Social Epistemology, 5 Short Examples (suitable for a class)

  1. You can’t fact check every little thing and still have friends.

Can you imagine what a jerk I’d be if I insisted on fact checking everything everyone says to me?

Tammy: I went to the mall this morning.

Pam: Did you now. Which mall?

Tammy: THE mall. The only mall in town.

Pam: How do I know you went to the mall?

Tammy: I have a bag. From Stokes. In the mall.

Pam: But you could have gotten that bag on some other day.

Tammy: I got it this morning. When I went to the mall.

Pam:  This morning, huh?

Tammy: Here is a receipt date and time stamped from this morning.

Pam: And how do I know that your husband, Tim, didn’t go to the mall, and you just picked the receipt out of his bag? Can you get me some security footage?

Tammy: I’m going to punch you in the throat. F* you, Pam.

Now, maybe it’s so that Tammy wasn’t at the mall. Tammy dreamt she was at the mall, and unbeknownst to her, Tim went to the mall while she slept. Tim left the bag in the kitchen and then went to work before Tammy woke up. When Tammy got up, she saw the bag and, because of her dream, thought she went to the mall. Sure, this scenario is possible. Stranger things have happened. But you know, it’s a weird thing to fact check people’s every day factual reports. This behaviour is likely to thwart a conversation, and leave you bereft of friends.

2. How much do you really want to know?

If you want to get detailed, and disturbed, about how much faith you put in the things that matter for your life, think of having a surgery. Just think about the doctor’s trust in the science she refers to, the variety and precision of the equipment she uses, the sterilization of equipment, the pharmaceuticals, the public and governmental watchdog organizations, that the doctor won’t be impaired by her looming divorce and undiagnosed Parkinson’s tremor, the cleanliness of the operating room, the safety of the building, the adequacy of the power source, the skill of the anesthesiologist and the safety of the chemicals she uses, and so on – with all the things that can go wrong, we should marvel at how often things work! And you. You just hop on the table. Come on, how much do you REALLY want to know?

3. To/For whom the truth matters.

Yeah, but doesn’t truth matter? Of course! Bear in mind that “the truth matters” is not a well-formed formula. Matters requires an indexical, i.e. matters-to or matters-for. The truth of some things matter for me, notwithstanding they don’t matter to me. I don’t give one whit about whether the roof of the movie theater will bear the weight of snow falling on it while I watch the show. But if the roof starts to heave and sag, whether it will hold up matters very much to me. That the load-bearing capacity of the roof matters to someone else is good for me, and that it matters to the builder and architect because their income and reputations are on the line for their assurances is also good for me. But I don’t stop to think of the truth of all the things that are good for me, like that people are enforcing safety regulations or learning how to build a strong roof. I couldn’t, and probably shouldn’t. If I stopped to think about how I know roofs will bear weight, I’d lay awake at night looking at the ceiling. Sure, I can assure myself that I’ve seen rooftops my whole life, not a one caved-in. Not that I’d even think about roofs caving-in until asked. But once asked, I’ve the idea that roofs can cave in. (And perhaps confirm my fears on You Tube.) And if they can cave in, what makes me so certain that this particular roof (points up) won’t cave in?

4. The Human GPS Network: Navigating Our Lives

We tend to take for granted how profoundly we rely on others to help us navigate our worlds, including our social worlds. We go for counselling; we lose sleep researching (other people’s research); we lose sleep about big decisions, such as finances and health (mulling over information others put together); we lose sleep worrying about whether we’ve done the right thing, or said the wrong thing (who is judging?); we ask [xxxx] for advice; we gossip about [yyyy] to [xxxx]; we vent to [yyyy] about [xxxx]; we read self-help books (so an author, trained by others, can help us help ourselves), consumer reports, journals, blogs, Facebook, textbooks, news; we choose holiday destinations to places we know something about only because someone else reported on them; your GPS did not program itself; that road sign wasn’t planted there as a seed, and you wouldn’t know what the sign means – you’d have no clue what to do – if not for others knowing what you know about it and knowing that others, too, give uptake to its dictums. (Or don’t give uptake to its dictums. Don’t trust road signs in Italy!)

5. What beliefs are for. Aaron C.T. Smith.

In his book, Cognitive Mechanisms of Belief Change, Aaron CT Smith, a cognitive scientist from Melbourne, Australia, gives a brilliant account of what beliefs do for us. Flock Theory,

 “In my estimation…beliefs follow the same kinds of rules governing flocks of birds…First, successful beliefs fit the rule of separation. Like birds in the flock, it is best not to crowd neighbours. This is how beliefs help us navigate the belonging- distinction tension, where we need enough room to be different without separating ourselves so much that we no longer belong to the flock. In reality, we want to be special while also being in the group. Second, successful beliefs fit the rule of alignment. A bird within a flock steers toward the average heading of its closest compatriot. Similarly, beliefs tend to endure when the holder’s beliefs align with those of his or her most significant others, whether family, friends, or social network. Beliefs stick when groups cohere and all aim in the same direction. Third, successful beliefs follow the rule of cohesion. Birds steer towards the average position of their neighbours. In other words, they stick together irrespective of their flight direction. Beliefs that work together allow members to do more or less what each other do.” (257-258) 

Aaron C.T. Smith. Cognitive Mechanisms of Belief Change. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

For more information about Aaron CT Smith and a list of his publications, including Cognitive Mechanisms of Belief Change, visit his website at

For a review of Cognitive Mechanisms of Belief Change, see Diana Soeiro, Metapsychology Online Reviews, Volume 21, Issue 4, Jan 24, 2017.

Categories: Philosophy

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