May 22, 2016

Epistemological interviewing

Irrational beliefs can be harmful to ourselves and others. Therefore, being prepared to update our beliefs (making them more realistic/rational) can be wise. However, this is usually not easy because there can be multiple obstacles to do it. But if if we see the usefulness of letting go of irrational beliefs a few practical tips can help us make progress. Helping other people to get rid of irrational beliefs is another matter. We usually recognize other people's irrationality easier that our own irrationality (if we'd clearly see that our beliefs were irrational we would not hold on them in the first place). Seeing other people's irrationality can make us want to confront them about their irrationality. However, such confrontations seldom work.

Usually we do not like to be confronted and criticized. Normally, we like to maintain a positive image of ourselves and being confronted directly about how we think about something can feel threatening. It is likely to make us defensive. This defensiveness can make it hard for us to critically examine our own beliefs. Moreover, when we feel our beliefs are directly attacked we usually will be inclined to defend those beliefs and focus more on arguments which support them. After the conversation we are likely to be strengthened in our beliefs, not weakened (this effect is called the backfire effect).
Furthermore, we expect equivalence and reciprocity in our interactions with other people. When we feel that our views are seen as inferior in a conversation we will probably resist. We may try to attack the arguments of the other person instead of examining our own arguments. The reciprocity principle means that we expect from interactions with other people that there is a balance between giving and taking. Whenever we feel that we have to admit being wrong while the other person does not appear to be willing to do that, we are likely to feel that there is insufficient reciprocity.

Fortunately there is a way of talking to people with irrational beliefs which is more promising. We might call this way of talking epistemological interviewing. The method is rooted in Socratic interviewing and further developed by philosopher Peter Boghossian who calls the approach street epistemology. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy which focused on what knowledge is and how we can acquire knowledge. Epistemological interviews focus on the following questions: how did get to your beliefs and how reliable are the methods you used?

Epistemological interviews have the greatest chance of success when there is equivalence and reciprocity and when the belief which may be irrational is not attacked. Interviewees should not feel pressured or called to account because this may make them defensive and closed minded. Also, it is probably best to keep interviews relatively brief. By offering interviewees some good questions they may afterwards think more about the topic and adjust their beliefs somewhat. Several brief conversations generally may work better than one long conversation. Between those brief conversations the person can continue to think about the topic in an undisturbed manner.

Briefly, an epistemological interview can be structured as follows. We begin by briefly talking about the belief itself. What do interviewees precisely believe? We listen openly and try to understand what they say without distancing ourselves from whatever they say. Then we ask how much confidence they have in the truthfulness of the belief. This may be done with a scale ranging from 0% which stands for 'I am all doubts whether it is true' to 100% which stands for 'I have not doubts at all that is true'. When interviewees have chosen a position on this scale we accept whatever they say and proceed by asking some questions about it.

These questions focus on how they have arrived at this level of confidence about their beliefs. In response to these questions a range of answers may follow to which we may ask detailed follow up questions. These follow up questions may help interviewees find out for themselves that the methods they have used to come to their confidence regarding their beliefs are not very reliable. It is very important to remain non-confrontational when asking these follow up questions. During the interview interviewers and interviewees are engaged in an mutual examination. When asking follow up questions we may, in a tentative and non-confrontational manner, mention some alternative explanations for their interpretations of what they have described and some possible contradictions in what they have said and invite them to determine a method to find out what is true. Here is an example an epistemological interview by Anthony Magnabosco of the Youtube account street epistemology.

Thus, these epistemological interviews do not focus primarily on the content of the irrational beliefs but on the questions: how sure are you about what your believe and how reliable is the method you use to be so sure? If the interviewer should ask us how we think about the topic it usually works best to suggest that we do that at the end of the interview. The reason for this is that we do not want to influence the other person and want to keep the conversation from turning into a debate.

Epistemological interviews can lead to more doxastic openness, the willingness to revise one's own beliefs. If we want to encourage doxastic openness in other people it is required to have and demonstrate doxastic openness ourselves. If interviewees come up with valid arguments and evidence for certain beliefs why shouldn't we be convinced by them? When others will recognize our doxastic openness, it will become easier for them to do the same.

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