Street Epistemology FAQ (Frequently asked questions)
I’m seeing a lot of acronyms that are unfamiliar. “IL,” “SE,”, and “OTF” - what’s that all about?
Like most communities, we tend to abbreviate commonly-used words or phrases to save time. “IL” stand for “interlocutor” (your conversation partner). “SE” is short for “Street Epistemology.” “OTF” is short for John W. Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith.”
Here is a list of commonly-used acronyms:
What is the purpose of SE?
The general goal of Street Epistemology is to help people to reflect on the reasons and methods that they use to conclude that their deeply-held beliefs are true.
Encouraging someone to reflect on a belief via SE can introduce doubt and is sometimes called "planting a seed" or "placing a pebble in the shoe" - a positive SE outcome that can lead to the individual either finding better and more solid reasons for believing what they believe or discarding a belief after realizing that it has poor foundations. Verbal or nonverbal indications of reflective thinking and hearing the phrase "I don't know" are good signs. Side benefits of having the conversation can include the opportunity to model openness and to teach the SE technique.
However, it is important to recognize that not all practitioners and conversations are the same, that different practitioners may have different understandings of what the ultimate aim of street epistemology should be, and that a practitioner's goals may shift as a conversation progresses.
For additional information, click here:
Do SE conversations require flagging down strangers for interviews on camera?
No, not at all. People can get this impression because the “strangers on camera” interviews are published and shared (and unrecorded conversations are not), but it’s misleading. SE is a tool which can be used in any conversation in just about any context.
Is Street Epistemology atheist evangelizing and/or proselytizing?
At first glance, it can certainly seem like that is the case. The words “street” can give the impression that this is akin to “street preaching,” and many of most visible examples of SE are filmed on the street with people in public and often examine God claims.
However, when someone is proselytizing, they are usually confident that they have the answers and want to tell you what you should believe. In contrast, a street epistemologist will ask questions about what you believe in an effort to understand and examine the epistemology of your belief.
A sincere SE-er aims to encourage their conversation partner to explore what they believe, why they believe it, and how they determined that their belief is true. Further, the SE-er should always try to remind themselves to be open to their interlocutor’s claim and should be willing to increase their confidence in that claim if it appears that the belief is indeed based on a reliable method.
My friend believes something that is likely untrue. How can I get them to change their mind?
It’s great that you want to help your friend hold beliefs that align with reality. And yet it is important to try and view SE as a tool to explore a person’s foundation for their belief--if they are willing and provide consent! If they are not ready to have this conversation, don’t try to force it.
Be prepared for the possibility that your friend based their belief on good reasons and a solid method. And if they didn’t, try to make the discovery an exciting project that you can both embark on together.
Ultimately, however, your conversation partner will be the one who may decide to lower (or raise) their confidence in their belief, or perhaps even discard it outright. Your questions may be instrumental in facilitating honest reflection, but remind yourself that people tend to change their minds when they are ready to do so; oftentimes, at some cost.
These conversations and what they lead to may be painful, and they may trigger hostility in defense of the belief. If you practice SE with the people who are close to you, bear in mind that it may affect your relationship with them.
I disagree with what my interlocutor has claimed. Should I tell them?
This is an excellent and frequently-asked question in SE circles.
It is up to the practitioner to decide how much to reveal about your position on the claim being discussed and when. Some may wish to wait until after the belief has been investigated to avoid causing a person to become defensive or uneasy. Others feel it is important to disclose one’s position beforehand out a matter of respect and/or to model honesty, even if doing so could make a discussion a bit tougher to navigate.
Some SE-ers may offer to disclose their position after the claimant’s views have been explored so as not to sway them one way or the other. If you offer to do this, make sure you follow through and reveal your views--it might even make for a good opportunity for them to question you using the same approach!
Regardless of your decision, it is best to set aside your biases and views on the claim as much as possible since it is your interlocutor’s position that we want to examine.
Do I have to study formal, academic epistemology to do SE?
Formal study is unnecessary since SE is not the application or study of epistemology, but rather a conversational technique developed to assist laypersons in having productive conversations about epistemology.
That being said, it's very helpful to understand what epistemology is as well as the philosophical definitions of and distinctions between knowledge, belief, and confidence. In addition, formal study of epistemology in an academic setting may enable you to go beyond the basics of SE to dialogue with those who are themselves studied in epistemology or to develop your own techniques for effective dialogue on the topic. So it can be beneficial to practicing SE, but it is not a prerequirement.
Are there reasons to prefer SE methods over other methods of engagement? For example:
- Directly presenting evidence which counters their belief
- Ridiculing their beliefs
- Showing them the counter-apologetics and refutations of their claims
SE was originally created to avoid common psychological biases which impede cordial discussions and self-examination when people feel that their deeply-held beliefs are being attacked. Whether SE is the “best” way to approach a given conversation will largely depend on your implicit and explicit goals, as well as the context of the conversation. It is recommended to ask yourself introspective questions such as:
- What outcomes have I obtained from each approach in past conversations, and are those the outcomes I desire here?
- Has my IL already made up their mind on this topic, and are they receptive to evidence which disconfirms their stance?
- Is it important that they enjoy the conversation, and leave the door open to future discussions on this topic?
- Am I currently in a professional setting, at a family gathering, on a radio call-in show, or have other special circumstances? Does the setting affect the approach I should use?
Are there times where it could be harmful to practice SE?
Depending on your goals, the answer is almost certainly yes. It is broadly accepted that there are contexts in which SE has potential to do more harm than good.
I’d like to learn how to use SE. Where do I start?
One of the best places to begin is “The Complete SE Guide” - a document maintained and updated (as we learn more) by the SE community. We also recommend that you watch some recorded SE conversations to see how different people put the method into practice. Finally, check out the Facebook groups for studying, learning, practicing, and critiquing SE!
If you feel that the SE FAQ is missing a key question, if you are interested in helping us maintain the FAQ or if you have other feedback, you can share your thoughts with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.