Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Not too long ago, just a few years ago anyhow (though this might be surprising to some given the discussion over at Scott's blog yesterday) I was cynical, indifferent and entirely apathetic with regard to politics. In fact, I never voted at all until after I got married and then it was because Brent just seemed to expect me to, not because I had any real interest or felt like it was a civic duty or that it would make any kind of difference anyway. I defended my cynical apathy with regard to the political process in this country with an argument based on epistemic unreliability. It went like this: the only information to which I have access comes from sources who have an interest in telling me what they think I want to hear, and the only thing I know for sure is that this is unreliable. Casting a vote based on a bunch of stuff that I know is at best misinformation and at worst outright lies is epistemically irresponsible. Best course of action: take the high road and ignore the crap, and just generally hope for the best (i.e., no real crazies are elected, just garden-variety power-hungry egomaniacs).

[n.b.: I did vote against W twice--what I heard from him, especially given that I figured he was spouting what "I" (Mrs. John Q. Voter--and the archaic form of polite address is deliberate, folks) wanted to hear, was absolutely frightening.]

Of course during all this time, there I was in Abilene, reading Dr. Frederick Aquino's dissertation on Newman and social epistemology, again and again (yes, it's just that good. Oh, and it was my job). Embodied knowledge, collective knowledge, partial perspective, epistemic judgment, epistemic virtues and vices, the necessary role of exemplars of informed judgment, etc., it's all still banging around in my head... So eventually, I realized that of course I was right about all the epistemic unreliability, but that this was no good excuse for pretending like politics didn't matter and that I had no responsibility for shaping political outcomes. What was I waiting for? "Certainty"? Right. I was just taking the lazy way out: I didn't want to do all the hard work of really figuring out, first, what I really thought about a bunch of things I didn't quite properly understand--like health care, and the economy, immigration policies, etc.--and second, how I was going to sort through all the propaganda thrown my way and evaluate the information about candidates. Where would I go, what standards could I use to evaluate, and all that. Because I was already aware of the problem, having used it as an excuse to get out of all this work, I couldn't regress and just start picking someone I liked better and trusting everything he said while distrusting everything the other dude said. Finally I resigned myself to just muddling through the morass of misinformation and praying to God that somehow I would be able to make an informed judgment.

I think most of us have felt this frustration to some extent, though maybe no one else let it paralyze them the way I did. But the constant refrain of lament about the state of American mainstream media, from both sides (and even more vociferously from the marginalized Greens!), says to me that everybody is aware that there's both too much information and too little trust. This may be somewhat unfixable, as I think trust is directly related to the epistemic agent--and this social group (America as a whole) is too large for the kind of direct personal knowledge of the epistemic agents in question to be the route for developing the necessary trust.

When I was in Wuhan, China in '98, the year America "accidentally bombed" the Chinese embassy, my students were so pissed off at me as representative American that the only effective pacificatory thing I could say was, "do you think Bill Clinton knows my name? do you think even if I personally told him to own up and take responsibility for this awful tragedy that he would care what I think?" The point was, I and the average American don't personally know these people we vote for, nor do we personally know the people on TV who report about them. So on what basis do we start investing our epistemic trust? Why trust what they say?

It seems like an unsolvable problem, one that has only been multiplied by the internet's glut of information and the ubiquity of bloggers like me who get on here and spout whatever we damn please, with no regulation whatsoever.

So: ameritocracy.com. In creator Porter Bayne's words:

"I think each of us involved in the project had our own light bulb experience. For me, I originally came up with a similar concept in 2004 when I was frustrated with how so many of my friends/colleagues were repeating misinformation straight from campaigns’ mouths or their favorite radio show, and they didn’t trust information from the “other side.” Then one day my sister, who reads voraciously and has as many degrees as my right hand has digits, said “I just don’t know how you stay up on political information”. That made it real to me: people just don’t have time to keep up."

You can read the rest of the interview here.

What impresses me about the project, given my sense of the enormity of our collective epistemological quandary, is that it offers a way to navigate the problem without promising to hand out a solution on a silver platter (or golden plates inscribed from heaven). It's a way to help you make an informed judgment, rather than making a judgment for you. We're not being offered the Truth (always a false offer anyhow). We're being offered a specific tool in the hope that we can make better judgments of the information we have.

Of course, how political quotes and epistemic agents get rated is a matter of who does the judging. Which means that the more people involved, the better these collective judgments will get. Particularly, the more diversity of perspective included, the better these judgments will get, that is to say, more nuanced.

So I'm bookmarking the site, still in beta testing, and soon I hope to get brave enough to sign up and start sharing my own more-or-less-informed judgments. I hope some others do, too. Even those pesky Anabaptist-leaning types who still think we ought to just not get involved...because despite how much you annoy me, we need to hear from you too. :)


Porter said...

Jen, thanks! First... if any of your readers would like to participate in the beta, they can use "rudetruth" as their beta invite code.

Now, in my next comment, let's play with this a bit...

Porter said...

Alright, folks, let's see if JTB is reliable and relevant or not...


Iris Star Chamberlain said...

Hallo Jennifer! I'm a friend of Porter's and part of the Ameritocracy team. I just wanted to say that this was an awesome article, that I'm super glad that brilliant people are giving this a thought, and frankly I'm really excited to read the rest of your blog!

You said:
"I think most of us have felt this frustration to some extent, though maybe no one else let it paralyze them the way I did."

I think actually that this is exactly the reason that our country has been so paralyzed in the past 30 years - we're completely demoralized and only now, after the frustration over the antics of the Bush Administration are finally starting to bubble up, and rhetoric such as Obama's is making people feel like they have an outlet, I think only now people are willing (or desperate) to put their trust in politicians again. I don't think it's just you at all. I think many many people, feeling its all too much and there's no one that can be trusted, just tune out.

I have a very similar perspective on the elusiveness of the Truth, so much so that I quite literally don't think its accessible ever except in some cases when someone personally experienced it and has empirical evidence - but even then a situation has many sides and can be very subjective.

In addition, I intensely distrust politicians in this system. I suppose once people figure this out about me (if they care at all), it'll seem a bit weird that I'm working on a project that seems to encourage the discovery of people one feels they CAN trust. I think that's great, but its certainly not why I believe in the power of Ameritocracy. My hope is that, while engaging in debating what everyone thinks is the truth, they'll discover how relative it is, and that there are many perspectives on the same issue, and that what you hear from mainstream sources of information is quite often only one side of the coin. You said it well:
"We're not being offered the Truth (always a false offer anyhow). We're being offered a specific tool in the hope that we can make better judgments of the information we have."

The trick at the end for us and for users of the site is, once you become more skeptical, how do you continue to fight for a better world?

I find it hard myself. I figure the best I can do is find a source that I feel aligns with my own morals and goals, and while always being open to questioning them, to continue to move forward. The enemy of all social movements is demoralization, hopelessness.

Thanks so much again for your thoughtful thoughts! I hope all good things for you.

JTB said...

hi Iris,

what a marvelous comment! I think you're absolutely right on--and your comments at the end are echoes of what I am reading and rereading for dissertation purposes in Donna Haraway (I'm sure Porter's sis recognizes the parallels too!). After recognizing the inevitability of partial perspectives, how do you then go on about the task of coalition building and finding enough consensus to get on with the practical side of making the world just a little bit better than it is now?

Porter: reliable? maybe. relevant? hardly ever. today, though, I am. ;)

Anonymous said...


I've been perplexed by the fact that so much info is available online these days yet I still rarely feel that I can go to one place (or a few places, except maybe for Wikipedia) to be informed because I know that each source is typically trying to convince me to adopt its point of view rather than educating me about "both sides" so that I can make an informed decision.

So I had the idea for a site that's kinda similar. For a given issue (maybe political, maybe theological, whatever) an editor would study the issue and present a series of arguments fairly summarizing both sides. Users could submit additional arguments as comments which the editor would incorporate (so that the meat is left but the ugly fluff is discarded). Users can vote which arguments are the most relevant and persuasive. I was going start first in the context of pros and cons of a coal-fired power plant proposed for our town. My wife is part of a grass-roots effort working against it (a stance I support) which has a web site...but even so I'm not comfortable with the single side it presents. I got so far as figuring out how to do it technically via the content management system (drupal) and to register a domain and get a friend to make a logo but then stalled...at the point of incorporating the research my wife had done. Too much else going on to devote the time. I still hope to eventually.


SteveA said...

Digg and Reddit seem to be working toward a similar purpose but with a broader subject range. I've given up on Reddit but still find Digg somewhat useful.


JTB said...

Just followed a link to an article on Obama and economics by Naomi Klein. Economics is a weak point of mine despite that class I audited last semester...so I submitted a quote from the article and nearly right away it was rated by a user with an excellent rep. Pretty neat! I think this is how I'll be primarily making use of the site at least for now--to supplement my judgment in these areas where I feel particularly deficient.

Anonymous said...

Admittedly, I haven't scrutinized the site too closely and it's definitely got potential, but it isn't clear to me why the 50/50 left/right divide about most controversial issues won't just propagate to a 50/50 divide about who is credible.

For example, Al Gore is currently listed among the most credible, but I'm pretty sure that about half the country (me not among them) thinks he has no credibility at all.

JTB said...

maybe porter or iris can answer this better, but I think that as the pool of participants grows the evaluations will become more nuanced. I think what needs to happen to avoid the 50/50 split along ideological lines you describe is going to depend on having enough participants making judgments about credibility and relevancy willing to give credit to information/statements from the other side when that is merited. maybe it's optimistic to think enough of these types are out there to make a difference?...but sometimes I'm a little crazy optimistic that way.