Main Body

The Argument Over Epistemology

“As the historian of science Jacob Bronowski wrote in 1973, ‘There is no way of exchanging information that does not involve an act of judgment.’ We’ve grown accustomed to many of those acts of judgment being made by algorithms that have a commercial goal in mind.” – Barbara Fister


In the previous chapter, you examined how some mediated communication systems are designed to optimize user behavior to personalize the user’s search and social media experience. The result of your study is a sense of how information flows through algorithmically optimized communication systems. More importantly, you are now able to answer the question, “How did that information get there?”

In this chapter, we examine how the human thought process transforms information into belief structures. Belief, of course, is the essential basis of one’s perception of reality: What is society and what should society be.

What is epistemology?: Epistemology is a domain of scientific study that seeks to understand how humans know what they know: By what method do humans, through some form of cognitive processing, validate their knowledge as true, conclusively?

We examine two theories of epistemology that support the larger question of how humans construct reality through communication, such as evidence-based epistemology (evaluating the objective provenance of information) and faith-based epistemology (relying on the subjective credibility of the person or institution that conveys information).

Faith and religion: Before we begin, it is important to note that “faith-based,” in this inquiry, does not refer to epistemology in a religious context, such as you may have heard in the expression, faith-based charities. Instead, “faith” is applied here in its generic definition, meaning some form of inner conviction, trust, or attitude. While this manner of thinking is a foundational component of religious faith, our inquiry is not focused specifically on religious faith nor the people who believe in their religion as a matter of faith, but in faith-based thinking, in general.

The purpose of this study is to deconstruct the differences between each form of epistemology so that you can explain how it is possible for people to construct dramatically different belief structures based upon the same information.

Your ability to explain these differences will enable you to identify patterns of thinking in different groups of people, how those patterns are evident in their respective constructions of reality, and how messages are designed to appeal to audiences according to how they would be most receptive to them.

What should you be focusing on?

You will encounter a combination of research and expert commentary, some of which may presuppose that a particular way of thinking is preferential to others.

The focus of these readings and media is not intended to validate one method of knowledge construction over another.

Rather, it is intended to demonstrate that there is diversity in the human approach to constructing knowledge that informs how messages are designed, developed, published, and interpreted by audiences to achieve a communication goal.

Your goal in interpreting these resources is to trace the flow of information according to how humans engage with it and identify how your academic studies intersect or relate to it.

Readings & Media

Thematic narrative in this chapter

In the following readings and media, the authors will present the following themes:

  1. Media literacy education is inadequate in staunching the effects of misinformation. Rather, it is more important to study the different ways that humans process information to determine what is true, legitimate, and valid.
  2. Historically, there has been an honor code called “social epistemology” that surrounds objective truth-seeking. It has been undermined by both information systems and the bad actors who use them to subvert social coherence and certainty.
  3. Librarians need to move beyond promoting information literacy and promote “how information works” in contemporary media within the context of democracy and ethical frameworks.

    Required     “danah boyd SXSW EDU Keynote | What Hath We Wrought?” – by danah boyd, March 7, 2018. (46:00)

dana boyd (all lowercase) is a renowned social science researcher focused on the impact of technologies on society. Her interests are to better understand why people believe what they believe.

“We cannot and should not assert authority over epistemology, but we [as educators] can encourage our students to be more aware of how interpretation is socially constructed and to understand how that can be manipulated. Of course, just because you know you’re being manipulated doesn’t mean that you can resist it.”

In this video, Ms. boyd presents two profiles of epistemology and suggests that our greater mission in modern society should be on better understanding how groups of people interpret information – not just on developing media literacy.

The value of this presentation is in how she visualizes the differences in each thought process and how bad actors weaponize evidence-based thinking to undermine settled knowledge.

Last, it is no secret that Ms. boyd presents a politically left-leaning attitude. The presentation of this video is not intended to endorse a particular political position. Taken objectively, her thesis and evidence is appropriate whether interrogating either left- or right-leaning propaganda from an epistemological perspective.

A text-based transcript is available on her blog.

Boyd, D. (2018). You think you want media literacy… do you. Data & Society. Retrieved from https://points. datasociety. net/you-think-you-want-medialiteracy-do-you-7cad6af18ec2.
Connect to dana boyd on Twitter: @zephoria

    Required    The Constitution of Knowledge” by Jonathan Rauch, National Affairs. Fall, 2018 (22 pages).

This article places recent political rhetoric into the cauldron of truth-seeking according to some form of objective testing. In particular, he describes how the epistemic process is utterly undermined by disinformation. This is relevant in our study since the means of promoting disinformation is by using the dominant forms of mediated communication we access today.

Rauch, J. (2018). The constitution of knowledge. National Affairs37(4), 125-137.
Connect to Jonathan Rauch on Twitter: @jon_rauch

    Required    Lizard People in the Library” by Barbra Fister, Project Information Literacy, February 3, 2021 (5 pages).

This article identifies several problems with the media literacy landscape. In particular, Fister looks at how the “Do your own research” approach has led to a decay in the legitimacy of expertise. She calls for education in “how information works,” which is precisely what we are doing in this course.

Fister, B. (2021). Lizard People in the Library. Blog, Project Information Literacy Provocation Series.
Connect to Barbara Fister on her website:


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Synthetic Media and the Construction of Reality Copyright © 2021 by University of New Hampshire College of Professional Studies (USNH) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.