Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with James Beebe

What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

I am Professor of Philosophy, Director of the Experimental Epistemology Research Group, and member of the Center for Cognitive Science at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). My Ph.D. is in philosophy, but I have extensive training in psychology as well. Most of my research has been in a field known as ‘experimental philosophy,’ where I perform empirical studies of how laypeople and experts in fields outside of philosophy think about questions of perennial philosophical debate—e.g., questions about the nature of knowledge, evidence, and rationally justified belief.

 

What is the project you’re currently working on?

I am currently writing a book entitled The Limits of Skepticism that examines skeptical philosophical traditions in both the ancient and the modern worlds in an effort to understand what distinguishes healthy, constructive doubt from crude denialism. The book considers which kinds of skepticism and doubt should be taken seriously, how far skeptical doubts can be pushed before they collapse, and how illegitimate challenges to our knowledge can be rebutted. As part of my research on skepticism and doubt, I am studying how experts from a variety of fields (environmental science, astrophysics, chemistry, biology, economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, public policy) approach persistent disagreement within their disciplines and how much doubt (if any) they think members of the general public should have about their fields when specialists within it are known to disagree.

 

How did you arrive at this topic?

In the highly polarized political climate of the U.S., there is a great deal of disagreement among members of the general public, yet this disagreement does not seem to lead people to question their convictions as often it probably should. However, when there is a small amount of disagreement among experts in some field (e.g., in climate science, education, economic policy, healthcare), this disagreement is often leveraged into strong reasons for doubt about certain claims by people who have various personal interests at stake concerning those claims. So, the question of which kinds of doubts we should have about which issues seemed like an important topic to be working on.

 

What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

Because the information age seems to have entered a post-truth stage, in which we are flooded with as much misinformation as information, private citizens must exercise greater discernment in distinguishing reliable from unreliable sources of knowledge and balancing their convictions and doubts. I hope that insights drawn from various philosophical traditions around the world and from the opinions of scientific and public policy experts can help us understand what an intellectually virtuous response to peer disagreement and conflicting expert testimony can look like.


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