EGMT 1520/1540: Knowledge You Can Trust

According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans are losing trust in their institutions. On average, only 32% of Americans expressed a “great deal” or “quite alot” of confidence in key institutions. In the months following last year’s presidential election, this erosion of trust became a subject of national debate as stories about “fake news” dominated the headlines––could any newsource be trusted to provide truthful and trustworthy information? Could we, a public in search of the facts and truth, find real knowledge anywhere?

In this course, we will consider what it means to trust not only a person––a parent, a friend, a teacher––but also an institution, a community, or a profession. We will focus, in particular, on the ways in which a range of modern institutions––such as the state, media and journalism, scientific communities, religious institutions, and universities––create and share trustworthy knowledge. We will also consider the ethical and political consequences when the institutions that we have long relied on to provide us trustworthy knowledge face unprecedented challenges.

Over the course of fourteen weeks, we will consider these big but basic questions through an empirical and ethical investigation of the organization of knowledge: its sources of authority, legitimacy and credibility. We will consider the ways in which empirical forms of knowledge, especially knowledge based on statistical methods and practices, are central to the modern state, media and science. How do states gain knowledge about themselves? How does modern science rely on empirical methods to make its claims?  We will also consider what it means to be an ethical agent in light of the apparent breakdown in trust. What does it mean to be a member of a community, both locally and more globally, and how do you decide whom and what to trust? How do modern institutions relate to particular ethical traditions and how do individuals understand their own lives and unique traditions through these institutions? Our goal is to understand better the empirical basis of modern knowledge and its institutions as well as to reflect upon the kinds of ethical people these institutions help form.