The Epistemology of #believing

Civil Rights
Enya Leger
February 8, 2018
“What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined.” ~ Carl Sagan

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines epistemology as “the study of knowledge and justified belief.” This area of inquiry clearly concerns all proceedings of the legal system in general, as the purpose of trial, ideally, is to discern the truth (i.e. knowledge). Something is deemed true if it is supported by evidence (i.e. justification).

When applied to sexual assault trials specifically, the most interesting epistemological question arises from the problem of testimony. Sometimes we are asked to accept as truth the word of another person. Quite often in cases of alleged sexual assault there is little to no physical or photographic evidence of any criminal sexual activity, meaning the only thing that can be evaluated is the testimony of the accuser and that of the accused.

The problem then is: when are you epistemologically justified in accepting the testimony of someone regarding a private event of alleged sexual assault?

In part what makes evaluating such claims so challenging is that there is nothing inherently wrong with relying on testimony. We do this all the time – even outside of the courtroom. Think of scientific discoveries and statistics publications. It would be exhausting if we had to personally recreate every study or survey in order to call the conclusions of such studies and surveys knowledge. It would be a serious impediment to the furthering of collective knowledge.

In everyday life, testimony usually comes to us either from a figure of authority (an expert or professional of some sort) or from someone we know personally and trust, like a friend. For simplicity’s sake, let us say that there is typically less epistemological risk involved in accepting these types of testimony. Once in a while a lie will slip through the cracks, but when the stakes are relatively low we can let our epistemological guard down a little.

In the context of the courts and criminal law, however, we typically apply much stricter criteria in evaluating testimony. We look for consistency and credibility. This is because the stakes are much higher and erroneous judgement will result in the miscarriage of justice, perhaps at the expense of someone’s liberty. However, when it comes to accusations of sexual assault, the public is being coached by a variety of “authorities” that believing accusers is of the utmost importance, before a formal trial takes place or in the absence of one.

Accusers are labelled “survivors” before it is even ascertained that they did indeed survive an assault. To give a few recent examples, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated that he thinks “it’s essential to start from a place of belief and support for anyone coming forward with stories or allegations of harassment or assault.” New leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, has expressed a similar sentiment: the presumption of innocence is “strictly about the procedures in court,” and rather than having “a very legal system that’s driven by the courts” he thinks we need to have “a survivor-focused approach.”

We do not want the public to follow the advice of these two political leaders.

The rigorous process of properly evaluating accusations of sexual assault is being intentionally discarded, for the simple reason that it is much more pleasant to have your ideologically-driven worldview confirmed than it is to have it disconfirmed.

This intellectual laziness is rampant in the social sciences, and is precisely why so many are adamant in maintaining a distinction between “soft” sciences and “hard” science. The latter is so-called because of its emphasis on objectivity and methodology.

Philosopher of science Karl Popper eloquently summarizes the main problem with social justice, the dominant philosophy of the soft sciences: “If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmation, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”

The implicit assumption behind the statements of Trudeau and Singh is that women are victims and men are perpetrators of sexual violence. If you are attached to the belief that we live in a rape culture and that women face systemic gender-based violence, then you will be psychologically more inclined to view accusations of sexual assault in a way that confirms the theory you subscribe to (i.e. automatically #believesurvivors).

In taking a “survivor”-centric approach, there is a clear epistemic bias against the accused. It would be contradictory to advocate an approach in which you start from a place of belief for both the accused and the accuser. Most would agree that it is absurd to start off with belief for one accused of a crime before an investigation has been done. Taking a stance of automatic belief for the accuser is just as absurd, and incredibly dangerous if we are to preserve our justice system as an institution worthy of our trust.

Even for those less social justice-driven in the Canadian public, I can understand why the instinct to #believe accusers may seem half reasonable. It is immediately obvious what motivation someone accused of sexual assault might have to lie.

In the face of an allegation against them, they will likely act in a way to avoid conviction and/or the destruction of their reputation, regardless of their guilt or innocence. Their end goal will likely be the same either way.

In contrast, it may be less obvious what reason an accuser may have for giving false testimony. Driving forces behind a false accusation could be a number of things, such as hurt feelings, regret, or resentment towards the accused. In the midst of a media frenzy about sexual assault, a driving force could even be the desire for attention. However, these potential mental states of the accuser can be difficult to establish in court, the actual legal court and/or the court of public opinion.

This is why the presumption of innocence is so crucial.

According to the public narrative about sexual assault, virtually any behaviour of an accused person can be interpreted as a sign of both guilt and innocence. Silence can be a strategic move until evidence and testimony has been organized, or it may be an admission of guilt. Vehement denial of the accusation will be regarded by some as sincere and by others as suspicious.

Immediately after an accusation is made public the public may be swayed by a number of biases, some personal and some encouraged by the media. Is the accused physically ugly or “creepy” in some way? Is the accused male? What is the race of the accused? Recently, an important question is whether or not the accused in a position of power. In the wake of several sexual misconduct scandals involving politicians and celebrities, an idea has been instilled in the public that sexual violence is rampant in the realms of politics and the entertainment industry. This idea is having dangerous consequences because every accused person who matches the profile of others previously accused in their field is instantly deemed more likely to be guilty in the public eye.

We cannot allow social justice ideology to influence the method by which we get at the truth of sexual assault accusations.

In the absence of intellectual rigour when evaluating allegations, our beliefs amount to nothing more than hasty judgment. This isn’t to say that people are not allowed to believe and voice their beliefs about the guilt of an accused or the credibility of an accuser without sufficient evidence. But to do so demonstrates a pathetic lack of critical thinking. People who voice opinions unsupported by facts may certainly do so, as long as they are content with being pathetic. #Believing blindly is intellectually lazy and morally reprehensible.

How are we to be epistemologically responsible in the face of an increasing number of publicized allegations of sexual assault? The answer is that we ought to assert as true only what we have sufficient reason to, abstaining from judgement until the requisites for justified belief have been satisfied. If we do otherwise, our judgment is nothing more than uninformed and reckless opinion.

Those who care about the truth and the attainment of real justice must also care about reason and have the courage to demand it in the face of fashionable nonsense.