Brexit has encouraged me to re-visit philosophy to make sense of things. I hope epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, & the ethics of belief will help me answer this question: When everyone's entitled to a Brexit opinion, does it matter who's right & who's wrong? A thread /1
Brexit looks like a disaster for the economy & the future of the UK. But the decision to leave the EU also reveals a troublingly widespread lack of concern with knowledge & understanding. Thus Brexit reveals a high degree of epistemic ineptitude among the British electorate /2
Although I’m informed about the EU, I’m also aware of how little I know. The latter is not true for most leave voters I speak with. For all their opinion and rhetoric, the most astounding thing I’ve noticed is: the degree of magical thinking; poor reasoning skills; /3
lamentable judgment; simplistic black-and-white thinking; and general lack of accurate knowledge on display. If we were talking about sports, TV shows, or some other inanity, I wouldn’t be sitting here typing. But we're not. /4
We're talking about Brexit, an issue with the most complex and far-reaching implications, and I’m still awaiting a coherent and comprehensible explanation of why and how Brexit is a good thing. Pithy slogans like taking back control don’t cut it with me. /5
It seems many people who voted to leave the EU cast their votes in the referendum without due consideration and understanding of the issues at hand. This debases our democracy, and it makes me furious. It’s easy to call Brexiters stupid but more often than not, they’re not. /6
’Stupid’ is a lazy label which lets Brexiters off the hook of personal culpability. If Brexit goes ahead & the shit hits the fan, I want to be able to hold people to account. So I don’t call them stupid, I call them epistemically incontinent - and this is why it’s important. /7
Picture yourself in a courtroom. The prosecution & defence each present evidence, in the form of documentary evidence & witness testimony, expert & otherwise. Both present a case based on all this information & hope to win the argument by presenting the most likely explanation /8
of the defendant’s guilt or innocence, while a judge or jury conclude the process by giving a verdict. Epistemology operates in a similar way, although, rather than judging guilt or innocence, epistemologists make judgments about the quality of knowledge. /9
In a way, we’re all epistemic agents when we seek knowledge to justify our beliefs and arguments - or indeed our voting preferences. And that’s why this is so relevant to Brexit. /10
Analytic epistemologists argue that only justified true beliefs qualify as knowledge, rather than mere opinion. So, if I hold a belief that is true & which can be justified (say, with evidence), I can be said to possess knowledge. If not, that belief's just an opinion. /11
Virtue epistemologists prioritise our methods of inquiry, for example our open-mindedness, reflective-capability and commitment to things like truth and understanding. Another key issue is what the ancient Greeks called Akrasia - to be weak-willed or incontinent /12
Epistemic incontinence, a lazy unwillingness to check the data & verify arguments, seems characteristic of too many voters in the referendum. Votes based on mere opinion & a lack of knowledge & understanding just isn’t good enough in an apparently mature democracy, /13
especially when it comes to the most important vote in our nation’s modern history. At this point, images of red buses with funding slogans might come to mind. Who would believe such a claim, that £350million a week ‘given’ to the EU would be handed over instead to the NHS? /14
If you believed it, you didn’t do your homework & spot how unjustifiable the claim is. Thus, you’re epistemically incontinent. The same can be said for all the other lies & misleading claims. Did you do your homework & check if these ‘truths’ were in fact true or justified? /15
Or did you just believe what you wanted to believe? If so, you’re epistemically incontinent. Facts can of course be dubious. What about other forms of evidence? How about the testimony of Leave campaigners like Boris Johnson & Nigel Farage, /16
both of whom seem to have a ‘difficult’ relationship with the truth? Like a jury in a court case, we listen to witness testimony but we also need to distinguish whose testimony is more trustworthy. /17
Did you trust Johnson and Farage over a group of experts who actually know what they’re talking about? If yes, you’ve done it again. You’re epistemically incontinent. And, according to Michael Gove, there’s a lot of this epistemic incontinence going around. /18
Lies and misinformation have surely tainted the debate about the EU & Brexit, and there will presumably be a reckoning for the Brexit cheer-leaders when their promises fail to materialise. /19
But what about those who readily ignored the experts and accepted the words of dubious Brexit campaigners instead? This is points to a deeper problem than Brexit alone, especially at a time when our democracy appears to be under threat. /20
Democracies thrive on an informed electorate, but also one that’s able to decipher the arguments. With such widespread epistemic incontinence, it’s not clear the UK can boast such a thing. /21
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