An Epistemic Crisis

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Epistemic may not be a word we commonly use, but I think it was entirely appropriate in this Vox headline: “With Impeachment, America’s Epistemic Crisis has Arrived.”

The Vox article focuses on what it calls a “stress test,” and considers whether the right can shield itself from “plain facts in plain sight.”

Unlike Mueller’s report, the story behind the impeachment case is relatively simple: Congress approved military aid for Ukraine, but Trump withheld it as part of a sustained campaign to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden’s family. There’s a record of him doing it. There are multiple credible witnesses to the phone call and larger campaign. Several Trump allies and administration officials have admitted to it on camera. Trump himself admitted to it on the White House lawn.

It’s just very, very obvious that he did it. It’s very obvious he and his associates don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And it’s very obvious there is something wrong with it. Holding US foreign policy hostage to personal political favors is straightforward abuse of power, precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote impeachment into the Constitution.

It’s a clearly impeachable pattern of action, documented and attested to by multiple witnesses, confessed to multiple times, in violation of longstanding political precedent and a moral consensus that was, until 2016, universal. Compared to Mueller, that is a much more difficult test of the right’s ability to obscure, distract, and polarize.

The article asks the question that all sane, “reality-based” Americans have been asking ourselves: Can the right-wing propaganda machine successfully keep the right-wing base believing an alternate reality–at least long enough to get through the next election?

Earlier in 2017, I told the story of Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowing and coming to know things — what counts as true, what counts as evidence, how we accumulate knowledge, and the like. It’s where you find schools of thought like skepticism (we can’t truly know anything) and realism (the universe contains observer-independent facts we can come to know).

Tribal epistemology, as I see it, is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.

When tribal interests overwhelm standards of evidence and internal coherence,  what is seen as “good for our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of what is true. Who is “part of our tribe” becomes the test of who to trust.

A decades-long effort on the right has resulted in a parallel set of institutions meant to encourage tribal epistemology. They mimic the form of mainstream media, think tanks, and the academy, but without the restraint of transpartisan principles. They are designed to advance the interests of the right, to tell stories and produce facts that support the tribe. That is the ultimate goal; the rhetoric and formalisms of critical thinking are retrofit around it.

It began with talk radio and Fox, but grew into an entire ecosystem that is constantly working to shape the worldview of its white suburban/rural audiences, who are being primed for what the author calls “a forever war with The Libs, who are always just on the verge of destroying America.”

The article is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety, but the following paragraphs graphically describe what that “epistemic crisis” will look like over the next year:

This is the story of American politics: a narrowly divided nation, with raw numbers on the side of the rising demographics in the left coalition but intensity and outsized political power on the side of the right coalition. Put in more practical terms, the right still has the votes and the cohesion to prevent a Senate impeachment conviction.

On the downslope of a fading, unpopular coalition is not a great place for Republicans to be. It doesn’t augur well for their post-2020 health as a party. But it is enough to get them through the next election, which is about as far ahead as they look these days.

All they need to do is to keep that close partisan split frozen in place. Above all, they need to ensure that nothing breaks through to the masses in the mushy middle, who are mostly disengaged from politics. They need to make sure no clear consensus forms, nothing that might find its way into pop culture, the way the entire nation eventually focused its attention on Nixon’s impeachment.

It’s a kind of magic trick they’re going to try to pull off in full view.

If it succeeds, reality and America both lose.


  1. This may change if & when corporate America finally stops FUNDING Fox with their advertising dollars. Until they pull the plug, I fear the right wing media machine will continue with the fear, uncertainty and doubt that scares the viewer/listener into voting for this nonsense. Sad and Scary.

  2. “When tribal interests overwhelm standards of evidence and internal coherence, what is seen as “good for our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of what is true. Who is “part of our tribe” becomes the test of who to trust.”

    It seems rather Karmatic (if there isn’t such a word, there should be) to me this morning to find this issue on the blog. I realized this morning that I have become overwhelmed by the current tribal wars, an intrusion by the most dysfunctional branch of my family just days before the House hearings and running headlong into the holidays, that my internal coherence is shot to hell. It is not selfish, nor is it following the guidelines of Ayn Rand, for us to take the time to take stock of ourselves individually. Our knowledge, justification and rationality of belief is at odds with the reality of this country today. We cannot determine what is true or who to trust while caught in the current unending chaos and turmoil; I am going to read a favorite book over this weekend in an attempt to stabilize my thinking processes by escaping it all. It will all be waiting for us Monday morning and maybe I can start the week with a clearer frame of mind and hopefully a lessening of my fears that our “tribe” will be unable to trump Trump.

  3. This piece is one of your best intellectual discussions, Sheila.

    Last night, some commentator mentioned this situation in terms of the Senate trial. On the one hand, he suggested that the trial will never happen because McConnell and Schumer will never agree on the rules of conduct. On the other hand, Trump’s presumptive acquittal would give Trump and the his adherents the fuel they need to crow during the campaign season and use such terms as “witch hunt” and “hoax” to keep the mindless in line. The parallel goal is, of course, to keep the 40% in the middle disinterested, turned off and make them stay home in November. The Democrats will be out of bullets if the Senate acquits the obvious criminality of the Trump administration.

    It won’t matter that Giulliani, et. al., get thrown under the Trump bus with its bloody wheels. It won’t matter that the criminal enterprise will continue to reap millions of dirty money from Russia. It won’t matter that our international standing will continue to plummet. As long as OUR oligarchs keep bribing the right-wingers and keep the stock market rolling, the Republicans win. The propaganda has proven to be absolutely effective among the true believers and fellow travelers. Educated white males continue to disguise their racism, elitism and self-service in self-righteous posturing, voter suppression advocacy and ignoring the law.

    When it is finally written, out last chapter in democracy will show how we shot ourselves to death with our own out-of-control capitalistic stupidity….just as Marx said we would.

  4. The Republican hate machine has been firing on all cylinders since the early Clinton years. The thought that this political juggernaut’s goal is to merely survive the next election is, in my opinion, misguided. As George Will said, this bell will not easily be unrung.

    I may have written this before but when half of a country’s political landscape is intellectually, morally, and many times ethically bankrupt, said country is in trouble.

  5. As usual Sheila, you are right on the mark. And as usual, I have no elegant way of answering. However, I do have an ongoing and never answered question: What do all the Trump supporters think will happen once this administration and all its backers get what they want? How will that take shape and where will all of them be when the powers that be get what they want and no longer need their support? Does anyone in that realm think further than this minute? Just askin’

  6. Patmcc. Corporate interests are not going to pull advertising dollars from Fox, because advertising brings in customers, and our economic system is founded on making money, not “doing the right thing.” A few companies have pulled away from some Fox programs, but the majority have not, and will not.

  7. What legal rationale did the British use to kick out Fox? What kind of a movement is needed to breakthrough right wing propaganda?

  8. Our epistemic crisis began the moment Fox News went on the air, and was amplified when the rest of the media decided that the falsehoods cranked out by the right wing propaganda machine (Fox, Rush, InfoWars, et al) constituted one side of a rational argument that deserved a hearing.

  9. I still keep wondering what we must do to move that great mass of non-voters, who by their inaction have brought us to this place on the precipice of Hell. Remember, if you DON’T vote, we all suffer the government YOU deserve.

  10. It’s not fact that he did it with the Bidens in mind only. If a crime was committed by the Bidens then it fits under his jurisdiction since Ukrainian courts already prosecuted officials in the Ukraine for medaling In the 2016 election.
    The money was delivered even before the “whistle blower” that doesn’t fall under the whistleblower statute started talking with Adam Schiff and the intelligence committee. He didn’t communicate this with his superior first thats why it looks like a witch hunt.
    Again. Falsehoods are stated as facts by Vox and the liberal media 90 percent left wing nonjournalists that pose as journalists.
    No one is buying that it’s a high crime. Biden withheld $ 1billion until the Ukrainian prosecutor was fired that was investigating Barisma who hired a political foreign ally by the name of Hunter Biden that had no previous knowledge in that industry.
    In politics if you’re guilty of something and want to stop your rivals from investigating you it’s always best to go on the offensive so as to muddle up their information getting to the public.
    FBI agents have already been identified as altering documents in regards to the FISA report request. Peter Struk was guilty also.
    I’m sure there are conspiracy theories out there too but that’s exactly what Vox is doing, spreading disinformation and assertions that aren’t true and can’t be proven.
    Bribery was a charge since the quad quo pro fell thru with witnesses that weren’t involved directly with the Presidents call and Col Vinman wasn’t even in contact with the President and never over heard him in any capacity. Bribery as a charge was with a President receiving money as a kickback to alter policy, it was with In mind with Great Brtitain still wanting to have influence over our government.
    It’s necessary to wrap your head around Obama even being involved in using falsified documents to investigate a political rival during an election. He is guilty of watergate style politics. The FBI wiretapped Trump and the FBI was trying to entrap any one involved in the Trump campaign as a weapon. There has to be a crime identified for this type of investigation to be authorized and documents were falsified before a federal judge to order up a FISA investigation. Even Comey was in on this according to some. gives a look into documents obtained by request showing George Soros involvement with the intelligence community influencing the Ukraine. Where does it end?
    Trump is wreckless with his words no doubt, that’s it.

  11. Mark me as slightly to the left of the “mushy middle.” I do not subscribe to the view that money, right wing propaganda and alternative reality will carry the day come the fall of 2020. On the contrary, we not only are on the cusp of winning the demographic wars long term and we have the votes to win bigly next fall. Lofty discussion in academia may indeed be a form of liberal propaganda designed to get out the vote from a scared polity, a fear unnecessary for those who contribute to this blog but perhaps important to turnout of those who are asleep at the democratic (small d) switch. As for the MAGAs, one must be susceptible to procedural alternative realities to arrive at substantive alternative realities, a bridge too far for the rational among us.

    Our task, as usual, is to inform the middle and work like beavers for turnout. We have the votes, so as I often write, winning is about arithmetic, and it may be that the greatest mathematical enemy of democracy is the un-vacated couch. As things turn out, winning elections may have relatively little to do with stands on issues and alternative realities; it may have to do with offers on a massive scale of rides to the polls in every precinct in America, an effort which isn’t very sexy to the academy, but their views are views from the lectern, not votes.

  12. Fair and balanced is neither. Fox is a propaganda machine for the right. It is successful enough to convince John that nothing happened, no one heard anything directly, Biden is worse that Trump because Biden had a motive for withholding – Trump did not, and what about Obama?

  13. All of our media is propaganda — owned by substantial corporate entertainment conglomerates. The purpose of said media is to “manufacture consent,” according to great minds like Noam Chomsky.

    Fox and MSNBC/CNN all serve partisan purposes of divide and conquer for the Oligarchy who control the media and body politics in this country.

    As I posted recently, the USA ranks 25th globally as a Democracy…classified as a “flawed democracy.” (

    A flawed democracy “are nations where elections are fair and free and basic civil liberties are honored but may have issues (e.g., media freedom infringement). These nations have significant faults in other democratic aspects, including underdeveloped political culture, low levels of participation in politics, and issues in the functioning of governance.”

    Debates about “right” and “left” are meaningless because no matter which party controls Congress and/or the White House, the Oligarchy wins. The past forty years of our political and economic reality has proven this, revealing both parties are “right.”

  14. I would think we would all agree that a person’s epistemological beliefs are directly related to willful ignorance!

    “In the following, the term “epistemic beliefs” shall be consistently used to refer to a person’s beliefs about the nature of human knowledge, like its certainty and how it is conceptualized, and a person’s beliefs about the criteria for and the process of knowing.”

    Noun. Willful Ignorance (uncountable) (idiomatic, law) A decision in bad faith to avoid becoming informed about something so as to avoid having to make undesirable decisions that such information might prompt. Synonyms: vincible ignorance, willful blindness.

    (Idiomatic) Exempt from the laws that apply to everyone else. The emperor is above the law. You may think you’re above the law, but you’re not.

  15. I think the only way to possibly circumvent this epistemic virus is an extreme amount of pain and discomfort. This will surely take place eventually. Just as it did in Hitler’s Germany, when the masses who played the willful ignorance card, cried and complained that they were bamboozled by a con man. Of course, that’s like shutting the barn door after the horse ran off. A little late to come to that realization!

    They weren’t blind when Jews were rounded up and executed after being used up in labor camps, and many of the other groups, the Romani, Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain Catholic sects, minority foreign soldiers that remained after the 1st world war, were in the same boat. The disabled, and poor elderly were just executed, as they were supposedly a drag on social programs and the economy. So they just chose to ignore the travesty taking place in the open in plain sight!

    Why try and fix anything when you can just kill your way out of it. It was obvious to many that Hitler was insane, but so many practiced willful ignorance, they would rather worship than remove. He was their own personal lunatic. So they chose insanity over order, war over peace, the state religion over everything which made it okay! They had a grievance against the world, so they were just going to rule it, come hell or high water.

    Like I said, the only thing that makes the ignorant snap out of their self-induced bandwagon jumping trance, is a great deal of pain, a swift kick in the nard’s, hey, it’s a start, LOL!

  16. Thank you so very much Sheila!!!

    And JoAnn, for me this is one of your most balanced offerings since I have been following. Know you will have a wonderful weekend if you follow your plan.

    We all are entitled to “our opinions”. With that said, the truth is we share this planet with each and every other. Looking beyond our own apprehensions, concerns, fears, and presumed informed and educated “knowing better” than others; a view into the not too distant future whatever might occur seems not to drastic an act to me, and for me.

    Wishing all a Wondrous Holiday Season and a finding of peace and love in our changing, chaotic society and culture.

    So many other opinions posted here.

  17. Dinner with Rene Descartes. Dessert not served until the last morning star. Conversation is so intensely engaging. Trump? Trump who?

  18. I’m sorry but I heard with my own ears these witnesses when questioned did testify straight forward that even when the President went thru different channels and had released the funds without the Ukrainian President knowing about it and had used the word favor once in a long conversation said he did not reach the level of an impeachable offense. That’s what the witnesses said straight forward when questioned. That’s why Vox is lying like most of the media.
    The FBI has no credibility as it has liars and which documents are true.

  19. John,

    Your diatribe is an example of willful ignorance! Everybody is lying, LOL, why? Ignorance of the law is not an excuse to break it! The FBI is lying, the CIA is lying, our allies are lying, the only one telling the truth, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin?

    There is evidence that many Western leaders and institutions, as well as Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, viewed Shokin as corrupt and ineffective for failing to prosecute anybody of significance, and for protecting members of Yanukovych’s and Poroshenko’s circles.


    Mr. Trump’s own former Homeland Security secretary, Thomas P. Bossert, called the president’s assertion that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 elections on behalf of the Democrats “not only a conspiracy theory” but “completely debunked.”

    A claim that the whistle-blower colluded with Mr. Biden to file a report is baseless — as are other claims that whistle-blower rules were secretly changed to allow a complaint based on “hearsay” and that the whistle-blower’s lawyers are all left-leaning.

    Office of the ICIG, Sept. 30: As part of his determination that the urgent concern appeared credible, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community determined that the Complainant had official and authorized access to the information and sources referenced in the Complainant’s Letter and Classified Appendix, including direct knowledge of certain alleged conduct, and that the Complainant has subject matter expertise related to much of the material information provided in the Complainant’s Letter and Classified Appendix. In short, the ICIG did not find that the Complainant could “provide nothing more than second-hand or unsubstantiated assertions,” which would have made it much harder, and significantly less likely, for the Inspector General to determine in a 14-calendar day review period that the complaint “appeared credible,” as required by statute. Therefore, although the Complainant’s Letter acknowledged that the Complainant was not a direct witness to the President’s July 25, 2019, telephone call with the Ukrainian President, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community determined that other information obtained during the ICIG’s preliminary review supported the Complainant’s allegations.
    So, not only was there no rule change for complaints based on hearsay, but those details from the ICIG also refute claims that the whistleblower “had no firsthand knowledge,” as Jordan, the Ohio congressman, claimed in his interview with CNN’s Tapper.

  20. OMG, Bible Thumper’s are furious: >> Leading US conservatives have turned on the fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A after the company decided to cut its ties to two Christian groups that have long opposed same-sex marriage.

    To compound rightwingers’ fury, it has also emerged via tax filings that Chick-fil-A donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil rights advocacy organization, in 2017. The SPLC has a lengthy record of supporting LGBTQ+ and abortion rights.

    The restaurant has “badly lost its way”, tweeted the Republican senator Ted Cruz, a prominent religious conservative. “Millions of Christians have been proud of ChickFilA’s courageous stands for religious liberty. To fund those who hate your customers is just sad.”

    The former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, another devout Republican, accused Chick-fil-A of having “surrendered to anti- Christian hate groups”.

    “It’s time for Christians to find a fast-food alternative to Chick-fil-A,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council organization. “Not only has Chick-fil-A abandoned donations to Christian groups including the Salvation Army, it has donated to one of the most extreme anti-Christian groups in America.” <<<

    Somehow in the crazy world of Bible Thumping the SPLC has some how been magically transformed into a anti-Christian hate group. The FOX News team needs to get on this, we wait for Pastor Pence to make an announcement, which would have to be approved by President Agent Orange. Let's Get Rudy involved.

    I suppose now we will have the Bible Thumper's picketing and praying in front of Chick-fil-A.

  21. ML,

    I hadn’t heard about Chic-fil-A coming to its business senses and flipping their idiotic, bigoted policies about same-sex couples. Good for them. Imagine! A cost-accountant coming to the rescue of bigotry and mindless prejudice….. You won’t get that from right-wing “Christians”.

  22. if one was to see,and read,the both sides,and analize the between lines,then your informed,and you may now disinformation the outcome..if you read one side,you may be somewhat slanted..we would all like ro believe were informed..turn off the tube,sit down and enjoy some well investigated,by journalists with a track record,,with a colum to ask questions,and get informed answers,( if you intent on being a nay sayer,have the balls to research your findings,beyond the trivial headlines.if your 60 years or better,your past will be a knolwege,to remember past related issues.and keeps one focused on the subject. we remember journalists who went to the source,personally,and made the interview.the first lines of history at times.what we have today is media overkill on subjects,hype to sell the product,into ad revenue. the VP of CBS in interview said, we kept trump up front and center,because of the revenue he generated…we have media dissing sanders because wall street wants it that way,hense,they sell stocks in these useless news medias.(useless,if any type of media has a commercial value,someones making money,and may direct coverage,see VP quote above) we had at one time a equal time clause,and media had to be for the public good,we now have alec,and bought and sold reality memes.the only informed voter are the ones who remember the past,seen the scams ,and your seeking the answers,and becomes a fact checked,from other sources,or,related stories by two or more fair, be informed. our democracy is based upon participation of the people.
    not politicians bent upon their own agendas,or scamming the people to beleve black is red, mcconnel, he has his own agenda,throws out afew crumbs,while the on air media tells you what to think..he hasnt a care about your needs as a voter,his agenda is strictly walls streets desires. he is not a person of the people,he is a person to deny the founding fathers vision of a corrupt free goverment by the people,people who make a bonifide effort to study and question any,political move.the people who insist on voting for him,are obviously misinformed and guiding our democracy into a picture frame,meaning are directing us to be ruled by the elite now,we will have a board room goverment,whereas we have decisions based on the elites needs and greed.if you havent been around for 60 plus years you havent seen the past since reagan and the start of this 40 year scam,to place the working class as a menial tool, for wall streets one mentions wages,only how credit is now your financial needs above the pittance your allowed to earn..all has been decided..and you just watched it become todays norm. my middle finger today is far brighter,my backbone is straight,and i dont have a problem telling the elected where to ?? if we just allow this norm past the next election cycle,we will have sealed the deal, the conservatives will follow through with their agendas, not the peoples, past experience will judge the outcome.

  23. Vernon @ 1:38 pm, it is like usual the God of Greenbacks over all. I will have to be on the look out to see, if there is any fall-off at the Chic-Fil-A near my house. I suppose the Bible Thumper’s will be allowed by their Male Authoritarian Leadership to continue to eat at Chic-Fil-A, as long as they send Thoughts and Prayers into the netherworld, as they eat the food.

  24. The heart of this discussion hearkens back to my constant refrain about founders intent versus reality. In 1787 they founded a federal republic . A legislative branch wherein the upper house was selected by state legislatures and periodic vacancies filled by gubernatorial appointment. The lower house, elected by a much limited popular ballot cast largely by property owners who were much fewer than today. The Presidency itself filled by a body appointed by state legislatures to appoint a President or, alternatively, provides list of nominees from which the Congress would check. THE POINT? IN SUCH AN ENVIRONMENT THE FOUNDERS WOULD BE AGHAST AT THE VERY ISSUE OF EPISTOMOLOGY! Their product of governing elites resulting from the prodigious Age of Reason would have been the realm of present day. A broad based electorate and even larger non-voting hoipoloi that have influence the founders would denied, let alone recognized, makes the retention of tyranny almost certain.

  25. Forget about the mushy middle. They don’t care. We need Democratic turnout to beat the GOP. How is that done? Ask Hillary and Debbie. They should know how it should not be done.

  26. Vernon wins it today! Others should get their own blogs somewhere else. Vernon’s one simple phrase is likely the key to the madness: “keeping the mindless in line,” and there you have it. Good one, Vernon!

  27. One of Group Therapy’s most potent healing tools is the moment when the leader asks, “Is that so; shall we check with the group?”

    Even crazy people often modify their strongest held but crazy assumptions when faced with general disapproval of the rest of the group attending therapy.

    My crazy assumption is that the Internet, especially social media, is a kind of mass therapy–a nation-sized group therapy session–in which nearly all of us, including the deplorables, are going to have assumptions challenged and likely modified by the occasional general consensus.

    But group therapy is only as good as its leader, in the case of social media, as good as its leaders. Gradually, those leaders will rise out of the chaos and ask the rest of us, “Is that so; shall we check with the group?”

    I expect that eventually the results of the Internet will be noted as a cosmo/Planck-multiplier of anything we’ve seen in group therapy ever.

  28. Dis-jointed, incomprehensible phrases mean somebody is a bot. That means Russian influence. I have to say this because “people” are not that. This blog has valuable info & ideas, but we have to make sure what we consider is more than a “bot.”

  29. As an undergraduate philosophy major, and a J.D, I really appreciated this column. I can’t add anything of note, however, I think the recent discovery that electrons can be split randomly and unpredictably and that dark matter which is 80% of our universe, are hopeful paradigms that humans are deeply embedded in an ecosystem that reacts and responds to random behavioral events from outside the conventional laws of physics and composition of matter. Therefore, we can alter our politics and our environment in unpredictable ways, one interaction at a time. The question is can humanity rise above tribalism, in whatever form, or are we hardwired to believe we can only survive as tribes? Hopefully, we are also hardwired to want the human species to survive. Can we accept that “something,” like global climate crisis, is our true threat, not other “tribes?”

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