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Which Facts to Trust in the Debate on Climate Change?: On Knowledge and Plausibility in Times of Crisis

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Abstract

The assumption that the truth of facts is at the centre of knowledge crises would seem to suggest fact-checking or providing additional facts as methods of resolution. In this paper, this is reflected on by utilizing two complementary perspectives: an epistemological approach guided by theoretical positions from Philosophy of Science and a pragmalinguistic approach using methods of Applied Discourse Analysis. We argue that although facts are necessary in science communication, they are not sufficient. Instead, we suggest focusing on this question: To what extent do we consider a statement plausible? By dissecting a historical and a present case (geocentrism, climate change) and applying the complementary approaches described above, the relevance of their respective epistemic systems (Goldman 2010) and what we call ‘settings of comprehension’ can be revealed. In this process, it can be demonstrated why what some people consider absurd, others consider plausible, and vice versa. On this basis, science communication can operate from a more deliberate level.
Which Facts to Trust in the Debate on
Climate Change? On Knowledge and
Plausibility in Times of Crisis
Martin Böhnert and Paul Reszke
1
Abstract
The assumption that the truth of facts is at the centre of knowledge crises
would seem to suggest fact-checking or providing additional facts as methods
of resolution. In this paper, this is carried out by utilizing two complementary
perspectives: an epistemological approach guided by theoretical positions
from Philosophy of Science and a pragmalinguistic approach using methods
of Applied Discourse Analysis. We argue that although facts are necessary in
science communication, they are not sufficient. Instead, we suggest focusing
on this question: To what extent do we consider a statement plausible? By
dissecting a historical and a present case (geocentrism, climate change) and
applying the complementary approaches described above, the relevance of
their respective epistemic systems (Goldman 2010) and what we call settings
of comprehension can be revealed. In this process, it can be demonstrated
why what some people consider absurd, others consider plausible, and vice
versa. On this basis, science communication can operate from a more
deliberate level.
Keywords: Plausibility judgements, global warming, knowledge crisis, fact-
checking, people-knowledge and thing-knowledge, epistemic systems,
settings of comprehension
This is a draft version of: Böhnert, Martin; Reszke, Paul (2022): Which facts to
trust in the debate on climate change? On knowledge and plausibility in times of
crisis. In: Hohaus, Pascal (Ed.): Science Communication in Times of Crises,
Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 15-40.
Introduction: The State of Facts in Knowledge Crises
Even if we might live in a “crisis society” (Frandsen and Johansen 2017:17)
today, crises are not a new phenomenon. The individual and collective
experience of crisis can be found in many areas of life, e.g. when we speak of
political, cultural, religious, ecological, economic or identity crises. Crisis has
become the structural signature of modernity, as historian Reinhart
Koselleck noted as early as 1982 (Koselleck 1982:627; our translation). In the
discourse on climate change, crisis semantics are also prevalent. In this paper,
we focus on crisis semantics in relation to knowledge. Knowledge in times of
crisis is to be understood in two different, interwoven dimensions: On the one
hand, in the sense of crisis knowledge, i.e. with reference to the knowledge
contents that are produced, discussed and applied within the state perceived
as climate crisis. On the other hand, in the sense of knowledge crises, i.e. with
reference to the status, role and function of knowledge claims within the
debate on the climate crisis.
It is precisely this second dimension of knowledge in crisis that facilitates and
is facilitated by societal debates about the interpretive and definitional
sovereignty of knowledge. The current discourse about alternative facts, fake
news and post-factuality can itself be interpreted as an indication of what we
understand as a knowledge crisis in this paper (Rödder 2018:1718). The
strategic approach of populist movements, who want to dismiss science as a
question of faith, also poses a particular challenge to knowledge
communication and knowledge transfer.
2
“As ‘alternative facts become part
of modern politics in established democracies, so does fact-checking:
Mainstream media have increasingly invested in checking politicians claims
2
We intentionally use the word faith because, as linguist Jana Tereick points out in her
analysis of press releases, TV programmes and Youtube videos, lexemes from the realm of
(Christian) religion shape the discourse on climate change to make it a “matter of faith”. Such
words include “selling indulgences” and, with reference to public figures such as Al Gore,
“missionaries” (2016:160).
and provided rebuttals” (Barrera et al. 2020:1). Substantial fact-checking
efforts pursued by numerous news outlets and non-profit organizations have
already become established means of debunking false information. However,
it is not certain whether this is enough to stabilize social knowledge in the
context of polarizing distrust and fragmented media consumption. Empirical
studies suggest that the practice of fact-checking “is not sufficient to counter
the effect that populist politicians have” (Barrera et al. 2020:18) on public
opinions, that fact-checking can at best “slow down viral rumours,
conspiracies, trolls, or hoaxes […] [and] make it possible to balance public
narratives with ‘empiricism’” (Luengo and García-Marín 2020:424). Fact-
checking may also only be effective on those who “already see value and
credibility in the fact-checking process” itself (Rich, Milden, and Wagner
2020:3). Furthermore, it may be the case that only those checked facts are
trusted which are consistent with ones own beliefs (Shin and Torson
2017:250).
Thus, in this paper, we will argue that although facts are necessary in science
communication, they are not sufficient. The basic assumption behind the
practice of fact-checking seems to be that what people depends mainly on the
truth of facts. The polarizing distrust which accompanies knowledge crises,
however, puts facts as truthmakers under pressure and threatens the collapse
of the practice of fact-checking. Hence, our question is whether knowledge in
times of crisis is a matter of fact.
Questioning Knowledge
In order to provide a working definition of the term knowledge succinctly for
the framework of this study, the following characterization by linguist Klaus-
Peter Konerding is useful. His paper deals with the interrelation of language
and knowledge; and he refers back to the common use of the term knowledge
for a first delineation:
The term knowledge is so prominent and characteristic of our current
culture and public sphere because it has become one of the central
high-value and key vocabularies of Western societies over the last
fifty years. This is also indicated by the observation that our current
social culture is often referred to as a knowledge society. Knowledge,
i.e. above all the personal acquisition and social expansion of
knowledge, is regarded as a safeguard for the prosperous development
of people, society and culture. Knowledge is considered to be an
indispensable prerequisite for humanity to meet the challenges of its
ecological niche and to secure prosperity and well-being (Konerding
2017:57; our translation).
The concluding reference to both the challenges [of] the ecological niche
of humankind and to prosperity and well-being in particular indicates the
close relationship of knowledge to the domains of politics and economics.
Knowledge has become an essential resource for economic success in
globalised exchange, financial and capital markets in the form of permanent
information selection (Bittlingmayer 2001:16; our translation) and
[i]n knowledge societies, political actors increasingly depend on the
expert knowledge of professional advisors and counsellors, not least
in order to tie political decisions back to scientific expertise for the
purpose of obtaining legitimacy (Bittlingmayer 2001:16; our
translation).
The respective appropriation of the term by these two social spheres is based
on the conceptual metaphor of knowledge as a commodity (Andriessen
2010:63): Conceptualising knowledge as a commodity also suggests dividing
its different manifestations into different degrees of quality by which the
value of knowledge as a commodity can be measured. Our thesis is that this
slot is typically filled by the lexeme facts: Facts are the gold standard in the
market of knowledge.
3
In our everyday understanding of knowledge, referring
to facts as support for one's own beliefs is both intuitively convincing and
common practice in a variety of life areas from arguing over historical
events by citing sources to arguing over a basket counting in basketball by
referring to reviews of a play. In this sense, referring to facts can be regarded
as a necessary condition in order to claim knowledge that something is the
case. In epistemology, there is a traditional definition of knowledge, formally
expressed in the sentence “S knows that p, iff j”, where “S” refers to a
knowing subject, “p” to the knowledge claimed by S, and “j” to a list of
necessary conditions that have to be met, iff meaning if and only if these
conditions are met. Paradigmatically, it is proposed that the conditions for this
kind of propositional knowledge are i) p is true, ii) S believes that p is the
case, and iii) S is justified in believing that p is the case (Ayer 1956:34). This
makes knowledge a shorthand for justified, true beliefs.
Although much of the debate about the analysis of knowledge in the 20th
century has been about whether these three conditions are sufficient or need
to be extended (see e.g. Kaplan 1985; Dutant 2015), the idea of knowledge
being justified true belief is still considered the starting point of knowledge
3
With this description of knowledge, a certain type and form of knowledge, namely factual,
propositional knowledge, are brought into focus and possibly treated as more important than
other types of knowledge, such as procedural or metacognitive knowledge, and other forms
of knowledge, such as knowledge by acquaintance. Knowledge in the sense of factual,
propositional knowledge also largely corresponds to our everyday use of the term knowledge.
analyses. Due to the intuitive persuasiveness provided by these three
conditions, even in our common usage of the term we would not claim that S
knows that p if one of the three conditions is not met. Consider that Abed (S)
asserts that it is sunny outside (p). If it is either actually not sunny outside
(truth condition), or Abed does not believe in what he is asserting (believe
condition), or Abed cannot justify his claim (justification condition), we
would not say Abed knows it is sunny (this argumentation also in line with
Wittgenstein 1969: §42). Our aforementioned depiction of facts as the gold
standard in the market of knowledge also treats facts as truthmakers for a
statement or assertion: Knowledge is a kind of relationship with the truth
to know something is to have a certain kind of access to a fact” (Ichikawa and
Steup 2018). We interpret “a certain kind of access” as a form of common
and scientific practice, such as: pointing out a certain detail, microscoping, or
compiling and analysing big data. By regarding facts as part of this
relationship with the truth, the practice of referring to a fact appears to be like
a shortcut to justify a formed belief and simultaneously point out the truth:
Gena asserts that it is raining outside and claims to have a certain access to a
fact, namely her own wet clothes after coming back inside. By referring to
the fact of her wet clothes, she justifies her belief and also makes the implicit
offer to other persons to convince themselves of its truth. Simultaneously, she
also makes a strong case for p being true. This fact-based understanding of
knowledge, where a statement is in correspondence with some portion of
reality, namely a fact, can already be found in the following statement by
philosopher Bertrand Russell from 1912: “Thus a belief is true when there is
a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact”
(1971:129).
Questioning Facts
While the fact-based understanding of knowledge is intuitively convincing
and a common practice in everyday situations and many other fields, it turns
out that the idea of reducing knowledge and truth to the mere empirical
verification of facts is an under-complex way of approaching knowledge.
Therefore, our thesis is that if the status of a piece of knowledge is still being
negotiated, it seems more fruitful not to ask who is right, but to ask which
statement is considered to be plausible by whom and why. To develop our
argument, we would like to introduce three examples in which access to a fact
is claimed in each case. We will then discuss the complexity of referring to
facts mentioned above using three illustrative questions.
(1) In 1615, astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei defended his
belief in the Copernican view of the universe, which proposed
that the earth rotates on its own axis and revolves around the
sun once a year, referring to his own observations made with
one of the first astronomical telescopes. His opponent in Rome
was Cardinal Bellarmine, arguing for the Ptolemaic view of
the universe, which suggested that the earth is fixed in its
centre and the heavenly bodies revolving around it. In the
historical account, it is repeatedly emphasized that Bellarmine
even declined looking through Galileo’s telescope, stating he
had a better source of evidence about the make-up of the
heavens, namely the Holy Scripture (Goldman 2010:208;
Boghossian 2011:39).
(2) In 2015, United States senator James Inhofe, then chair of the
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works,
defended his belief that, despite [the fact that] we keep
hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record”, man-
made global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on
the American people” (Inhofe qtd. in Dunlap and McCright
2011:153). He supported his statement with the help of a
snowball he was holding in his hand: “I ask the chair, you
know what this is? It’s a snowball, and that’s just from outside
here, so it’s very, very cold out, very unseasonable”, Inhofe
explained and tossed the snowball to the Senate’s president
(Inhofe 2015:1:31:31).
(3) In 2019, a video by the physicist and science journalist Harald
Lesch, commissioned by the German public broadcast service
ZDF, was made available on YouTube. In it, he argues against
accusations by people who call global warming through
climate change a lie (Lesch 2019:infobox) by holding up a
total of four diagrams from various scientific studies
concerning temperature measurements over the last 150 years
(Lesch 2019:0:301:31).
At first glance, in all three examples knowledge claims are uttered explicitly
or implicitly which can be expressed through the aforementioned
formalization S knows, that p as follows:
(1a) Galileo knows, that earth orbits the sun
(1b) Bellarmine knows, that the sun orbits earth
(2) Inhofe knows, that climate change is not man-made
(3) Lesch knows, that climate change is man-made
Before we delve into an analysis of these examples, we would like to point
out that while you were reading these examples, you were probably already
evaluating them and therefore decided whom you trust or which assertions
you think are legitimate. We will return to this notion.
Suppose that all four subjects do believe in their own assertions and therefore
meet the believe condition of their knowledge claims. They all use the
shortcut described above to justify their claim and point out the truth by
referring to facts, namely an observation performed with a telescope, a certain
reading of the Holy Scripture, a snowball and a selection of diagrams. More
precisely, we must say that in all four cases there is no mere reference to facts.
Rather, in the sense of the justification condition, this reference is presented
as evidence for a belief or hypothesis. While facts heavily depend on and are
limited by the capacities of our sense organs and nervous systems as well as
the contours of the language we use to express our perception”, evidence “is
constituted of facts taken in relation to something else beliefs, hypotheses,
theories (Longino and Doell 1983:208209). What philosopher Helen
Longino and biologist Ruth Doell are stressing here is a necessary distinction
between literally referring to a fact e.g. by pointing towards the diagrams or
presenting the snowball and the verbal, i.e. pragmatic-communicative
depiction of this fact in its relation to the respective belief:
To speak of evidence is not to speak of bare facts or data awaiting an
explanation. It is, instead, to confer on those facts an epistemic
relevance to a belief, hypothesis, or theory. To say that this fact (F) is
evidence for this hypothesis (H) is to take F as a sign of H, or, to use
logical terminology, to claim that F’s being the case is a consequence
of H’s being true (1983:209).
Holding up and explaining the diagrams or displaying and tossing the
snowball on their own are not enough to meet the justification condition.
Lesch and Inhofe have to emphasize that the diagrams or the snowball are the
consequences of man-made climate change being true or untrue. In contrast
to the practice of fact-checking and the common sense idea of facts as being
indisputably the case and corresponding directly to reality (OED 2021:fact,
n.), it is important to understand the pragmatic and semantic dimension of
knowledge claims and fact referencing (Gardt 2018). This semantic
dimension of knowledge claims is the first aspect of complexity we want to
point out. It can be summarised by the question: To what end is the fact
referred to?
The communicative setting is also relevant when considering how we acquire
knowledge on the basis of what other people tell us. In all three examples, the
subjects are not only claiming a certain knowledge; they also want to
convince others of their beliefs. From an epistemological point of view, the
question of how we acquire knowledge from others is not trivial. In the
philosophical debate, different strands of argumentation are intertwined. For
example, under the notion of norms of knowledge, the extent to which
knowledge must be a necessary and/or sufficient condition for an assertion is
discussed (see e.g. Williamson 2000; DeRose 2002; Worsnip 2017). The
model of knowledge transmission argues that different conditions have to be
met so that knowledge can be transmitted from one person to another (see e.g.
Audi 1997; Faulkner 2006; Owens 2006). Most of these views suggest it to
be essential that, in order to assert and transmit knowledge, the speakers must
actually possess the knowledge in question. The main idea behind this thesis
derives from an analogy between the functions of memory and the functions
of assertion: While memory is capable of preserving the knowledge that p
from one time to another, given that at an earlier point in time the person
remembering actually did know that p, assertion is capable of transmitting
the knowledge that p from one person to another, given that the person
transmitting the knowledge actually does know that p. Or, as philosopher
Jennifer Lackey summarizes the analogy, “just as I cannot remember that p
unless I have something to remember, the thought underlying this picture […]
is that speakers cannot give knowledge that p unless they have something to
give” (1999:471). In addition to the question of the truth value of p, the
reliability of a source must also be considered in the personal acquisition of
knowledge. “[S]ome background belief in the testimony’s credibility”
(Faulkner 2000:587) is necessary in order not to have to blindly express trust
in a statement. This epistemic concern in the acquisition of knowledge is the
second aspect of complexity that we want to highlight. We summarise this
through the question: How can you decide if S is to be trusted?
This leads to the third aspect, the status of facts themselves. In the prologue
to his book which is today considered a classic in philosophy of science,
physician and philosopher Ludwik Fleck gives a common description of a
fact:
A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as
something definite, permanent, and independent of any subjective
interpretation by the scientist. It is that which the various scientific
disciplines aim at (1979:xxvii).
This understanding of facts also roughly corresponds to our everyday idea of
facts as something that is the case and that is an independent aspect of reality.
However, as the title of his work “Genesis and Development of a Scientific
Fact” already indicates, Fleck fundamentally questioned this perspective of
definite, permanent, and independent facts already being present in the world
and awaiting their discovery. According to Fleck, scientific facts are not
discovered but rather developed, sometimes have a controversial history
and are largely based on active though not necessarily conscious decisions
by people. To understand facts as being developed, as being “fabricated”
(Knorr Cetina 1981:1) or “negotiated and institutionalized” (Latour
1999:307) also implicates that facts are always contextual and relational:
“What counts as a fact as reality will thus vary according to culture,
institutional perspective, and so on, making this process of selection one point
of vulnerability to external influences” (Longino and Doell 1983:208).
Among others, Philosophy of Science, History of Science, Science and
Technology Studies or Sociology of Knowledge are fields of research
dedicated to the historical, sociological and philosophical study of facts,
highlighting their complexity not discrediting the existence or relevance of
this concept. The conclusion that “facts only appear as such under ones own
assumptions” (Hornuff 2017:68, our translation) sums up the third aspect of
complexity and can be expressed by the question: Why does p count as a fact?
Since the purpose of fact-checking can be understood as “evaluating the
truthfulness of claims presented in public” (Nieminen and Sankari 2021:358),
the premise of this practice seems to be that a persons belief depends mainly
or even exclusively on the truth of a fact. Therefore, the crucial question
to be asked would be whether a fact is true. With this question, however, the
three sub-questions we have just presented, all of which are relevant in the
context of referring to facts, are not addressed. In other words, the questions
to what end a fact is referred to, how one can decide if S is to be trusted and
why p does actually count as a fact, are not subsets of the question about
whether p is true or not. Moreover, focusing on the question of the truth value
of a fact would mean that simple answers could be found to each of the
examples given above simple in the sense that we could decide that Galileo
was right and Bellarmine was wrong based on Galileo’s factual knowledge
claim. More than that, one could even assume that Bellarmine would have
immediately changed his belief had he looked through Galileos telescope.
However, given the implied complexity behind the development of facts, it is
more reasonable to assume that Bellarmine would not change his mind that
easily we will get back to that later on. This complexity, however, is what
we mean when we say that facts are necessary but not sufficient in times of
knowledge crises. Therefore, asking whether a fact is true is not sufficient
either.
Asking a Different Question
What we know of comets, icebergs, and neutrinos irreducibly contains
what we know of those people who speak for and about these things,
just as what we know about the virtues of people is informed by their
speech about things that exist in the world (Shapin 1994: xxvi).
As the quote above suggests, the practice of knowledge-gaining is woven into
a complex and intricate fabric in which not only our thing-knowledge but
also our people-knowledge plays a relevant role (Shapin 1994:287, 302).
In everyday life as well as in popular science, the notion prevails that
knowledge and its transmission is not related to persons that it is objective,
as in independent of a subject. In this sense, the dispute between Bellarmine
and Galileo as well as the arguments provided by Inhofe and Lesch seem to
be exclusively about things. Which objects in the heavens actually move?
What influence do human actions have on a measurable global warming
effect? But at the same time and in the same sense, it is also a dispute about
people, their virtues and capacities. Who [is] an adequately skilled and sincere
teller of factual truths” (Shapin: 1994:287) and whose statements might be
trusted to evaluate a stock of factual knowledge? It is no coincidence that we
can easily talk about a dispute between Galileo and Bellarmine and thus
specifically pick out persons in order to refer to both the dispute between
people and the dispute about things. In order to unravel the communicative
settings in which referring to facts plays a central role, a consideration of the
things and the people involved in the communication is essential.
This is what historian of science Steven Shapin means when he speaks of
thing-knowledge and people-knowledge, and this allows us to refer back to
the three questions we posed: To what end does Lesch refer to melting
glaciers or Inhofe to his snowball? How can we as viewers decide if Lesch or
Inhofe are trustworthy in this context?
4
Why can their display of four
diagrams respectively one snowball count as a fact?
While these three questions reflect the relationship between thing-
knowledge and people-knowledge on different levels, the question about
the truth of p exclusively considers thing-knowledge isolated or even
purified from people-knowledge. Therefore, instead of pursuing the issue
of determining the truth of a fact, we are making an epistemological U-turn
by asking a different question: To what extent do we consider a statement to
be plausible?
Why is that? In the climate change discourse in particular, an example of a
“post-normal situation […] with a high degree of complexity, great
uncertainty and strong interest from different groups” (Lüthje 2017:60), we
are not even dealing with facts that are immediately obvious to us in the first
place. Instead, we are confronted with complex statements. Thus, while the
question regarding the truth of p does not address the communicative settings
and therefore proceeds under-complex and one-dimensionally, the question
regarding the plausibility of a statement allows for complex and multi-
dimensional answers: Firstly, it places judgements in the epistemic
foreground and thus takes into account the active decision-making process of
4
Of course, some of the issues discussed here can also be described with reference to the
rhetorical tradition and its concepts of logos, ethos and pathos. But it will become clear in
the course of this paper that this framework is not flexible enough to cover what we want to
address with the concept of plausibility.
how someone decides what they consider to be true. And secondly, the focus
on a statement always already establishes a relation between a statements
content and the person making the statement, thus requiring the consideration
of thing-knowledge, people-knowledge and their reciprocity.
Now is the time to return to our assumption that you have already decided
which persons you trust or which assertions you thought are legitimate. What
you probably did not do was check Lesch’s sources or whether Inhofe’s
snowball was really from outside the Senate building. In short, you did not
ask whether p is true to arrive at your conclusion. Instead, you probably
evaluated the assertions, reflected on what you know of the speakers and their
contexts and eventually decided which statement to trust. Shapin refers to the
character of knowledge-gaining, in which people-knowledge and thing-
knowledge is linked to the sources of knowledge, by using the term “trust”
(1994:xxv). Trust, however, is not to be misunderstood as blind faith, which
would open the door to gullibility, epistemic irrationality, and
irresponsibility. In the sphere of knowledge one may “seek to discipline trust
by plausibility, by comparing the claim in question with an overall ordered
sense of what the world is like” (Shapin 1994:21). If you actually decided
which statement to trust, as we assumed above, you intuitively judged to what
extent you considered each statement to be plausible. In this regard, the
question as to what extent one considers a statement to be plausible is a
different question than the question concerning the truth of a fact. However,
it is not different in that it completely abandons the relevance of facts; quite
the opposite. It rather extends this question and considers it in a way that is
embedded into the complexity of our communicative reality. In other words,
the question of plausibility considers both truth and trust in the matter of
knowledge claims. In the following, we would like to analytically reflect and
sharpen the intuitive usage of the lexeme plausible. It is often used, but hardly
ever reflected upon or analysed (Böhnert and Reszke 2015:42). Therefore, it
is necessary to reveal what can be shown on the basis of its usage, namely
that there is an implicit pattern of thinking and reasoning in the background
of its usage.
Plausibility as a Pattern of Thinking and Reasoning
The lexeme plausible should initially be understood as a criterion for
evaluating statements or complexes of statements (Winko 2015; Böhnert and
Reszke 2015). Evaluating a statement as plausible withstands the
simplification of a binary choice between true and false. This epistemic
flexibility is, on the one hand, based on the usage of the lexeme plausible: It
is not subject to any specific rules in everyday language and typically also not
subject to methodological customs of individual scientific disciplines.
Instead, it seems that everyone knows what the term is supposed to mean
[...] and is authorised to use it, trusting that they are doing the right thing and
are being understood correctly by others (Koch 2002:200, our translation).
On the other hand, plausible as a concept is not oriented towards a single
counter-concept; it does not itself stand in a dichotomous relation, but instead
moves in scalar transition. Although the term absurd in the common sense
of against or without reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable,
illogical (OED 2021:absurd, adj. and n.) can be identified as a
complementary term to plausible, there is another term which is diametrically
opposed to plausible, namely obvious (German: offenkundig; Koch 2002:199)
also in the common sense of plain and evident to the mind; perfectly clear
or manifest; clearly visible; such as common sense might suggest (OED
2021:obvious, adj. and n.). Statements which are characterized as plausible
appear to reside flexibly in this area between the absurd and the obvious: If
what is called absurd is, so to speak, too weak to be considered plausible
(yet), that which is considered obvious is too strong to be (merely) considered
plausible (Böhnert and Reszke 2015:5051).
5
Another contrast to the true-false dualism is the way in which the evaluation
of a statement as plausible is carried out, for a verdict does not become
plausible by the fact that I applaud the majority, but conversely by the fact
that my verdict has the quality of winning the applause of the majority (Koch
2002:200, our translation).
6
This capability of winning a majority (German:
Mehrheitsfähigkeit) aptly depicts the potentiality that a plausibility verdict
must necessarily have. Calling a statement plausible is shorthand for saying
that it is capable of winning a certain majority in a certain context. If there is
no applause at all, the statement is probably regarded close to absurd, whereas
if everyone applauds, the status of the (merely) plausible has long been
exceeded. This is also connected to our observation that a statement, which is
evaluated as plausible, always presupposes the existence of alternative and
also plausible explanations. And if there are no alternative explanations, the
statement is more than plausible. As sociologist Niklas Luhmann states,
strengthened plausibility […] is given if the exclusion of alternatives is also
apparent (1980:49; our translation).
However, due to the flexible use of the term plausible, it is possible that one
and the same assertion is judged differently by different speakers: The
assertion on the movement of the heavenly bodies, for example, is considered
plausible by some, implausible by others. However, these assessments only
appear contradictory if one assumes a kind of unified benchmark for both. A
central property of plausibility, however, is that it is a relational concept:
Assertions are always judged against specific background frames. To account
for this, we have introduced the notion of the settings of comprehension
5
In the study cited here, we address similarities and differences betweenthe lexeme plausible
and comparable and related terms (logical, probable, possible).
6
Kochs reference to applause refers to the etymology of the word plausible, which derives
from the Latin term plausibilis for deserving applause.
(German: Verstehensumgebung) into the discourse, which are the sum of all
of a persons beliefs and presuppositions and form the epistemic background
for all individual judgements (Böhnert and Reszke 2015:4849). Just as the
relational terms bigger and left can only ever be meaningfully used against
the background of a specific relational variable, plausible also always
requires specific settings of comprehension as a relational variable, which, in
contrast to bigger than this cup or to the left of this house, are rarely
explicated because they are most of the time presupposed by a given
communicative context.
The relational alignment to the settings of comprehension accompanying an
assessment also clarifies what we have already pointed out, namely that facts
only appear as facts under ones own assumptions. More precisely, one can
say that facts are only acknowledged as such against the background of ones
own settings of comprehension. With this relational perspectivization, it can
finally be understood why even contradictory perspectives can both be judged
as plausible when dealing with the same phenomenon. In this sense,
agreement always implies shared settings of comprehension at least with
regard to the aspects relevant for the assessment. Sharing settings of
comprehension means that a number of presuppositions relevant to the
assessment are made in a similar way. Conversely, this also means that if a
statement is judged to be implausible, then the implicit settings of
comprehension of those who consider this statement to be plausible are not
shared with those who find it to be implausible. More strongly, to judge a
statement as implausible is to implicitly question the relevant settings of
comprehension of others (Böhnert 2020:89). By making a plausibility
judgement, a form of certainty can be generated, validated and re-evaluated.
Thus, it becomes apparent that behind the formal lack of rules in the use of
the term lies an implicit pattern of argumentation and thinking: Through a)
alternative explanations to existing positions that are b) capable of convincing
a majority, assertions can be judged as plausible, with the long-term
epistemological goal of eventually highlighting them as without alternative,
to the exclusion of all other explanations.
To summarize, the term plausible is a relational term used to judge statements
or sets of statements. In this paper we sketch this relation as a usually implicit
reference to one’s settings of comprehension. The settings of comprehension
are the sum of all beliefs and attitudes of a judging individual, which are
composed among others - of personal, life-world experiences, cultural and
social traditions as well as epistemic values (see the next section).
With that in mind, let us return to our examples.
Dissecting Two Knowledge Crises
Let us look at our four examples under the question to what extent we
consider the respective statements to be plausible.
The Dispute Between Galileo and Bellarmine
We chose to include a historical example not only to demonstrate that
knowledge crises are not an exclusively contemporary phenomenon; the early
modern period in particular, with events such as the Protestant Reformation,
the Thirty Years War, and the European colonization of the Americas, can
be described in terms of crisis semantics, in which established world views
came under pressure and knowledge crises emerged. Works on the history of
science and scientific practices, such as physician and philosopher of science
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962),
philosopher Ian Hacking’s “The Emergence of Probability” (1975), Shapin’s
“A Social History of Truth” (1994), or historians of science Lorraine Daston’s
and Peter Galison’s work on the history of scientific objectivity (1992; 2007),
can make us aware that our current scientific norms, which have become so
strongly imprinted in our settings of comprehension that we hardly perceive
them as such, are subject to historical change and are therefore not as one
might assume from todays perspective universal and unchanging ideals.
Thus, looking at Galileo’s confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church,
represented in the person of Cardinal Bellarmine, allows us to reflect on
assumptions we might take for granted today and to understand our own
settings of comprehension as settings of comprehension.
Looking back, the dispute between Galileo and Bellarmine could be quickly
judged today, if we simply state that “Galileo was absolutely right and the
Church absolutely wrong” because we view the dispute “simply [as] a black-
and-white struggle between reason and superstition” (Rorty 1979:328). This
view also allows for the narrative of the “flawed tragic hero; of the struggle
for intellectual freedom; of the individual pitted against the powerful
institution committed to self-preservation” (Blackwell 1991:2). When Galileo
refers to the observations he was able to perform with his telescope in order
to justify his belief in the correctness of the Copernican system, then this is
methodologically not only closer to the present and more familiar, it also
seems more appropriate and justified, so much even that we no longer
consider it merely plausible, but obvious. Similarly, we consider looking into
the Bible to learn about astronomy to be completely absurd especially since
we know today that the Ptolemaic world view with the earth at the centre is
scientifically invalid.
However, as philosopher Richard Rorty points out, the reason why we today
prefer Galileos approach to astronomy to Bellarmines might not be because
Galileos method is more in line with the truth than Bellarmines but because
we are the heirs of three hundred years of rhetoric about the
importance of distinguishing sharply between science and religion,
science and politics, science and philosophy, and so on. This rhetoric
has formed the culture of Europe. […] Galileo, so to speak, won the
argument, and we all stand on the ground of the ‘grid’ of relevance
and irrelevance which ‘modern philosophy’ developed as a
consequence of that victory (Rorty 1981:329).
This is also in line with philosopher Ludwig Wittgensteins assumption, i.e.
that one neither acquires a world view by convincing oneself of its correctness
nor by being convinced of its correctness “No: it is the inherited background
against which I distinguish between true and false” (1969:§94). The inherited
grid Rorty mentions shaped crucial aspects of our shared settings of
comprehension, especially the distinction between scientific and non-
scientific. Therefore, today, we can perhaps hardly avoid dismissing
Bellarmines reliance on the authority of the Holy Scripture in questions of
astronomy as downright absurd. We might even be tempted to claim that
Bellarmine did not use any evidence at all.
7
However, instead of a black-and-white struggle between true or false,
plausible as a relational term allows for a more differentiated view. For
illustrative purposes, let us assume, as we have already suggested above, that
Bellarmine looks through Galileo’s telescope and therefore has access to the
same facts as Galileo. Would he alter his belief? Given that his settings of
comprehension were also inherited as a grid to distinguish between true and
false, he probably would not. As Hacking argues, the common criteria for
truth in 16th century were very different from our current ones: “Testimony
and authority were primary, and things could count as evidence only insofar
7
Hacking uses another historical case to make an analogous observation (1975:33).
as they resembled the witness of observers and the authority of books”
(1975:33). To use Shapins terms, the primacy of people-knowledge in the
practice of knowledge-gaining applied.
Epistemic norms implying that scientifically derived facts should be the guide
to belief and that observation is a core part of the scientific method were not
in place yet (Goldman 2010:209). “The notion of what it was to be ‘scientific’
was in the process of being formed” (Rorty 1979:330). This means that the
visual impression gained by looking through the telescope could not only
legitimately be ignored by Bellarmine; the epistemic norms of the late 16th
century provided no position at all where visual impressions could have any
epistemological relevance. The certainty of Bellarmines belief in a
geocentric universe was anchored in a different, cohesive network of beliefs
and convictions, namely the scriptural descriptions of the fabric of the
heavens and the system of Aristotelian cosmology. As incomprehensible as
the evidential value of the reference to the Holy Scripture appears to our
inherited scientific concept of nature, the gaze through a telescope being
regarded as evidence for the overturning of the celestial order must appear
just as incomprehensible to intellectuals of the 16th century. With regard to
our question of why p might be counted as a fact, of what “determines what
sorts of evidence there could be for statements about the movements of
planets“ (Rorty 1979:330), we need to further examine the role of epistemic
norms.
While the settings of comprehension function by virtue of being had by
someone and help to understand plausibility judgements, a set of epistemic
norms functions by virtue of beliefs and doubts someone should have.
8
Philosopher Alvin Goldman describes these normative rules with the concept
of “epistemic systems” (2010):
8
Lackey uses a similar distinction for her concept of epistemic defeaters (2011:74).
[An epistemic system] houses social practices, procedures, institutions
and/or patterns of interpersonal influence that affect the epistemic
outcomes of its members. […] The core mission of each of these
systems is to elevate its community’s level of truth possession,
information possession, knowledge possession, or possession of
justified or rational belief (Goldman 2010:196197).
For Goldman, paradigmatic cases of today’s epistemic systems are education,
legal trials, science and journalism. In this sense, we inherited the epistemic
system with all its practices, procedures, and institutions, that Galileo was
about to form. In the late 16th century, however, the dominant epistemic
system was the Roman Catholic Church which is why Bellarmine had to
argue in accordance to and with the normative authority of that epistemic
system, for the common sense geocentrism of the Holy Scripture.
9
Yet Bellarmine was not ignorant, quite the opposite: He “had heard of
Galileo’s observations and wished to know if they were true and what
implications they held” (Coyne 2011:5). In a strictly hypothetical sense, he
might have even agreed with a Copernican model of the world as we read in
one of his letters, but regarded it as
different to want to affirm that in reality the sun is at the center of the
world and only turns on itself without moving from east to west, and
the earth […] revolves with great speed around the sun; this is a very
dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers
9
With regard to the scientific system, the concept of epistemic systems obviously also
resonates with terms from philosophy of science such as “normal science” and paradigm
shift (Kuhn 1962) or thought style and “thought collective (Fleck 1979).
and theologians, but also harm the Holy Faith by rendering the Holy
Scripture false (Bellarmine qtd. in Finocchiaro 1989:67).
“Rendering the Holy Script false” is meant as a non-canonical, non-standard
reading in opposition to the epistemic system that would allow for an
individual interpretation which is one of the conflicts that arose between the
Catholic Church and Martin Luther. This is the end towards which Bellarmine
was arguing. What is interesting, however, is what we learn from him about
how to deal with the hypothetical case in practice, “if there were a true
demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and […] that the sun
does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun” (Bellarmine qtd. in
Finocchiaro 1989:68). In this case a fact-check so to speak the epistemic
system would still have to be maintained by proceeding “with great care in
explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not
understand them than that what is demonstrated is false” (Bellarmine qtd. in
Finocchiaro 1989:68). According to philosopher Imre Lakatos, scientific
research programs follow a similar procedure, using auxiliary hypotheses to
protect their “hard core” of theoretical assumptions (Lakatos 1978:110).
“But” as Bellarmine proceeds with a methodological safeguard, “I will not
believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me” (Bellarmine
qtd. in Finocchiaro 1989:68). What sort of practice counts as showing is of
course also deeply integrated into the epistemic system.
In conclusion, to reject Bellarmine’s case as unplausible or even absurd, “is
just a sophisticated form of name-calling: all we’re doing is expressing our
preference for Galileo’s system and rejecting Bellarmine’s” (Boghossian
2011:41) in accordance with our own settings of comprehension which are
highly influenced by the epistemic systems we have inherited and come to
accept. This means that as a member or representative of an epistemic system,
I am at the same time bound to its norms and also further establish them
through my acquisition of knowledge. But it also means that I am not bound
by these norms if I belong to a different or even competing epistemic system.
It also means and this seems to us to be a striking issue that a fact-check
need not cause me to change my belief. The phrase But you have to see is
only convincing if I commit myself to the very norms that compel me to see:
for example, Bellarmine’s view of the Holy Scriptures or Galileos view
through the telescope. In order to sum up the relation between epistemic
systems and the settings of comprehension, we might say: The perspective of
epistemic systems addresses epistemic groups or collectives and helps to
understand controversies against a background of epistemic norms. The
perspective of settings of comprehension considers epistemic individuals and
helps to understand individual evaluations of a statement as plausible.
Moreover, epistemic systems only apply to a single aspect of the world think
of the sciences, journalism or legal systems. By contrast, the settings of
comprehension of an epistemic individual who is making a judgement take
into account a whole world view. That is, there is not necessarily a sharp
distinction between science, religion, politics or philosophy.
As mentioned above, it is easier to reflect on the different settings of
comprehension and epistemic systems in a knowledge crisis from a historical
distance. The two examples from the current debate on climate change require
a more thorough analysis guided by the three sub-questions.
Harald Lesch’s Clarifying Misconceptions About Climate
Change
To what end are the diagrams in Lesch’s video referred to? Although its title
and video description say it is about clearing up misunderstandings, in our
view its central subject arises from the strategy Lesch uses for this purpose:
Namely, to show how science works as a practice of producing facts. In the
already described introduction with four diagrams shown in one minute, the
measurement results are not simply shown to prove that man-made climate
change does exist. The high frequency with which they are shown in a short
period also underscores that the hypothesis of man-made climate change can
be proven by a large and seemingly limitless number of individual scientific
studies.
This becomes especially apparent towards the end of the video (Lesch
2019:18:0019:05). Astrophysicist Lesch uses the example of theories on
black holes to explain how scientific consensus arises, and then transfers this
explanation to a meta-study on climate change, according to which between
1991 and 2012 only 34 of 33,700 scientists doubted the consensus that man-
made climate change exists. So, in the end, the focus of his video is not on
measurements of temperatures, but on the transformation of individual
observations into a convergent picture. For Lesch, the small number of
climate change sceptics in science even constitutes proof that science works:
“Its about agreeing on something that has been agreed on, so to speak. And
it is only on this basis that scientific theories can be further developed and,
above all, [...] tested again and again! (2019:16:05).
But how can we decide if Lesch is to be trusted? Central to this question are
first and foremost some conditions of the communicative setting: Lesch is
himself a physicist who does teaching and research at the Ludwig Maximilian
University of Munich, and can therefore be considered to be a trustworthy
authority on the scientific process. He gains additional legitimacy from the
fact that his video is produced with funding from the German public broadcast
service ZDF. As explained in a specially created link to Wikipedia in the
video description, ZDF is an independent nonprofit institution, which was
founded by all federal states of Germany. These broadcasters, founded after
the National Socialist era, have traditionally found to be highly trustworthy
by the German public.
10
But this trust is currently as part of the crisis of
knowledge eroding, which is also expressed in comments below the video:
Systematically, the temperature has risen by a few degrees in just
under 150 years.... but as you once said yourself, there have already
been much larger temperature shifts on earth in a shorter period of
time and in the other direction. But humans didn't exist then. [...] you
are a blabbermouth Mr Lesch, you just parrot from full brainwashed
conviction of the established left-wing green fear propaganda.... you
are virtually a shit multiplier! (Lesch 2015:Comment by “Anon
Nymous”; our translation, errors in original).
Another comment responds to the argument on scientific consensus:
“Einstein was also alone and said physics is not fully explored even though
all the scientists in the world were sure, yet that one person was right (Lesch
2015:Comment by “cerwinvegavef8”; our translation).
We will return to these quotes shortly. In addition to the communicative
framework presented above, it is also important that Leschs graphs are each
accompanied by references to sources that make what is said verifiable. The
option to verify makes the video more trustworthy regardless of whether
any actual verifying is done by the recipients.
Why do the diagrams count as facts? The individual diagrams that Lesch
holds up to the camera are as we have shown embedded into a
communicative practice of science: It is Leschs central interest to repeatedly
10
The emergence of recent surveys concerning this topic evidences that the question of trust
in the media is currently rather prevalent. However, these surveys also show that the public
broadcast service continues to be the most trusted media outlet in Germany (infratest dimap
2015).
demonstrate the processes of the emergence of a scientific consensus. And he
also makes use of precisely this practice by supporting each central statement
with comprehensible sources. In a nutshell, one could say: Just like throwing
a ball through a hoop attached to a backboard counts as scoring if you also
happen to be playing basketball, the diagrams shown by Lesch only count as
fact to those who happen to be playing the same game he does. And that is
precisely why, in the course of the twenty-minute video, he places so much
emphasis not only on showing game plays, but also on explaining the nature
of the game. The rules of this game are the epistemic norms of science. And
the two comments quoted above show that these norms are not part of some
of his viewers’ settings of comprehension.
James Inhofe’s Senate Speech on Climate Change
Similar to Lesch, Inhofes reference to the snowball is embedded into a larger
context that only becomes apparent when one takes a look at the
communicative framework. In the Senate session of 25 February 2015, he
spoke on the topic of climate change for about twenty minutes. The snowball
is not the only object he references. Inhofe also shows a photo of his
daughters family from 2010 next to a self-built igloo (2015:1:30:56), a
diagram without further source citation with average temperatures between
1000 AD and 2000 AD (2015:1:35:41) and two cover pictures from Time
magazine, one from 1974 (2015:1:38:03) and not more precisely specifiable
one from “a short time after” (2015:1:39:00).
In the beginning, Inhofe uses the snowball as a prop in connection with the
photo of his daughter and explains that the photo is from “back when they
first started all the hysteria on global warming” (2015:1:30:56) and that “it
got a lot of national attention” (2015:1:31:20). Meanwhile, he takes the
snowball out of a plastic bag and tosses it to someone at the front of the
auditorium, whereupon he explains its purpose:
We hear the perpetual headline that 2014 [...] has been the warmest
year on record. [...]. As we can see with the snowball out there, this is
today, this is reality. Others are printing pictures of a frozen Niagara
Falls. 4,700 square miles of isles that formed on the great lakes in one
night. Its never happened before (2015:1:31:50).
What is Inhofes subject and to what end does he show the snowball? He talks
about “national attention”, about a “perpetual headline” and “printing
pictures”. Later, he does show the aforementioned diagram, which at least
appears to be scientific, but two of his other references are front pages from
press magazines. In this respect, Inhofe focuses on climate change as it is
discussed in the media and on how it generates attention. The snowball itself
has two functions: on the one hand, as an unusual dramatic device that has
brought Inhofes speech or at least this part of it to the attention of a broad
media audience; on the other hand, it is staged as an object that is not an
artefact (or man-made), like the assertions of the press on climate change, but
proof taken from reality: “[T]his is today, this is reality”.
For Inhofe, the snowball is firstly one of many examples of weather extremes
and secondly of the fact that weather extremes are eagerly embraced by the
media. In the further course of his argumentation, he frames weather extremes
as typical phenomena of weather cycles and the reporting on weather
extremes as typical phenomena of news cycles in order to then reframe the
concept of climate change with a reference back to the reality represented by
the snowball:
Now, weather news cycles or climate cycles, variations of hot and
cold, are really nothing new. Recent climate change discussions likely
focus on climate transposed [back to] 1880. But the reality is that
climate change has been occurring since the beginning of time. [...]
[T]his chart right here is very interesting because it shows [...] two
things everyone agrees with. First of all is that we had the medieval
warmth period in the period of time starting about 1000 AD going to
about 1400 AD. This is a major warming period that led in to what
they call the Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1500 to about 1900 AD
(2015:1:35:44).
Inhofe uses the unsourced graph as evidence that a changing climate in
“reality” is a natural fact, thus not man-made, while the climate change
represented in the media is itself as changeable as the weather. He thus
embeds the snowball into the epistemic system of journalism and news value
and the high media presence of this snowball retroactively confirms his
argumentation.
So, how can we decide if Inhofe is to be trusted? As shown above, his focus
is less on climate change as a scientifically measurable fact. The focus on
climate change as part of the public discourse falls under his expertise, since,
as a long time professional politician, Inhofe knows how political discourses
work. Accordingly, he also refers to quotes from other politicians, such as
president Barack Obama, and describes their argument of an overstated
representation of terror and a simultaneously understated representation of
climate change in the media as a “technique” he is familiar with (Inhofe
2015:1:41:43). He repeatedly uses this “technique” in reverse when, for
example, he frames Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that America
is safer today than it was in the 20th century as an understatement by
contrasting it with an indirect quote from CIA director James Clapper: “I have
not experienced a time when we've been beset by more crises and threats
around the world” (Inhofe 2015:1:52:00).
Comparable to Lesch, Inhofes intention is thus also to implicitly explain the
rules of the discourse in which he operates. At the outset, he demonstrates his
familiarity with the workings of journalism by showcasing a snowball; and
with this act the absurdity that this snowball can become a central part of the
public discourse. And in the end, he portrays the demand of his political
opponents to focus on the small (or perhaps even non-existent) issue of
climate change as equally absurd, when in the larger political context there
are manifestly “more crises and threats around the world” than ever before. It
is only against this communicative background that it can become plausible
that Inhofe, while talking about climate change, needs to address topics such
as ISIS, the Taliban or the dismantled missile defence site in Poland
throughout the second half of his speech.
It is also relevant to the communicative framework that Inhofe was Chair of
the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works from 2003 to 2007
and then again from 2015 (to 2017). This gives him a similar credibility as
Lesch: Both are familiar with their field in practice. So whether one agrees or
disagrees with his reasoning, Inhofe shows that he knows how to play the
game.
Therefore, in the context of the Senate speech as part of the epistemic system
of politics and not of science, Inhofe does not have to make his sources
verifiable. Neither the quotes nor the graph are verifiable without major effort
by the recipients. Inhofe does cite sources, and does so when referring to the
scientific aspects of climate change, but he always returns from these
references to the political and discursive dimension. In the following quote,
he introduces the statement of a scientist as an answer to a question he is
repeatedly asked by the public, namely why the Democrats would spend so
much effort to prove something that does not exist:
There is a scientist by the name of Richard Lindzen with M.I.T. Some
have argued that he is the most knowledgeable of all the climate
scientists. And he answered that question. He said, you know,
regulating carbon is like regulating life. If you regulate carbon, its a
bureaucrats dream because regulating carbon regulates life. And so
it's a power struggle. And I think thats probably the best answer. Im
not a scientist, and I dont claim to be, but I quote scientists and they
have the answers to these questions (Inhofe 2015:1:40:06).
The statement that Inhofe is not a scientist is only trite at first glance. At the
level of the settings of comprehension, Inhofe makes it clear that he does not
have to be interested in how the scientific consensus arises and whether
Lindzen is only one of a very few, as Lesch tries to show. Just as Lesch holds
up his diagrams to the camera, Inhofe lists quotes from other politicians,
scientists and prominent media as evidence to state what is obviously based
on his settings of comprehension: Climate change is not a scientifically
verified fact, but a game piece in political discourse.
Just as with Lesch, however, this overwhelming sum of facts only counts as
evidence for a hypothesis to those who share comparable epistemic norms
and settings of comprehension.
Conclusion
“Facts are robust in their existence and opaque in their meaning” (Daston
1994:243). The facts referred to in the three examples are robust: a snowball,
four diagrams, the Holy Scripture and observations made through a telescope.
They all exist, they are all part of reality which is emphasised several times
in each case by the individuals under discussion. This emphasis is already
part of their effort to give a certain meaning to the facts and embed them in a
relation to something else, thereby constituting evidence for a belief or
hypothesis. The question of how exactly they each become such evidence is
far more complex to answer. We made the emergence of meaning
comprehensible by describing it as a communicatively embedded process that
adheres to the rules of an epistemic system and thus creates new evidence
from a fact for those who acknowledge this epistemic system in their settings
of comprehension.
With hindsight, we can judge Bellarmines statements to be absurd, although
he acted according to the norms of the then-prevailing epistemic system and
its rules that were obvious at the time. But the moment another explanation
Galileos became remotely plausible, there was an alternative to the Holy
Scripture. And as an alternative among others it is merely plausible and no
longer obvious. It is not surprising that in Konerding’s definition of
knowledge mentioned at the beginning “the personal acquisition and social
expansion of knowledge[,] is regarded as a safeguard for the prosperous
development of people, society and culture” (2017:57), for at least Western
society is based on Galileo’s legacy with such norms as “science should be
the guide to belief and [...] observation is a core part of science” (Goldman
2010:209).
Our case studies have shown, however, that in times of crisis this prosperous
development and with it the acquisition and expansion of knowledge comes
under increasing pressure or may even be completely at stake. This becomes
particularly visible when the gold standard in the market of knowledge loses
value, effectiveness and meaning due to polarising distrust. Since knowledge
is a collective good and we therefore depend on others in our acquisition and
expansion of knowledge, all these epistemic practices take place on a moral
field, already implied by the repeated talk of virtues, norms and trust. Our
own settings of comprehension can be consolidated by the norms of different
epistemic systems. In judging a statement as plausible, we are not bound by
the norms of particular systems, but form this judgement on the basis of the
settings of comprehension we have. This is important to take into account if
we want to understand the plausibility judgements of others. And it is
unproblematic until the norms of individual systems come into hard conflict,
which is the case in or even defines knowledge crises, when it is necessary
to take a side and thus pose the epistemic vote of confidence.
Thus, especially in the unstable times of crises, knowledge is not a mere
matter of fact, i.e. of the portrayal of “reality” this would merely be a
reference to the robustness of the existence of facts. This may suffice, if at
all, in times of stable knowledge relations, in which it seems sufficient to refer
to thing-knowledge neglecting the “ineradicable role of people-knowledge”
in the process since, according to Shapin, “the stabilization of the [former]
pervasively involves rendering the [latter] invisible” (1994:xxvi).
Both thing-knowledge and people-knowledge are necessary conditions for
knowledge communication, but they are only sufficient when their mutual
relationship is taken into account. This becomes clear when one asks about
the plausibility of a statement instead of the truth of a fact. Such a shift in
perspective can also make it possible to answer the question of why other
people consider something plausible or even obvious that one oneself deems
absurd or in conflict with certain epistemic systems or, to put it more
tangibly: If someone shares Inhofes settings of comprehension and thus
rejects facts corresponding to the norms of the epistemic system of science,
then listing further facts of this kind will not help change their opinion, since
facts of this kind are fundamentally not considered evidence. It is precisely at
this point that the method of fact-checking reaches its end. Or, as Wittgenstein
puts it: “If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my
spade is turned” (1953:§217). Therefore, we see the need to develop strategies
in science communication which focus on the settings of comprehension of
the group of people in question. An added value of this shift in perspective is
that this type of knowledge could be a first step out of a knowledge crisis
thus being crisis knowledge. And this shift can be implemented by taking the
semantic and communicative settings in the acquisition and expansion of
knowledge adequately into account by asking the question which statement
is considered plausible by whom and why. More specifically: To what end is
a fact referred to by a speaker? How do recipients decide if a speaker is to be
trusted? And why does a phenomenon count as a fact in a given context?
Answers to these questions can be obtained by applying a thorough analysis
of the communicated plausibility judgments with reference to individual
settings of comprehension and collective epistemic norms.
In short, as philosopher Timothy Williamson poignantly notes:
[People] who refuse to bother about semantics, on the grounds that
they want to study the non-linguistic world, not our talk about the
world, resemble scientists who refuse to bother about the theory of
their instruments, on the grounds that they want to study the world,
not our observation of it. Such an attitude may be good enough for
amateurs; applied to more advanced inquiries, it produces crude errors
(2007:284).
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