You have permission to edit this article.

The epistemology crisis: Why good conversations are hard to come by

  • Updated
  • Comments
Why good conversations are hard to come by

It is increasingly apparent that Americans are in the midst of a new social climate, one in which nearly every aspect of life is politicized from what brand of clothing one wears to what kind of medical decisions they make.

This polarization, this partisanship boiling over into popular culture, is causing people not only to question their fellow citizens but also their moral character. How for instance, could otherwise good people believe in obvious lies, support abhorrent causes, and follow terrible leaders? Some people have spent months and even years trying to convince their friends and family out of their fundamental beliefs, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. Others have given up on the act of persuasion altogether and have written off those they disagree with as evil or stupid. What we should be urging people to do when approaching hard conversations like this is to no longer focus on “what” our peers think, but “how” they think.

How do you determine whether something is true? How do you determine whether something is moral? These are the most important questions we should be asking ourselves as well as others because “how” we think determines “what” we think. If someone doesn’t value reason, empirical evidence and logical consistency in their arguments, no amount of evidence in your favor is going to sway their mind. Similarly, if someone lacks a moral compass to begin with, can you really expect them to be outraged when horrible things happen?

Before you have a discussion with someone about what they believe, you have to understand how they think. This means listening even if their particular philosophy is terrible to you. This difference in epistemology may be the roadblock in your conversation, and until you resolve that and get on the same page, no amount of bickering or shaming is going to change their mind.

So ask yourself: Where do your values come from? Why do you value the things you do? Do your notions of truth come from a scientific methodology? Or can they be swayed by faith or personal intuition? We have to agree on what constitutes good evidence before we debate the evidence. And we have to agree on what’s good before we can debate whether an action is moral. So much of our debates around culture, politics and religion fall apart because we have different definitions of these very important concepts. If we have different definitions of good and true, then of course we’re never going to agree about what is morally right or what is actually happening in the world.

The problem is that most people don’t think deeply about these things. They certainly have opinions on what is true and moral, but ask them what the foundations of these beliefs are, and they often find themselves stumped for words. We need to spend more time thinking about how we think. What is our methodology? What are our principles? Because until we can get on the same page about those things, there is going to be a major segment on the population that you can neither understand nor persuade.

You think Biden is better than Trump? Or Trump better than Biden? Explain how we determine “better.” You think Christianity is true? Or it’s false? Or there’s another religion out there we should be following? Explain how you determine if something is “true.” You think the media is fake? Or its 100 percent correct? Or that we should be believing a conspiracy from an underground website? What constitutes a good source?

These are the kinds of conversations we need to be having because they are worth the examination. I believe most people in this world are good or at least believe they are doing good. And if they are actually doing something wrong, our ability to show them that is very important. I also believe that while most people are not rational, they genuinely believe they are using reason when they think about the world. Challenging their notions about what rationality really is could be key in altering their worldview.

Too often we write each other off as dumb or evil because of our frustration that productive conversation can’t be had. “No matter how much evidence I show them,” you might say, “they just won’t listen.” They keep supporting the racist-sexist Donald Trump. Or the hair-sniffing socialist Joe Biden. They cling to their conspiracies and religious convictions or close their minds to anything outside of godless materialism.

The frustration from the inability to persuade each other makes many people outwardly hostile to others, especially on social media. But we have to resist that temptation. Obviously, one of these camps is right and one of them is wrong, depending on the issue. But because most people genuinely care about what is right, and genuinely care about what is true, they aren’t bad people. There is a way to reach them. And while we can never reach all of them, we should still have that dialogue, because every person who becomes more rational as a consequence makes this world a slightly better place.

Brent Nichols is a resident of Fairbanks, Alaska, who is concerned about the present state of American education and political discourse. He can be emailed at

Recommended for you


The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at Contact the editor with questions at or call 459-7574.

Community Perspective

Send Community Perspective submissions by mail (P.O. Box 70710, Fairbanks AK 99707) or via email ( Submissions must be 500 to 750 words. Columns are welcome on a wide range of issues and should be well-written and well-researched with attribution of sources. Include a full name, email address, daytime telephone number and headshot photograph suitable for publication (email jpg or tiff files at 150 dpi.) You may also schedule a photo to be taken at the News-Miner office. The News-Miner reserves the right to edit submissions or to reject those of poor quality or taste without consulting the writer.

Letters to the editor

Send letters to the editor by mail (P.O. Box 70710, Fairbanks AK 99707), by fax (907-452-7917) or via email ( Writers are limited to one letter every two weeks (14 days.) All letters must contain no more than 350 words and include a full name (no abbreviation), daytime and evening phone numbers and physical address. (If no phone, then provide a mailing address or email address.) The Daily News-Miner reserves the right to edit or reject letters without consulting the writer.

Submit your news & photos

Let us know what you're seeing and hearing around the community.