Cognitive power

Sandlot versus Grown-up Epistemologies

          The word “epistemology” appeared in a recent New York Times op-ed column, written by Michelle Goldberg. She cited an article written by journalist David Roberts, that appeared on  The word occurred again in a Sunday Times book review of David Frum’s Trumpocracy. It occurred last year in a Time magazine cover story entitled “Is Truth Dead?” Each of these stories was in response to what has become almost a daily barrage of lies, lies about lies, fake news, and alternative facts, a whole new menagerie of that familiar American tradition of con artists.

          Why drag out such an obscure word from the black hole recesses of the academic closet in response to what is already a deeply disturbing, dizzying experience? Doesn’t seeing a word like “epistemology” just make us feel irritated, as if it is just making things worse? Aren’t we already being sucked down into the whirlpool of Washington without adding to the darkness.

          I happen to like the word “epistemology” though some friends keep asking, “Can’t you use another word?” I like the word because it refers specifically to knowledge about knowledge. It seems made to order to help us step back from the toxic deceit storm. An expansive use of the word seems to me essential in order to think our way out of the uncritical cheerleading for a “knowledge society,” an “information age;” Tsunamis of “Big Data” and “Artificial Intelligence” wonders are sweeping over us, promising to save us, or threatening to drown us. We need some word that will be big enough to respond to these storms, as well as the extreme political weather fronts swirling down from Washington.

          Our heady confidence in scientific knowledge, information, facts, and True truths about the universe has fed our belief that we are conquering nature. Now that belief is being shaken violently not only by the “Merchants of Doubt” but also by the spectacle of our two political parties accusing each other’s institutions of science, intelligence, media and journalism of trading in lies, lies, lies.

          Now we are forced to watch the playground spectacle of our Congressional House Intelligence Committee Chairman announcing his intention of building a literal wall to divide the seats of the two parties in the chamber where the members meet to hammer out decisions on behalf of the whole nation! It is not only the person occupying the office of President who is giving a bad name to “infants,” it is also the supposedly adult members occupying the second branch of government who are playing in the sandlot while the country is racing into the most dangerous constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

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