Street Epistemology: The Basics
This article is a brief outline on the basics of Street Epistemology. For more detail, see the 40-page "Complete Street Epistemology Guide: How to Talk About Beliefs".
The term "Street Epistemology" refers to a conversational technique introduced in 2013 by Dr. Peter. Boghossian, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University. It is a more productive and positive alternative to debates and arguments. A growing number of people worldwide have found value in the technique and are adopting it in their conversations with others about extraordinary (mostly supernatural and/or religious) claims.
The goal of street epistemology is to guide people into engaging their critical thinking skills and applying them to their own beliefs about the world. Street Epistemology is about teaching the most fundamental features of critical thought. It's about helping people recognize the value of skepticism and the scientific method. It's about illuminating the distinction between beliefs about the universe and the objective truth of the universe.
Following is a step-by-step description of how a street epistemology encounter typically proceeds. In addition to "street epistemology" (the technique), the abbreviation "SE" will stand for "street epistemologist", or the person practicing SE (you). Your dialogue partner will be referred to as your "interlocutor" (a fancy word meaning "a person participating in a dialogue").
SE works best in one-on-one conversations where both participants can apply their full attention to what the other is trying to say. Although direct, real-world encounters are most efficient, people are also experimenting actively with other mediums such as video-chat and online text forums with some success.
Step 1: Build rapport with your interlocutor
Build rapport with your interlocutor before getting deep into dialogue. Try to find something that you have in common. Taking the time to do this cuts through much of our natural, instinctive, anxiety about immediately engaging with a stranger.
Step 2: Identify the claim
You may already know what your interlocutor's claim is. For example, you may have initiated the discussion because you overheard them say that they believe in UFOs. Or, if you are actively looking to practice SE on anyone and any subject, this step may involve idle chit-chat with the hope of chancing upon a worthwhile claim. Most people who practice SE are focused on religious claims, so a common claim is something like, "God is real and the Bible is true".
Step 3: Confirm the claim
Confirm that you have understood your interlocutor correctly by summarizing and repeating their claim back to them. Don't continue until you are both sure that you understand it clearly. If necessary, write down the claim so that you can both refer to it if the conversation goes off track.
For example, you might ask, "Do I understand correctly that you believe God is a real entity and that the things written in the Bible are truly the word of God?"
Step 4: Clarify definitions
If there are any words that are ambiguous (or potentially so) this would be a good time to nail them down with your interlocutor. For example, sort out what you will both mean when you use the word "God" or the word "true".
Clarifying definitions is something that you may have to do multiple times as the talk progresses should it become apparent that you're using words differently.
Step 5: Identify a confidence level
Ask your interlocutor how confident they are that their claim or belief is true. If possible, have them put a number on it. If they are not willing or able to quantify it, accept whatever they give you and note that as their "initial confidence level". For example, "How confident are you that this God is real on a scale of 0 to 100?"
Note: The confidence scale is just a way of judging for yourself how much effect your efforts are having. It is optional and not an integral part of SE. Don't persist, as doing so may annoy your interlocutor and be counterproductive.
Step 6: Identify the method used to arrive at confidence level
Ask your interlocutor how they have determined that their belief is true, or how they've arrived at their stated confidence level. They may provide multiple reasons. Try to focus on just one or two, ideally those that contribute the most to their confidence. Once you've settled on a primary reason or method, stay focused on that through the rest of the talk.
For example, you may settle on "a powerful personal experience" as their primary reason for believing that God is real.
Step 7: Ask questions that reveal the reliability of the method
Your main tools here are the Socratic method, the outsider test of faith (OTF), and questions that revolve around the falsifiability of their claims. Ask questions that, when answered, lead to a contradiction of your interlocutor's assumptions or hypotheses.
For example, you might ask, "If a Hindu woman had a similarly powerful personal experience that convinced her that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva were real, would that be good evidence that she was correct?"
Step 8: Listen, summarize, question, watch, repeat
Listen to your interlocutor closely. Look at them directly and try to understand what they are attempting to convey without getting hung up on their exact word choices.
Repeat what you think your interlocutor is trying to communicate and verify with them that you've understood them correctly. It's important that they feel like they've been heard. It proves that you are being attentive and taking their beliefs seriously.
For example, "It sounds like what you are saying is [........]; Do I have that right?"
Construct more socratic questions that directly apply to the epistemology they are using (see Socratic Method on Wikipedia)
Watch for those special moments where your interlocutor stops to "think". This is often betrayed by the act of looking up at the ceiling, clearly trying to sort through things in their head. It's important to detect these "aporias" and allow the silence to continue uninterrupted until the interlocutor speaks.
Aporias are signs that you are doing SE right! They may even mark the best time to end your talk as your interlocutor may be left with those thoughts and questions echoing in their mind as they continue their day.
Step 9: Wrap up the conversation
If your interlocutor previously offered their confidence level, ask them again as you wrap up. This can help you judge whether your dialogue had an immediate effect.
For example, "Given the things we've talked about, do you think your confidence level has changed? Do you still feel that 100% is accurate?"
Step 10: Part company
What success looks like:
- The IL feels that the exchange was enjoyable, positive, valuable, etc.
- You successfully induced at least one instance of aporia in the interlocutor.
- Both parties express a desire to talk again.
- A reduction in your interlocutor's self reported level of certainty.
What failure looks like:
- Arguing and raised voices
- Either party feeling frustration
- Either party feeling unheard or misunderstood.
- Either party regretting having had the conversation.
Rules of Thumb
Pay close attention to your own demeanor. If your words, body language, or tone of voice betray even a small amount of condescension, your interlocutor will recognize this and be justified in reacting negatively to it. If your goal is only to "win", and you don't genuinely respect your interlocutor (even if you don't respect their beliefs), then SE might not be right for you.
Don't get pulled into the weeds. Most people new to SE struggle to avoid being sidetracked when they hear clearly false, or unsupportable claims. They reflexively react to them by presenting opposing evidence or arguments. When you do this, you've gone off the rails. It's not a disaster as you can just drop the point and get back on track, but it's normal to struggle with this through many talks before you feel comfortable ignoring these things and staying focused on epistemology.
Don't allow frustration to overwhelm you. Everyone is different. For some people this may be a big challenge but SE requires that you maintain your composure or it's really not SE.
Want to learn more?
For even more on how to conduct a dialogue, see the "Complete Street Epistemology Guide: How to Talk About Beliefs".
See http://streetepistemology.com for information about SE, including links to blog articles, videos, tutorials, forums, apps, social media, helpful documents and diagrams.