Epistemic statuses are lazy, and that is a good thing
October 5th, 2018
Epistemic status: High confidence about my own experience, mid-high confidence that it generalizes to others'.
Epistemic effort: Low-to-medium effort. It's a concept I've had in my head for a while, then I did a stream-of-consciousness oral draft with Otter.ai, and then I then read it over once for minor editing.
I have received a lot of positive feedback for noting my epistemic status and effort at the top of my posts. This is hilarious, because I originally started using these as a hack in order to publish half-baked ideas that I'd otherwise not feel comfortable sharing.
That said, I do think it is an epistemically honest and useful practice. It’s also in that weird category of “this one easy trick" to become a more prolific writer. It is a useful tool to indicate how much mental effort I put into something and how confident I am about it, but it's origin is not something worthy of praise.
A few years ago I wrote a piece about Singapore claiming that totalitarian governments at a very small scale may actually make sense. It was well-written and researched, but I was also very unsure of the ultimate claim. I could make just as many good arguments in the opposite direction, and my intuition pointed the opposite direction. So it sat in my folder for years, because I didn't feel comfortable publishing something that I wasn't very confident about.
In March it came up again in a conversation with a friend. He asked what I had done with the piece, and I explained that my epistemic status was much lower than I was comfortable with. That lit a lightbulb in my head. I felt fine sharing the concept in the context of the conversation because I could clarify my lack of confidence in the claim. But of course there was nothing stopping me from doing exactly the same thing on my own blog! Why not just state that in my written piece as well?!
I’d seen people use epistemic statuses in other places too, and in those cases I thought it was a great idea, though for more virtuous reasons. It hadn't struck me that it could be (ab)used for this purpose, too.
Since then, I've used epistemic statuses in most of my blog posts, and I've come to appreciate other secondary effects, too:
- Different types of thoughts require different levels of quality of writing, yet I used to feel obliged to ensure anything I ever published was top notch. This piece, for instance, is not my best writing, but that's okay because I'm just trying to get ideas out on the page. I could make it much better for sure, but the diminishing returns are real. By stating my epistemic effort at the top, I can get away with even more of that tradeoff. 🤓
- Epistemic statuses are a useful tool for showing the process of thinking, the steps you took to get to a conclusion, rather than just the conclusion itself. This has a few benefits: (1) readers can trace more of your thought, and if they disagree with you it's more likely to surface the specific crux of your disagreement rather than muddling it as one big issue, (2) readers can better understand how deep you've gone with something so as to not be indignant about "obvious" gaps you should've filled, and (3) it can help them understand how your beliefs/actions would be different if just one link in the chain of reasoning were different. In short it builds more empathy between the reader and author, enabling a more reasonable and civil discussion.
- They allow people to explore concepts that are a little odd without having to stake their identity to that idea. I suspect there are a lot of ideas that people aren't comfortable stating that are actually really useful to contributions to the overall intellectual discussion at hand. It's a tool for saying "Hey guys what if this were true? Maybe we should consider this idea" without having to go entirely out on a limb and insist that it's true.
- Mainstream publishing tends towards an identity-oriented model of ownership, in which publishing something means that you you stand by it 100%. People attacking the piece are also attacking you. I'd like people to treat publishing more as an exploration than a battle; we don't have all the right answers, and that's okay! It's healthy to share what knowledge you have and especially to point out the gaps. That's how we fill them in. In a more binary world, where you either believe something and write about it or you don't, discovering new evidence contrary to your stance can amount to an attack on your own identity. An epistemic status offers dignity to recognition that you might be wrong.
Epistemic statuses are a fairly blunt tool still, and they do not solve all epistemological problems. (That can be the topic of another post...) However, they are a step in the right direction to make it more clear what it is you actually mean and believe. An added perk: it will allow you to be more prolific with just one easy trick!
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