by Ron Sadan
What makes people more vigilant about false information? For philosophers and cognitive psychologists, the term “epistemic vigilance” describes a set of “methods people routinely use…to filter out liars and the uninformed” (Michaelson 214). But where do these routines come from? It would be a mistake to simply exhort society to be more vigilant or to blame individuals for failing to be so. For one thing, the capacity to practice epistemic vigilance is not guaranteed at an individual level. The assemblage of skills, tools, and intuitions needed to adequately distinguish truth from falsehood is not available to everyone equally, nor are the techniques we learned in schools necessarily applicable to current epistemic challenges. Moreover, the disposition to be epistemically vigilant as a population is a cultural and institutional, and hence, historical achievement – not the possession of epistemically virtuous individuals. Accordingly, if we think epistemic vigilance is in short supply today, we might ask: How have societies succeeded and failed to generate cultures of epistemic vigilance in the past? Can the history of epistemic vigilance provide us with any kind of instructions in our current crisis?
Looking at a well-intentioned failure to create a culture of epistemic vigilance in the past is instructive as to what it is and what it takes to build and sustain it. In the years following World War I, the history of epistemic vigilance became a research priority for German academics concerned by what they took to be the growing power of the press to capture minds and mobilize bodies for questionable ends. A band of scholars from various academic disciplines founded research institutes at universities across Germany to study the use and abuse of media from a scientific perspective. Calling the novel discipline Zeitungswissenschaft, or “newspaper science,” its practitioners hoped their efforts would yield precepts to reform a delinquent industry and, perhaps, even create a society of better, more critical readers: epistemic vigilantes, so to speak. The only problem was that none of the academics involved in the enterprise could agree on exactly how the young “science” was supposed to proceed, or even what its object of study properly should be.The Owl and the Duck: On Failures of Vigilance weiterlesen