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Feb 13, 2021Liked by zeynep

This post alone was worth this year's subscription. Thank you.

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I can't help but think that another piece of the Authoritarian Muscle Memory, in addition to strategic planning and ability to discern truth from clues, is the tolerance for sitting with ambiguity. The last year has been full of ambiguity, from evolving science to leadership void. Those who are able to sit in the ambiguity and not feel compelled to jump to black or white, will do better.

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An interesting point is being able to *spring to action* in face of ambiguity. That's what one has to do in a pandemic, or in most situations with realistic but catastrophic tail-risk. We're used to the other path: react only after one is sure. With exponential processes, it's too late!

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You just hit on a (or THE) key problem I have been trying to solve my whole career - how do you empower (or give permission or goad) people to spring into action? Or can you? (and ugh the exponential process of the variant...)

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I so agree with this! Though I imagine that alongside any tolerance for ambiguity you can often also find a heightened vigilance (or at least sensitive radar) for BS.

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This line, this: "Critical thinking is not just formulas to be taught but knowledge and experience to be acquired and tested and re-examined, along with habits and skills that can be demonstrated and practiced."

I do not personally have the experience that would give me authoritarian muscle memory, but my father's stories and memories from life under Stalin and post-Stalin in the Soviet Union (he emigrated in 1974) feel like they've given me a bit of that way of looking at the world. The disturbing part of the past few years (of many disturbing parts) that I keep coming back to is the difficulty of maintaining one's own values and ethics in a society and system that is more likely to punish them than not, which is something my grandparents faced and didn't back down from. It's something I see most people around me struggling with -- how to deal with the meta-something of living ethical or moral or whatever lives while feeling like the framework that supports that is crumbling (if it was ever solid to begin with) AND just going to work, paying bills, raising kids, whatever. It's not just learning to navigate official "information," it's also learning how to navigate a society and political system runs counter to what the stated values are while also performing the tasks of normal daily life. The question of what to *do*, if anything, is plaguing many.

(Maybe I'm just feeling overly pessimistic after reading Tim Alberta's long profile on Nikki Haley in Politico.)

One thing that might be helpful for those who've never faced this kind of reality is advice on dealing with the emotional weight of it. Trump might be gone, but the future of democracy is pretty shaky, and plenty of us live in states where Republicans have a tight grip and are doing anything they can to erode public trust, science, democratic norms, etc. Too many simply don't know how to exist in this reality.

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The current version of reality reminds me of a story of Richard Pryor’s. His wife came home to find him making out on the couch with another woman, and, not surprisingly made a scene. He told her she was imagining things. “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

Too often that choice becomes real in our topsy turvy world.

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Oh dear. Hadn't heard that one before! I guess there are infinite versions of the "there are four lights" scenario.

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Thinking critically takes more work and time and you burn more glucose immediately to save even more in the future and it is also fun. This kind of learned fitness seems pre-requisite to adaptive maneuvering in ambiguity and uncertainty. Fast thinking works better the more privilege and stability you enjoy.

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author

I absolutely agree that it is an enjoyable process, and as an educator, I think we should embrace it as a process that we don't impart on students like a formula, but exactly that: a way to be sharper about the world around us.

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Like David below, I found myself wanting to question the use of the term "metaepistemology" to describe what you're doing here. Not for the sake of definitional quibbling, but because such "vertical" language doesn't seem to capture the interdisciplinary (sociological, psychological, political), indeed, very *human* face you put on our search for knowledge in these settings. If anything, this strikes me as applied epistemology at its best! But also horizontal in the sense of broad and lending itself to diverse units of analysis...is there such a thing as macro and micro-epistemology? What you seem to be speaking to is the situatedness of knowledge in all its many dimensions and especially, of the very task of interpreting and translating said "knowledge" - whether that means the discursive dimensions of what was said or done, surrounding social contexts, institutional agendas, authoritarian dynamics, or what is notably left out.

You made the important observation that "there is no separating the “process” from the “substance”. To this I would add that there is no separating process/substance from the *person* who is trying to interpret information and piece together the truth of things. Along with the "institutional operation, and the status and psychological incentives of the people, [mattering] greatly," there is also personal experience and recognition of familiar patterns seen playing out over and over (e.g. from growing up under an authoritarian regime). All this requires not only sociology and psychology, but a sense of history, and even autobiography. That is also why in an earlier post I was moved to single out the unique optimism pervading so much of your work, which for me goes beyond personal style to carry real epistemic value. Your (clear-eyed and realist) attentiveness to the potentially positive aspects of a new development -- systematically dismissed by doomscrollers or agnostics -- helps to tease the whole picture into view, in the same way that optical illusion from the museum depends on the hidden corners in and around the columns to see the missing people.

I didn't see the debate you apparently had with that Balaji Srinivasan guy, but someone suggested his position basically boils down to "how do we get to truth?" and yours boils down to "how do we get to trust? [regarding matters of truth]?" This seems like a great characterization of process vs. substance in critical thinking, where the substance must take into account a middle layer of active human participation, social meanings, and all sorts of other things.  

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What term would better capture it? It is indeed that vertical nature of the process I am trying to highlight.

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How about "social epistemology"?

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Oh, that's very helpful to know - thanks for clarifying. Let me think this through a little and see if I can articulate better. I honestly don't want to get hung up on minor semantics. There's just something about that formulation that doesn't feel quite appropriate.

Certainly, you are bringing a very critical and reflexive stance to these topics in a particular kind of way, where this isn't generally being done. There's definitely *something* potentially "vertical" in what you're doing in that there's an extra layer in there - I keep coming back to that recent comparison of Banaji's "How do we get to truth" with your "How do we get to trust [about what is true here]?" as something perfectly capturing this additional layer, which I feel has something to do with the mediating role of communication and shared meanings in any account of knowledge as it actually exists on the ground. But it's the very fact that you are always going back to how knowledge works *on the ground*, even as you theorize about it, that seems most significant; that's why I'd maybe rather call it "applied social epistemology" than metaepistemology. Or "macro/micro epistemology" depending on scale of the unit of analysis in question.

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P.S. I don't know much about semiotics which you guys were discussing before, but I've been thinking that what we seem to be talking about here is what some people would call hermeneutics. (Even though I have very negative associations with that term.) So in your case, that might amount to a "hermeneutics of information" as a path toward better epistemology in the context of things like pandemics and political movements.

I should add that I'm partly brainstorming here! Just trying to get at what seems lacking in the metaepistemology take.

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I guess it feels like what makes your insights about knowledge especially valuable is that is so "horizontal" and integrative (coupled with your being critical and reflexive). It seems less about the nature of knowledge per se, than properly contextualizing this as knowledge-in-action, i.e. bringing your special expertise about sociological phenomena, the nature of information, digital media and (meta)-communication to bear on a set of current crises for which questions about knowledge and evidence have figured even more centrally than is typical. By showing how these different things function together and impact one another to complicate "knowledge" in specific problem-solving contexts like public health policy and messaging, or resisting antidemocratic moves, you're widening the lens and then asking, "What does this tell us about what we really know about X?" In this sense you're really telescoping *in* (not spiraling out) to show us the inner guts and machinery of all this stuff we have been calling (or denying as) knowledge: the dynamics of how we're communicating about it; the sociological implications, the cognitive biases, the politics of public health interventions.

Maybe the "meta," then, is not a metaepistemology but a meta-communicative take on questions and problems very closely aligned with epistemology, i.e. a "meta-communication of epistemology?"

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I really like your use of situatedness of knowledge. It captures well the idea that (at least the acquiring of) knowledge entails activity on the part of the knower; it’s not entirely objective. And the knower, by necessity, interprets according to her lived experience.

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author

And here we get into questions of embedded knowledge AI and the rest.. Fascinating stuff.

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embedded and embodied — depends on what side of the cognitive constructivism debate you’re on.

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I keep returning to the issue of whether your pursuit is of metaepistemology. I believe it is, and it’s demonstrated by this blog/newsletter/whatever it’s called.

In the principle of the New Yorker’s “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a Dog,” I perceive that you know personally few of the readers/contributors; and likewise, few of the contributors know one another. While I can assure you I am not a dog, you have no real knowledge of that.

What binds the community is that all are paying members of the Zeynep fan club — meaning that all admire your analyses and expression of them; and have signed up to be sparring partners as you think through tough ideas.

In comment interactions, I perceive that most folks need to reveal something of their lives outside the blog in order to explain a perspective or to underscore a point. To me, THAT is metaepistemology at work.

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I wish this weren't such an old thread because I find this "is it metaepistemology" question compelling, for reasons I can't quite explain (maybe because I rely a lot on clarifying concepts to even be able to find my way around). Most likely no one is reading these posts anymore. But that's an interesting take you have in terms of bringing one's own life experience into a public forum as a kind of metaepistemological practice - I never thought of it quite that way. I would have called that reflexivity, or just really good scholarship.

For me, what Zeynep was writing about above (and generally) is definitely meta in key ways, and expressly bound up in epistemological concerns. But to characterize it as "metaepistemology" felt, to me, like a category error. It doesn't help that analytic philosophy has that very formal, academic definition (the study of the study of) whereas here it's much more a ground-level practice (e.g. as public-facing journalism) that foregrounds the role of discourse and the dissemination, consumption and interpretation of information in construction of knowledge.

So, it's not so much a theory of theory of knowledge as thinking through the epistemic issues that come up when people *talk* in certain ways that bear on knowledge or evidence, and doing this in a very reflexive way: an epistemology of talking about and around knowledge. It is good old-fashioned "epistemology of X," where X has typically never received that kind of theoretical and critical treatment but was just taken at face value. For instance, "epistemology of sci-comm" or "epistemology of epidemiology." Or in this latest one, an "epistemology of omissions." None of this requires the extra prefix, which would reify the work it is already doing.

Substack apparently doesn't allow editing, so I had to delete and repost in order to remove an error - my apologies if this shows up in an email notification, and sorry about the long post!

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author

I read all the comments! Even after posts have gone out. But yeah, maybe there isn't a single good term for this, but all this is a theory of knowledge, a theory of the world, domain knowledge, judgment... It's a way of knowing/learning/acting that I think we all do, at least to some degree, but it's not codified/taught (and would not easily fit into traditional classroom structures).

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In modeling for computational purposes, the set of principles guiding the model are called the metamodel, which is distinct from the model itself. The metamodel may be applicable to multiple domains.

A non-computational example is Systems Thinking, which is a way of thinking about the interrelationships of “things,” and how new “things” arise from those interrelationships. A common example is a “thought,” which does not correspond to a neuron but rather to a set of interactions among those neurons. A physical example is a net, which is not simply a collection of pieces of string, but a new “thing” that emerges from the knotted interactions of the pieces of string. As a discipline, then, Systems Thinking is a metamodel because it gives a common way of looking at the world regardless of domain.

If I were interested in how cells are alive and study autopoesis (self-manufacture), I would be looking at the biological domain-specific model. Humberto Maturana, who coined the term autopoesis, was working under the metamodel of Cybernetics. Stafford Beer, the founder of Operations Research and an early cybernetician, conceived a view of organizations called the Viable Systems Model, which was a direct and intentional overlay of biological systems onto human organizations.

Think also of metadata, which is information presented that describes how elements of data are presented. “This field is a username.” Metametadata would define what a username is.

A bit longwinded, but the point is that there’s a wide range of meaning that can incorporate Aristotle’s ‘ta meta ta physika’, the book after Physics, and analytic philosophers’ use of meta, and layers of modeling.

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I’m unsure whether my previous response actually addressed your issue. I hope it did, but let me try a different approach in case it was just more obfuscation.

Zeynep’s response to my using this blog as an example was “And here we get into questions of embedded knowledge AI and the rest.” If you’re looking at creating AI, what would it mean for a machine to “know” something, and what is the relationship between human cognition and machine cognition?

There is no single set of techniques called AI. Some of the original approaches involved “expert systems,” in which the programmer attempted to capture some domain-specific human knowledge, model it, and then have the machine in those limited circumstances provide expert advice. Such knowledge is static (it can’t inherently alter itself) and is simply a machine representation of what a human knows.

Ideally, you might want the machine to begin to figure things out itself. Its internal representations need not mimic humans, as long as it behaves in human-like ways (or cockroach-like ways if you mode a cockroach instead of a human).

Creating a cockroach’s expertise would entail capturing each of its possible escape strategies. If a real cockroach had to search through a large manual each time, it would be a dead cockroach.

A better model of a cockroach would be one that could figure out its strategies in real time from a simpler set of rules. Current day robotic vacuum cleaners are outgrowths of that work.

Looking at what a cockroach (real or artificial) knows is an epistemological question. Looking more generally at how to construct a theory of knowledge that can encapsulate what a cockroach knows, or what a swarm of drones knows, or what a self-organizing set of amoebae that make up a slime mold knows, become exercises in metaepistemology. By intentionally looking at how knowledge works in practice, so an approach that is ‘situated’ or ‘embodied’ or ‘embedded’ rather than just a pure logical abstraction independent of the knower, you’ve chosen a metaepistemological approach, so an exercise in metametaepistemology.

If I’ve now served only to confound, I’ll return to head scratching. But I hope this addresses some of the issues.

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No, this is very helpful David, thank you. (It just takes a long time to get around to reading and responding). You make an important point about the range of forms and applications that could reflect a meta approach; these are great examples. My confusion and ambivalence over terminology may partly stem from these different usages, some of which overlap and can get conflated. Personally, I always think of the nested Russian dolls, even if the term "recursive" might be more accurate.

Your last sentence in particular clarified something for me: "By intentionally looking at how knowledge works in practice [i.e. a ‘situated’ or ‘embodied’ or ‘embedded’ approach], you've chosen a metaepistemological approach." There is a tendency (to which I also fall prey) to regard anything meta as more abstract and removed, in the same way that theory trades off concrete particularities for abstractive and imaginative power. But if metaepistemology is really to be understood as a problem-solving *practice* and "meta" by very virtue of its being situated in the action and context of gathering, interpreting and communicating knowledge (as Zeynep approaches her epistemological work), in that case the term makes sense. In fact, you could argue that what makes her observations above a kind of metaepistemology is precisely their *applied* nature: she is not just asking "what does it mean to know" for the sake of understanding something general about knowledge or constructing formal metatheories; she is asking what it would mean in this particular situation in order to figure out whether Trump's oxygen was under 90% or it was just the VIP effect. I suppose that's what she meant when she wrote that metaepistemology is not a fancy term but "just a mundane skill": some practical meta-principles for how to reliably get from information to knowledge in a variety of challenging social contexts.

In a way I have always been in agreement - it's just I preferred to stress the applied social epistemology aspect because that's what stands out to me more. What I'm taking from what you say is they are really two sides of the coin.

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That cartoon (“On the Internet, no one knows you’re a Dog”) was by Paul Steiner and I wish he would get credit every time it is mentioned. That is the librarian in me...

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Thank you. I was trying to remember who the cartoonist was.

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When I read the account in the New York Times yesterday, it struck me that finally many of the pieces of the story were beginning to fit together. Given Trump's treatment for the virus, the updated story made sense.

To me, however, it was a question of semiotics. The use of dexamethasone and remdesevir were indirect indicators of a more serious ailment than the official version of the story let on, no different from using the Doppler effect to determine if an emergency vehicle is approaching or distancing, or that galaxies have blue shifts or red shifts.

Your piece left me wondering: so, why does Zeynep see this as an example of metaepistemology, and what's its dividing line from semiotics?

Let me give it a try. Metaepistemology in your sense does seem to be about the social context in which veiled information exists, why it exists, and how you can go about constructing the story based on fragments of information. The specific form of logic you apply is semiotic reasoning, using analogy to liken the situation to others you know and to draw inferences based on those fragments.

In the end, of course, it reinforces your point that critical thinking depends on prior knowledge, whether direct or indirect. Not all uses of semiotics are part of intentionally obfuscated stories, nor are all metaepistemological behaviors wanting some kind of indexical pointers. In this particular case, the two came together nicely.

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I use metaepistemology rather than semiotics because that words tends to focus more on interpreting the communication, and semiotics alone would not give a way to differentiate between the two possibilities: severe disease or VIP syndrome. I'm open, of course, to listening why you think this might not be so. (But yes, it's a stack that comes together).

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Thinking about how they were different was informative. I don't think that the severe disease/VIP syndrome dichotomy would be aided at all by a semiotic approach. That's much more about the relationship of the thinker to her social context, and so metaepistemology. Semiotics I see as more about the method by which the thinker could arrive at her understanding (if you link semiotics and behavior), or simply as a description of the logic itself.

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So we’re in agreement, if that wasn’t clear.

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I am just catching up with this thread because I was spending so much time finding a vaccine in an underserved area. Found it! Yay!

I'm just a regular American citizen. As soon as Covid became a "thing" I immediately stocked up so that I maintained a rolling stock of a month of toilet paper and two weeks of food, plus a stock of non-perishable food that could be just opened and eaten. I did expect electricity to be available. I began to keep the gas tanks half full.

These actions were automatic and based on my experience in hurricanes, informed by my ancestor's stories of the depression and my early memories of WWII shortages and rationing.

Then of course we prepared for the Big Freeze (southeast Texas) and electricity outage (but didn't plan for it to be that long, so we burst some pipes).

I'm just saying that experience with failed governments may well serve us well as the future unfolds, but in the present crisis I see more personal failures to cope being due to children being raised by distracted parents and disconnected families leaving the children to TV, and then the internet, with the adults who design and run school systems treating them like processed vegetables. I am not referring here to the many astounding teachers and administrators who fight against the tide. So, re-reading what I have just written, the failure of government already weighs heavily upon us.

Back to covid, I have now marked on the calendar when we will be 3 weeks past the second shot, and making plans to add just a few things to what we can do, unless the new variants overwhelm those plans.

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Had not heard of SIFT until reading this (https://nyti.ms/3k0xpcn) piece in the NYT this morning. Perhaps, if Authoritarian Muscle Memory is not well distributed in the population, it's better to offer means to quickly and reliably enough sift attention-worthy wheat from the chaff blizzard we live in these days. Not gonna get you to deep insight, of course, but will help with ruminative deep YouTube mind deformation.

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I know for a fact that the logical sifting of statements the author applied to Trump's physicians' pronouncements is used by people who, in the course of making important hires/offers, thoroughly parse resumes, CV's, and recommendation letters. They read between the lines of every document you give them and every action you take around them. For example, if you earned all your degrees from the same institution, a certain well-known pharmaceutical company will infer that you are probably risk-averse. Ditto if you've always lived in the same locale.

I also sometimes use judicious omission/statement of facts like Trump's docs when I write recommendation letters for my students. If you get a recommendation letter from me that fails to mention that the candidate gets along well with others, you should probably infer that he/she is not a great team player.

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Do you think there's any connection here to studies showing that "lower-class" or poor people are often better at reading emotions than rich people? I'm thinking of some of my own experiences in community organizing in the U.S., where people in Black and historically oppressed neighborhoods are highly attuned to doublespeak from any outsider and reflexively skeptical of anything a government official says. Professional-class white people in the same areas tend to be reflexively trusting of government officials, or at least see them as sincerely incompetent rather than obfuscating. Though all of this may be more tied historical racist oppression and Black vs white cultural norms (at least in my area) than simply income/wealth.

(Philadelphia continues to be a great example of what you're talking about, with our FOP president saying they "didn't know" if a drunk cop who crashed his car into a family's house was coming from a police party, our city government commissioning an investigation into the vaccine scandal and then falsely claiming the investigation barred them from sharing information, and a councilman who had had the vaccine scammer privately test his family for COVID telling a reporter that that information was HIPAA-protected when questioned.)

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I don't know that literature, but I think poorer people are probably better at reading things that are essential to their survival, compared with well-off people who can ignore it and be fine. That may well include being suspicious of authority, but it can also backfire because suspicion is one step, not the whole journey. There is a lot of vaccine hesitancy among poorer people in this country partly because they have been mistreated badly by the medical system and they mistrust it, but also they are not necessarily correct in *how* their mental model of vaccination and how it works. I'm not blaming them! Just pointing out that mistrust isn't enough.

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