Can't Face The News? It Could Be Epistemic Exhaustion

Uncertainty, polarization, and misinformation can put us off seeking the facts. Sonko Drimko

From a fear of long words (hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia) to the uneasy sensation you feel when something doesn’t look quite right (uncanny valley), scientists just love to slap a name on psychological phenomena. Now, a recent article from Mark Satta, assistant professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University, has put a name to that feeling when you just can’t with the news anymore: epistemic exhaustion.

Epistemic is derived from the Greek word "episteme", which is mostly translated to “knowledge” in English. Satta’s theory of “knowledge” exhaustion isn’t about being tired with carrying it around but being exhausted by trying to gain or share information under difficult circumstances.

Since the pandemic first kicked off it’s likely your social feeds have been full to the brim with personal opinion, facts, and personal opinions displayed as facts. Whether it’s face to face or over the phone, getting tied into a conversation about politics or the state of the world can be deeply distressing when you’re really not feeling it, but if knowledge is power why do we find ourselves so resistant to absorbing it? Satta suggests it’s down to three main factors.

2020 has been a rich and diverse tapestry of challenging news, from a pandemic to protests and elections, all of which forced people to question the future of their employment, safety, and health. Satta suggests that when our outlook is clear, even bad news can be less distressing than trying to process uncertainties that could go either way. The yearning for certainty has been recognized time and time again by historical figures from French philosopher René Descartes to 20th-century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It can be hugely demoralizing to turn to the news for answers only to find yourself faced with more questions.

This describes how a community or country can be divided, and political polarization has been a strong theme this year. Philosopher Kevin Vallier argued that such polarization triggers a "causal feedback loop" between polarization and distrust. What he meant by that was that one fuels the other, so the more polarized a community becomes the less sure people within that community are about who to trust when it comes to giving and sharing information. This mistrust can also be fueled by the competing narratives that emerge as two sides drift further from a shared ethos, affecting friendships and family relationships as people discover rifts in opinion between themselves and their loved ones.

“Fake news” was dubbed the Word of the Year in 2017, and misinformation is rife across social media platforms used by millions of us every day. Add to this misleading advertising from those with a vested interest and consumers can lose faith in the platforms they once turned to for information.

So, when you just can't face the news anymore, what is one to do?

“Part of resisting epistemic exhaustion is learning to live with the limited and imperfect,” wrote Satta. “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."


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