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About applied epistemology

What is applied epistemology?

Just five or ten years ago, the term ‘epistemology’ was a relatively obscure one, used almost entirely by philosophers and other humanities scholars. But in the last few years, the use of the word has spread beyond the ivory tower, most notably by a number of pundits who have said that we are experiencing an “epistemological crisis.” This phrase even found its way into an interview given by Barack Obama.

This idea of an “epistemological crisis” seems most often to refer to the claim that our society is characterized by deep disagreement, not just in values, but about basic matters of empirical fact. There is a lack of widespread consensus about matters like whether anthropogenic climate change is occurring, whether the 2020 US election was free and fair, and whether the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective. We live, it’s said, in an era of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and “post-truth.”

But even those familiar with these talking points might still wonder what exactly epistemology is, and how – beyond just noting the problems that we face – it can help us to navigate them.

At the most general level, epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. It asks when our beliefs amount to genuine knowledge, and – relatedly– when they count as rational, or irrational. But in recent years, many philosophers working in epistemology have moved away from thinking about these questions in a purely abstract way, turning their attention to thinking about how they apply to domains such as politics, the law, science, education, the media, and more. We can call this ‘applied epistemology’.


The questions of applied epistemology are diverse and wide-ranging. But here is a sampling of the kinds of questions that it covers:

  • Are we justified in thinking for ourselves about the answers to political questions, or should we always just “defer to the experts?”
  • What is a “conspiracy theory,” and is it always irrational to believe in such theories?
  • Is there anything we can say to a climate change skeptic that ought to rationally compel her to change her mind?
  • What is an “echo chamber,” and is it ever OK to be in one? How should this affect our choices about what media sources to consume?
  • Can some beliefs, such as racist beliefs, be morally wrong? And if so, does this in itself make these beliefs irrational?
  • How should we react when we discover that our political beliefs are, or may be, produced by bias?
  • How should we react when we discover that other intelligent people disagree with our political beliefs?
  • What standards of proof should we use when forming beliefs in legal contexts?

These are the sorts of questions that make up applied epistemology. And they arise not just for anyone who wants to figure out what it’s rational to believe, but also for anyone who want to figure out how to be a responsible citizen.

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