Brother-type scenarios.

“My response is that the state already plays a role in regulating certain forms of testimony. In many countries there are already formal sanctions for false advertising, libel, perjury, and hate speech. That there are such sanctions seem perfectly reasonable.

“The state is also already concerned with the positive epistemic attainment of its population. While secondary and tertiary education also have other functions, one function that they have is to help develop an educated citizenry and voting public.

“What I am proposing is that the state take a broader interest and potential involvement in the functioning of the epistemic environment. Doing so is motivated by the positive value, whether intrinsic or instrumental, of epistemic goods such as knowledge and understanding.”

How far should the state go? Should it, for example, promote “digital literacy” in schools, subsidise the media, or introduce penalties for elected representatives who lie in public?

“This is a new area, so there’s nothing like a consensus on many of these issues. My position is that other things being equal, a community with more knowledge, understanding, etc, is doing better than a society with less knowledge and understanding. So other things being equal we have a reason to try to have a society with more knowledge and understanding.

“Promoting ‘digital literacy’ in schools and subsidising the media could be justified if the epistemic benefits outweighed the general costs. One would need to do an in depth study to see if either proposal should be carried out.

“Mitigation or adaption proposals are in a certain sense easier to argue for in so far as they don’t restrict free speech. They simply help mitigate harm done to the epistemic environment or help members of epistemic communities adapt to an otherwise worsened epistemic environment.

“Arguing for penalties for elected representatives who lie will of course be much more controversial because of the restriction on free speech involved. I do make the case that there should be formal, albeit very mild sanction for elected representatives – and experts and institutional testifiers – who knowingly tell falsehoods.”