Epistemic Exhaustion: Uncertainty, Polarization, and Misinformation are Tiring Us Out

Photo by Andrew Neel

Someone shares an article with an unnerving headline on Facebook, but you don’t have the energy to investigate.

A colleague spreads coronavirus misinformation during a meeting, but you decide it’s not worth it to try to correct them.

A relative calls wanting to talk about a complex political issue, but you simply don’t have the desire or capacity to process any more political information.

A lot of us have had experiences like these recently. There’s a name for this phenomenon: epistemic exhaustion.

Epistemic exhaustion is cognitive fatigue caused by trying to figure out or communicate what you believe under challenging circumstances.

The English word “epistemic” comes from the Greek word episteme, which is commonly translated as “knowledge.” So you can think of epistemic exhaustion as something like knowledge-related exhaustion. But it is not knowledge itself that tires us out. Rather, epistemic exhaustion happens when the process of trying to gain or share knowledge tires us out.

I think it is important to examine factors that leave us feeling too tired to pursue knowledge. Let’s look at three of those factors: uncertainty, polarization, and viral misinformation.

Philosophers from Rene Descartes to Ludwig Wittgenstein have recognized the significance of having certainty in our lives.

We like certainty and often seek it out. (This may help explain why you kept refreshing websites like FiveThirtyEight leading up to the election.) Experiencing a lot of uncertainty can stress us out.

For many, this year has been full of uncertainty. In particular, the coronavirus pandemic has generated a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty about our health. Uncertainty about best practices. Uncertainty about our futures. More recently, we have faced uncertainty about the U.S. Presidential Election; first via delayed results, and then over questions about a peaceful transition of power.

With information so readily available, it’s easy to fall into a cycle. We check news sites or social media in hopes of finding answers, but more often than not we are merely greeted with more reminders of uncertainty.

As Lilliana Mason notes in her book, Uncivil Disagreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, “Americans have been dividing with increasing distinction into two partisan teams.” This is political polarization.

Much has been written about the negative effects of political polarization. But such discussions often overlook the toll polarization takes on our ability to gain and share knowledge.

Polarization can make gaining and sharing knowledge more difficult in at least two ways. This can happen in at least two ways.

First, as philosopher Kevin Vallier has argued, there is a “causal feedback loop” between polarization and distrust. In other words, polarization and distrust fuel one another. Such a cycle can leave people feeling unsure whom to trust or what to believe.

Second, polarization can lead to competing narratives because in a deeply polarized society, as studies show, we can lose common ground and tend to have less agreement.

For those inclined to take the views of others seriously, this can create additional cognitive work. And when the issues are heated or sensitive, this can create additional stress and emotional burdens, such as sadness over damaged friendships or anger over partisan rhetoric.

Viral misinformation is everywhere. We are confronted with political propaganda in the United States and around the world. We are also inundated with advertising and misleading messaging from private corporations, what philosophers Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall have recently called industrial propaganda. And in 2020, we’ve also had to deal with misinformation about COVID-19.

As chess master Garry Kasparov put it:

“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

Misinformation is often exhausting by design. For example, the pseudo-documentary Plandemic employed the Gish gallop, making it hard for fact checkers to refute the many falsehoods following one after another. Disingenuous conversationalists can further increase this burden through tactics like sealioning, in which no amount of evidence you provide is ever treated as enough.

With all this uncertainty, polarization, and misinformation it is no wonder we’re tired. But there are things we can do.

We can work to cope with uncertainty by limiting our news consumption and focusing on the things that we can control. We can also work to become more comfortable with uncertainty.

We can fight polarization by communicating with the goal of creating empathetic understanding rather than “winning.”

We can limit the spread of misinformation by only sharing news stories that we’ve taken the time to read and to verify. And we can favor outlets that meeting high ethical journalistic or fact-checking standards.

These suggestions will not fix everything. More work is required. But they can function as a start if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed and epistemically exhausted.

Part of resisting epistemic exhaustion is being okay with the limited and imperfect. No one has time to vet all the headlines, correct all the misinformation, or gain all the relevant knowledge. To deny this is to set oneself up for exhaustion.

Attorney and philosophy professor writing about philosophy, law, religion, politics, queerness, and books, among other things. He/him

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