Street Epistemology, a movement that encourages people to engage in conversations that help others honestly reflect on why they hold their beliefs. In a time when conversations across ideological divides seem increasingly difficult, Street Epistemology seeks to have meaningful and productive conversations by focusing on the reasons rather than the conclusions. Why we believe, rather than what we believe.
The term Street Epistemology originated in the book "A Manual for Creating Atheists" by Perter Boghossian; however, it would be fair to say that Street Epistemology has grown and changed much since its inception. Its origins might have been strongly anti-theological, but Street Epistemology has grown and evolved to be able to engage with almost any subject or person claiming truth or knowledge.
It is fair to say that Street Epistemology frequently finds itself engaging with religious, or religious-like, claims. However, the approach is genuinely subject agnostic. You can find ample examples of Street Epistemology being used in conversations about climate change, vaccinations and the shape of the earth to the existence of ghosts, aliens, luck and karma. At least in principle, Street Epistemology has no opinion about what you believe and only seeks to help you reflect on why.
Why is it called Street Epistemology
The term Street Epistemology is derived from the word 'Street', in this case, signifying a grassroots movement or a non-academic take, and the word 'Epistemology', which is the study of knowledge.
Not just for the street
As many of its most visible practitioners engage in street interviews with strangers, the 'Street' in Street Epistemology is frequently assumed to mean the act of discussing Epistemology in the street. However, this is not the intended meaning, and Street Epistemology can be practised anywhere and with anyone. You could use Street Epistemology in the workplace, the home with loved ones or perhaps in an online conversation with friends.
Street Epistemology principles
Street Epistemology advocates for engaging in honest, polite and respectful conversations; and places a strong emphasis on rapport building.
Street Epistemology works hard not to be seen as a method of persuasion and to avoid sophistry, clever but false or misleading arguments used to persuade people. Instead, at its heart Street Epistemology believes that honest and rational self-reflection is the right way to help people navigate complex and often emotive beliefs.
By its nature, Street Epistemology has roots in Skepticism, the theory that certain knowledge is impossible, and Critical Thinking, the analysis of facts to form a logical conclusion.
Street Epistemology Goals
The goal of a Street Epistemology conversation can be as important as the method. It is also an area where some people may misunderstand Street Epistemology.
Street Epistemology aims to help people reflect on their reasons for believing, not to change their view.
If, after honest self-reflection, the person changes their view, that should be happening as a result of the reflection not the conversation. It is perfectly possible and valid for a person to be more confident in their belief after this reflection and this is an equally valid outcome from the perspective of Street Epistemology.
Don't deliver messages
Many discussions around these sorts of topics come in the form of two people declaring their position, laying their cards on the table at the beginning and then often talking past each other. Street Epistemology strongly discourages it's practitioners from delivering messages. That is to say, the Street Epistemologist telling people what they should believe or explaining what Street Epistemologist thinks is true.
The withholding of the Street Epistemologists viewpoint from the conversation can sometimes lead to the conversation feeling as if the conversation has a hidden agenda, as they are keeping their cards hidden. But in truth, the Street Epistemologists cards are not in play; their views should be ideally irrelevant to the conversation.
That said, it is good practice for the Street Epistemologists to allow the person they are speaking to ask them questions at the end. This can help the conversation feel less like it has a hidden agenda.
Street Epistemology methods
There are many tools and methods of engaging in Street Epistemology, and their use and efficacy can be situational. However, the basic structure would look something like this.
- Build rapport.
- Identify and confirm a clear claim, making sure you both understand the nature of the claim is critical.
- Clarify definitions, and where possible, understand and use their definitions, this is related to the previous point but is worth taking the time to consider it its own step.
- Identify a confidence level; how sure are they that the claim is true. Often expressed as a score out of 100, with 0 being not thinking it's true and only having questions and 100 being certain its true and no questions. You will be surprised that what sounds like a confident and strongly worded claim might be hiding less certainty than it would at first appear.
- Identify the method they have used to arrive at the confidence level.
- Ask questions to explore the reliability of the method.
- Are those methods a reliable way to determine truth?
- Could those methods be use by someone to come to different conclusions?
- Actively Listen
- Repeat back what you hear them say to make sure that you heard it correctly and that they know they have been heard.
- Ask further questions
- Stop at a good point - reflecting in this way takes time. It is better to leave the conversation with things to think about than to try to press for a resolution.
See it in action
Street Epistemology: Delia | Catholic Questions Atheism
A video by Anthony Magnabosco recorded 23 August 2019, in San Antonio, Texas exploring what it's like to question our beliefs, and the pros and cons of doing so.
Find out more.
You can find out more about Street Epistemology at https://streetepistemology.com/ and Street Epistemology International the non-profit organization that promotes Street Epistemology can be found hear https://streetepistemologyinternational.org/. Street Epistemology International are currently working on a free and open access course to teach Street Epistemology, so keep an eye out for that.
An active Street Epistemology discord community to which I am a member can be found here.