Would you be satisfied believing merely what it’s trendy to believe? If so, you can adopt the beliefs of the people of your country, city, and friend group.
But if you want to reliably have truer beliefs, you’re going to have to use different methods than most people use to figure out what’s true. Selecting which “epistemic methods” to rely on may be one of the most important decisions you make. Your epistemic methods may determine the career you choose, the political party you vote for, the God or Gods you worship, whose health advice you trust, and whether the money you give away helps people or accomplishes nothing.
Consider how bad it can be to get your epistemic methods wrong:
Joey always wanted to be an actor, though he only occasionally got cast in the best parts in his high school plays. He had heard about how hard it was to make it in that career, but believed deep down that he could be great if he worked at it. He trusted his parents when they told him he had lots of potential. And, anyway, he’d always been told you should pursue your passion. So he decided to study acting in college. Unfortunately, his deep-seated belief about his acting turned out to be inaccurate. His parents were merely trying to be good parents by being encouraging. Ten years after college he was still struggling to find acting work, and mainly supported himself with boring temp jobs.
Life had not gone the way he had planned, because his methods for deciding what to believe were not reliable. Unfortunately, stories like his happen all the time.
But this scenario could have gone differently if his epistemic methods were different:
Joey really wanted to be an actor, but wasn’t reliably cast in the best parts in his high school plays. He felt like he could be a great actor if he worked at it, but had heard about how hard a career it can be. So he decided to think carefully about whether it was smart to pursue. He knew that many would-be actors were better than those at his high school, and so took it as a bad sign that he frequently wasn’t cast in the best parts at his school. His parents were encouraging about his skills, but they were encouraging in general, so he knew he this wasn’t strong evidence of his potential. He’d always heard you should pursue your passion, but he figured that advice didn’t make a lot of sense if you couldn’t find a job doing your passion. So he decided to ask his acting teacher what she thought his realistic expectations should be if he pursued a life of acting. She told him that finding work would most likely be a struggle and that most people at his level of skill who attempt to become actors end up quitting. So Joey decided to focus on economics in college instead. It was a subject he liked, though not as much as acting. But he believed it would be much more likely to lead to a career he would enjoy. And he was right. He decided to continue acting, but only as a hobby.
The study of epistemic methods should not be something obscure, relegated to professors in narrow subspecialties. We all make a choice about what methods we rely on to lead us to the truth. Though many of us do it without realizing we’ve made a choice. And we pay the price in the currency of false beliefs if the methods we choose are unreliable. A bad choice early on may mean a poor understanding of the world for the rest of our life.
To reliably come to true conclusions, we need methods that reliably produce truth. To find such methods, we can look to what has been empirically found to produce accurate beliefs, as well as to those methods that are supported by sound theory.
Here are some examples of good and bad epistemic methods:
- Choosing to run our beliefs by the smartest people we know (who we think might disagree with us) is much more reliable than only sharing our opinions with those who already agree.
- Questioning what people say when they have a vested interest in saying it is better than trusting what people say even though they have a vested interest in saying it.
- Reading sources of information that come from a variety of view points is better than reading only information produced by people of one ideology.
- Downgrading your beliefs at least a bit when you encounter evidence against what you believe is better than trying to come up with a reason to dismiss that evidence.
- Doing research to understand the strongest arguments contradicting what you believe is better than dismissing the other side without learning a lot about it.
- Trusting experts about a particular point when there is a strong consensus among them is better than trusting experts when they disagree with each other.
- Reading studies written by scientists is better than reading the articles written by journalists about those studies.
- Believing the results of studies that have been replicated by independent researchers is better than believing studies that have just been done for the first time.
- Reading meta-analyses of studies is better than reading individual studies.
- Reading randomized controlled trials is better than reading other types of studies for answering questions about whether something causes something else.
- Treating it as mere evidence of truth when you feel like something is true is better than assuming that your beliefs are true simply because you feel they are.
If you don’t get your epistemic methods right, your actions may not align with your goals, even though you believe they do. You may end up choosing a career you’re not skilled at, donating to an ineffective charitable cause, voting for a politician that harms society, or simply having lots of false beliefs about yourself and the world.
It’s worth the effort to get your epistemic methods right. Otherwise, the methods you happen to use may not reliably lead you to the truth.