Think of that old story about the blind men and the elephant. Each one of those blind men, when experiencing the elephant, is asking a different question based on his individual perspective. What is this broad thing? What is this ropy thing? It doesn't occur to the man feeling the ear that there might be another body part that is thicker. Thus, he seeks to answer the questions his experience brings forward … and then he answers them with the facts he gathers. Ditto the man feeling the broad side of the elephant. Each of the men apply that same intuitive epistemology, and none of them gather all the information they need. It begs the question why they didn't ask each other what they experienced so they could gather all the facts.
Now, imagine this happening times X number of Americans … or Y number of humans. We all have different cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, and thus values that arise out of them. The questions I come up with as a liberal white female in America are inevitable going to be different than, say, Xi Jinping's questions. Is it any wonder that we all end up with different sets of facts that we then use to (at times) to disagree with one another?
Why I picked it up:
Last year, when the Mueller Report was released, I came across a new term: intuitive epistemology. It described how two different people could read the Mueller Report and come to two different fact-based conclusions, largely because they were asking different questions of it.
Major light bulbs went off in my head. Because I was seeing the exact same tendency when it came to people's examination of the past. That is, those who want a more inclusive history were asking one set of questions about the past, while those who want a more traditional (and perhaps conservative) history were asking a totally different set of questions. And, of course, those two groups were then finding very different accounts of the past that, at times, conflicted.
And then I started to see this in other parts of my work and daily life. Climate change. Vaccines. Immigration. Race. Gender. All topics that museums cover, and thus all topics ripe for conflict in our exhibitions and programs.
I needed to know more, so I went to the source of intuitive epistemology, and dug in.
What you need to know:
There are two big concepts, and two big things to understand
Concept 1: Intuitive Epistemology. Epistemology is the process and study of establishing facts, but intuitive epistemology acknowledges how individual values and life experiences deeply affect the questions individuals ask of a subject, and thus the answers (facts) they find. That is, when I, as a human, approach a subject, my values around that subject affect my approach, what I choose to accept as valid information on that subject (and what I ignore and/or reject), and how I make sense of it. And this often leads to …
Concept 2: Dueling Fact Perceptions. As individuals approach a subject from their own value-laden lens, they find the facts that tend to support their already-formed values. Since two people thus approach the same subject in different ways, and find different facts, those facts can lead to conflicting conclusions, or dueling fact perceptions. (Think elephant ear and elephant body … if all you know is the ear, the facts you know about elephants will conflict my facts about the body.)
Which leads us to two big things to understand.
Understanding #1 - We all practice intuitive epistemology. It is human nature. Conservatives and liberals do it. Those who are deeply religious do it as well as atheists. Scientists do it (valuing the scientific method is, of course, a value). We. All. Do. It.
Understanding #2 - Since we all do it, finding middle ground is practically impossible. There is no neutral. And because it is entrenched, it is exceedingly difficult to practice radical curiosity and courageous empathy to understand how others might come to their (opposite/different) conclusions.
Implications for museums:
Museum-goers are coming to museums with different sets of values … and that affects how they engage with the content museums share. It also affects how open they might be to hearing information that conflicts with their world view (answer: not as open as we might like).
That's why understanding peoples values, attitudes, and beliefs is so crucial when it comes to discussing big issues that matter. Such as inclusion and DEAI. Climate change. COVID-19 (and especially wearing masks). Vaccines. By understanding how they are approaching the subject, we can work to reframe questions with visitors that may allow new information to be considered thoughtfully. Because making that incremental shift in thinking matters. (And the results from the 2020 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers will look at this carefully … as well as how museum professionals approach content from different value sets than many of our visitors.)
Read or skip?
It took me, a motivated reader, 6 months to get through this book. Granted, I was a little busy … but still. That being said, there is a lot more in the book of value. If you want my running (and unpolished) notes on the subject, email me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com and I'll send them along.
Full citation: Marietta, Morgan, and Barker, David C. One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.