Going into midterm Congressional elections that he knew wouldn’t turn out to his liking, President Obama complained that politics was tough because "facts and science and argument" do not "seem to be winning the day all the time." He was echoing President Clinton and others who have complained that voters know more about football than political issues and, with their minds made up, can’t be "bothered with the facts." In 2004 John Kerry voiced the same worry: "Facts, science, truth seem to be significantly absent from what we call our political dialogue."
In a New York Times "Week in Review" essay reminding us of these complaints the Sunday before the election, Peter Baker notes that many observers saw them as "elitist"—the seeming disdain of politicians for the intelligence of ordinary voters. But the real story is less about elitism or the new know-nothingism than about democracy and what I want to suggest is a novel and treacherous epistemological deficit.
We already know too many Americans know rather too little. A recent Pew survey confirmed that the religious are often "profoundly ignorant about religion"—above all, their own. At least in the survey, one’s level of education was a predictor of knowledge. Not so in other domains. College students remain woefully ignorant about history and geography; year in and year out, many of my students cannot place the Civil War in the right century or Iraq on the right continent. And our beleaguered president knows all too well that 20 percent of his fellow citizens—up from 11 percent two years ago—insist he is a Muslim, and more than 25 percent doubt he was born in the United States. Not to mention all those Americans who believe 9/11 conspiracy theories (Bush did it! The CIA did it!) or that extraterrestrials hijack people (as of last year, a New England support group for abductees claimed a growing membership of 1,500).
But it is not what Americans don’t know that is so pernicious to our democracy (they can always be educated); it is that they don’t know what knowing actually is. Standing in the background of Obama’s and Kerry’s complaints, as well as of our radical political polarization and the multiplication of candidates (some of whom won on November 2) making preposterous claims about witchcraft, stem cell research, headless bodies in the desert, climate change, creationism and Islam-as-inherently-evil, is this debilitating civic deficit.
We hear about the democratic deficit all the time, but it is the epistemological deficit that is putting democracy at risk. Epistemology signifies the "science of knowing" and expresses a civilizational conviction that truth, objectivity, science, fact and reason are fundamentally different from opinion, subjectivity, prejudice, feeling and irrationality. The science of knowing insists on the fundamental distinction made by the Greeks between episteme (true knowledge) and doxa (opinion or prejudice, a root of our word "orthodoxy"). The Greeks understood that there is a potent difference between knowledge claims rooted in reason, or in facts that reflect some version of a real or objective world, and the subjective opinions by which we advertise our personal prejudices. We may not always be able to agree on what counts as real knowledge rather than mere prejudice, but we can and must agree on the criteria by which the distinction is made. Indeed, our science, our society and our democratic culture depend on the distinction.