Intro to Street Epistemology

When talking with people we disagree with, we often try to debate by giving them facts that contradict their position. Unfortunately, this is rarely effective, particularly when discussing deep-held beliefs. These beliefs connect to their identity, worldview, or self-worth. Giving people contradicting evidence leads to defensive hostility instead of agreement.

Street Epistemology is a technique for reframing debates as a collaborative search for truth. Instead of arguing about the ideas, Street Epistemologists ask about methods. This is similar to the Socratic method, but instead of teaching, the goal is to encourage critical thinking and deepen understanding. Usually, it won't produce a seismic shift in their worldview. That's okay. It's better to think of Street Epistemology as "placing a pebble in their shoe" and giving them ideas to think about and question over time.

The core technique of Street Epistemology focuses on why the other person became convinced of their beliefs. It seems simple, but our natural instinct is to focus on why we're right and they're wrong. Controlling one's ego and keeping the conversation on the other person — as opposed to your beliefs — is much harder than it sounds. Intellectually, we know that lecturing them won't change their mind, but in the heat of the moment, it's easy to slip into bad habits.

Your questions should delve into the foundational methods that your interlocutor used to reach their beliefs. Consider the graphic below:

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We are mildly interested in the top layer (the "what", or the actual claim under discussion). You want to ask some questions about this to be sure you understand their definitions, but it shouldn't be the main focus of the conversation. As soon as you've established the "what", start asking questions about the "why". Don't get too hung up on this stage, though.

Our primary focus should be the "how" — how did they conclude that their reasons are good? The "how" is the most important and varied conversation phase, as people have many different approaches to finding the truth.

Street Epistemology has no defined script and works best as a genuine, free-form exploration of a topic. However, there are seven common patterns that practitioners have found useful.

Pre-Conversation Considerations

The difference between a heated argument and a productive conversation can hinge on little more than how the questions are asked. Ideally, you want to be calm, open-minded, friendly, considerate, and appreciative. Consider what your goals are and how you define success. Are you going into the debate to change their mind? Or are you honestly interested in understanding them better? Our instincts lead us to the former mindset, but such an adversarial view can be incredibly toxic. Even if you see them as an enemy, a small part of you probably wants connection and insight. Try to tap into that part of yourself, at least for the duration of the conversation.

If you've had a debate and gotten them to change their mind, they might be in a psychologically vulnerable state. It can be tempting to suggest an alternate belief to replace the one they discarded, particularly if your goal was to make them agree with you. Street Epistemology explicitly discourages this. Focus on helping others think for themselves, not on spreading your ideas as efficiently as possible.

Genuine rapport is essential for keeping the conversation flowing. Before questioning someone, introduce yourself and check their level of interest. Street Epistemology works best if the other person is engaged. It's not a tool for grilling or interrogating someone who doesn't want to talk to you.

Consider the ethical implications as well. Many people's deep beliefs are bound up with their sense of self-worth. Asking tough questions can cause severe psychological damage — think of it as hacking away at a load-bearing pillar that's the only thing keeping a building from collapsing. Ask yourself whether the other person seems to be in an emotionally stable place. These kinds of conversations can be incredibly beneficial but they aren't appropriate for all circumstances. Ensure the other person is fully informed about what's going on before engaging in Street Epistemology. This can be as simple as saying "I'd like to ask you some questions to gently and politely explore your deeply held beliefs, are you okay with that?"

Identify and Verify Claims

First, understand the "what" of another person's claim. If you don't understand what they said, ask questions until you do, even if it's about something as basic as "what do you mean by X?". Don't get hung up on "correct" definitions. As long as you understand what they're trying to say, it's good enough.

To check that you understood their view, mirror it back to them. Do your best to steelman their beliefs (rephrase them in the most coherent and robust way, rather than emphasizing flaws). Steelman mirroring also has the benefit that it lets the other person hear their ideas laid out. Sometimes, that's all it takes to make them reconsider. And if you made a mistake because you didn't understand something, they will tell you. Nobody likes hearing a bastardized version of their views.

Example questions.

  1. Can you please elaborate on that, so I can understand better?
  2. What do you mean by <word>?
  3. Can you give me your best example of how that works?
  4. What are you expecting to see as a result of <action>?
  5. So you believe that <action> would result in <testable result>?

Identify and Verify Confidence

To get a sense of how sure someone is about their claim, you can often ask them outright. Some people treat belief as boolean, so you can frequently get "100% sure" answers, but don't get hung up on this. Temporarily inhabiting their worldview will help you understand it better, and understanding something is the first step towards controlling it. Moreover, merely asking for confidence levels can push people to examine their own beliefs.

Example question. On a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being completely sure and 0 being completely unsure, how confident are you that <claim> is true?

Identify and Clarify Cruxes

To understand the "why" of someone's claim, figure out their reasons for believing it. People often come up with reasons on the fly because they've never tried to explain their beliefs to someone else. Don't try to catch them in a contradiction or hold them to the exact phrasing — instead, ask for clarification and understand the underlying reasons. If someone wants to rephrase something they said or abandon it, let them. Change is good.

A crux is a decisive reason. It's the thing that, if proven false, would get them to change their mind. Most beliefs have cruxes, but it's common for them to be obscured since they're often not socially acceptable. For example, someone might believe in religion because everyone around them believes it, but it's unlikely they'd admit that to themselves, let alone to someone else. Even if there's no crux or you can't find it, try not to get bogged down in minor details.

Example questions.

  1. Why do you think so?
  2. What makes you confident?
  3. What's the main reason for your confidence?
  4. If you didn't have <reason>, how would that change your confidence?

Identify and Verify Epistemology

This is the primary focus of Street Epistemology. After getting a sense of the content and reasoning of a person's belief, ask about the techniques used to generate those reasons and the methods employed to evaluate them. This is the most varied part of the conversation, so you'll need to be creative in how you examine their beliefs. Here are some guidelines:

Give Them Space

This kind of questioning often leads people into deep self-reflection. It's tempting to ask what they're thinking about, but usually it's better to give them time to process.

Don't Rush Them

If you do ask them more questions, don't rush them to provide immediate answers. Remember, you're planting a seed here. You probably came to your beliefs over a long period of time — it's unrealistic to expect them to have a sudden revelation that sweeps everything away. Try to provide interesting questions that they can chew on over time, and don't imply that they've somehow failed if they can't answer them.

Don't Interrogate

The conversation is a two-way street, not an interrogation. Stay open to the other person asking questions. If they try to dodge your questions with their own, make it clear that you'll reciprocate if they answer your questions — and then follow through on that.

Example questions.

  1. Should this <evidence> give us that level of confidence?
  2. Would that same reasoning work with other claims as well?
  3. Can a person feel something and be mistaken about it?
  4. Can a person have faith in something that is not true?
  5. If this <thing> happened after this other <thing>, does that mean the first caused the second?
  6. What alternative explanations can you think of?
  7. If there were other possible explanations, would you like to know them?
  8. How could we go on thinking about which one of the alternate explanations is the most probable?
  9. How could we test whether this is really true?
  10. What could I possibly show that you were mistaken if that was the case?
  11. What new evidence could significantly shift your confidence about this?
  12. If another person uses the same <method> and comes to a different conclusion than you do, how could an outside observer decide which one of your claims is more likely to be true?
  13. If some methods can lead us to different and contradictory conclusions, what does that tell us about the reliability of those methods?

End the Conversation

End the conversation on good terms because you want to leave the door open for future discussions. People can't fully reflect on their deep beliefs in the space of a single interaction. Street Epistemology works best in short bursts from 5-20 minutes, depending on the other person's mood. People often have a limited capacity for this kind of deep questioning and the conversation can devolve into a debate if you push too hard. Don't pester people to keep talking about a topic. If they're not ready, wait until they come back to discuss it voluntarily — that's a sign that you can delve deeper and make productive progress. You should be trying to help others think critically for themselves rather than simply trying to spread your own ideas.

Wrap-Up

Despite the name "Street Epistemology", most Street Epistemology does not happen out on the street. While many online examples of Street Epistemology are people going out and talking to total strangers with a camera, this is not the norm for Street Epistemology, these are just the most visible samples. Instead, when thinking about how to integrate these ideas into your life, look for opportunities to naturally practice some of these techniques in your regular conversations.

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