Epistemic Status

Making explicit just how confident I am (or am not).

Assumed Audience: people who care about thinking well and communicating clearly.

Epistemic Status: extremely confident.

As of this evening, I have added to my website the ability to specify an epistemic status” for any given entry. I’m shamelessly stealing this idea from the rationalist community, including sites like LessWrong, Slate Star Codex, and Sarah Constantin’s blog.1

The idea is simple: we often write in these public fora with incredible apparent confidence. In reality, we may or may not be all that confident in the ideas we’re sharing, and that is actually very okay. The need always to seem confident in what we’re saying leads us to the world of hot takes and loud arguments where no one dares lose face. Having the humility to admit what we do not know can take us at least a little way toward a healthier conversational environment. Epistemic status” is a nice little tool to signify that kind of humility — to make clear whether I am trying to persuade you of something I am as convinced of as it is possible to be, or whether I’m just noodling with an idea. Both are useful kinds of public writing! But they’re very different from each other.

I do not expect to put an epistemic status” header on every single post going forward the way I do with assumed audience” headers. I do commit to putting it on posts I know to be controversial, or where I am conscious that it could be read as confident when I am playing with an idea or vice versa.

Making apparent exactly what we’re about in any given piece of public writing opens the door to better conversations. That’s a door I very much want open! As with my assumed audience headings, I cannot prevent someone from willfully misreading me. I can, however, make it easier for those of good will to read me aright.

  1. My Assumed Audience headings were partly inspired by the way Sarah Constantin deploys epistemic status,” so this is an appropriate turn of events! ↩︎