In 1879, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto made an extraordinary discovery: 80% of the land was owned by only 20% of Italians. What’s known today as the Pareto Principle is not limited to the property market. It’s become a general rule that only 20% of the causes account for 80% of the outcomes. Spectrum Street Epistemology is an attempt to apply this rule to our opinions and beliefs. Developed by philosopher Peter Boghossian, it’s based on the assumption that small interventions can have walloping effects on getting people closer to the truth.
Let’s take a deep dive into the concept of Street Epistemology, how we reason and what it takes to change our minds. In the end, we’ll look at the eight-step method of Spectrum Street Epistemology. We won’t be perfectly enlightened. But chances are we’ll at least be less wrong about what we believe and why we believe it.
What Is Street Epistemology?
Street Epistemology is a conversational method that aims to explore and challenge people’s deeply held convictions and beliefs in a non-confrontational manner. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge and the justification of beliefs. The “street” in Street Epistemology refers to engaging in these conversations in day-to-day settings rather than your local philosophical ivory tower.
The method emphasises listening over argumentation. It promotes asking thought-provoking questions and encouraging critical thinking by way of exploring the quality of someone’s reasoning and the justifications behind their beliefs. But the primary goal is not to persuade, school or convert. It’s to foster a reflective and open-minded dialogue free from judgment. This is reflected in the origins of the technique.
The Origins of Street Epistemology
Street Epistemology was devised by philosopher Peter Boghossian in his 2013 book A Manual for Creating Atheists. In a 2023 talk, Peter explained how he aimed to give ordinary people “a toolset to think through issues so they can be less wrong more often”. In other words, Peter designed Street Epistemology as a small intervention that nonetheless has large effects on people’s ability to grapple with their beliefs.
Truth be told, Boghossian came up with the method in the context of having civil conversations about religion. However, there’s no shortage of deeply held beliefs it couldn’t be applied to. Today, there’s a sizable community of street epistemologists. The method has amassed a large following and has been popularised by practitioners such as Anthony Magnabosco and Cordial Curiosity. Which brings us to Spectrum Street Epistemology.
What Is Spectrum Street Epistemology?
Spectrum Street Epistemology, also known as Reverse Q&A, is a variation of Street Epistemology. Being a debate game it focuses on enabling civil conversation about controversial topics between people holding differing views. In this format, two people or more engage with each other under the guidance of a moderator. According to Boghossian, the goal is very similar: Find out “why people believe what they believe and what it would take to change their minds.”
To achieve this goal, Spectrum Street Epistemology offers a clear structure. But before diving into this method, it’s worth looking at how we form the beliefs Street Epistemology tries to challenge as well as the philosophical ideas behind the technique. Both Street Epistemology and Spectrum Street Epistemology draw from various disciplines such as philosophy and psychology. But at their core is the Socratic method. So let’s start there.
The Socratic Method
The Socratic method encourages critical thinking through cooperative dialogue. What drives that dialogue is the art of asking good questions about our beliefs and how we’ve arrived at them (and avoiding bad ones). The method was of course named after the Greek philosopher Socrates, often referred to as the founder of Western civilisation. It was formalised by Socrates’ student Plato in the Socratic Dialogues.
The starting point of the Socratic method is usually a question, such as “What is greatness?” This is followed by a hypothesis, such as “Greatness is silent virtue”. Through question and answer, the hypothesis is then investigated and tested for its validity. The (hopefully) thoughtful dialogue that ensues is called the elenchus. Socrates was known for asking his students six types of questions to guide them towards the truth:
- Clarifications and deep thinking: What do you mean? Can you elaborate? What would be an example?
- Challenging assumptions: Why do you think that? Is there anything else we can assume? Are people always like that?
- Questioning evidence and reasoning: How do you know? Can you think of a counterargument? Why does A follow from B?
- Eliciting alternative viewpoints: What other perspectives do people have on this issue? Can you compare your view to that of…? What would you reply if someone said…?
- Implications: What follows from this assumption? Why is this the best course of action? So what?
- Questioning the question itself: What do you think caused me to ask this question? What makes it a good question? What’s a question I haven’t asked that I should ask?
Once Socratic questioning is concluded, the hypothesis can either be rejected, which prompts the investigation of an alternative hypothesis. Or it can be accepted. That doesn’t necessarily make it true. But it does give us a clear idea of why we believe what we believe. Speaking of beliefs.
How We Reason
When considering a question, the ideal process would be to gather evidence from all points of view. Then we evaluate our assumptions and the evidence to come to an informed decision. Based on merit, not wishful thinking of course. A true master thinker would even consider what evidence it would take to change his or her mind again. The tragic truth is that we are not very good at this objective, fair and balanced reasoning.
Our reasoning is heavily motivated. When confronted with a claim we typically don’t seek out balanced viewpoints to come to a factual conclusion. Quite the opposite. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains this phenomenon of motivated reasoning:
We start with a feeling, we want to believe X or we want to doubt X. We ask: ‘Can I believe it? I want to believe it’. And then we send our reasoning off on a search to find evidence. If we find one piece of evidence we can stop. If someone holds us accountable and says, ‘Why do you think that?’ you pull out the piece of evidence and say: ‘Here, this is why.’Jonathan Haidt
In other words, we reason intuitively by starting with a felt conclusion and seeking to confirm it. No wonder. We couldn’t possibly think through every decision we encounter. This is why we heavily rely on mental shortcuts to make sense of the vast amount of information we process every day. The problem is that this kind of thinking only covers one side of an argument. Street Epistemology seeks to override intuitive thinking with analytical thinking by giving people the cognitive tools to question their beliefs. So how does it work?
How Spectrum Street Epistemology Works
As a debate game, Spectrum Street Epistemology is best done in a group. You need at least two players and a moderator. It can be played pretty much anywhere. At a corporate event, in a classroom, or at the wedding reception of two overeager philosophers. Following Peter’s explanation, we can break the method down into eight steps:
- Generate claims: As a group, generate claims you’d like to discuss, for example, Virtue is overrated or Homeschooling is a terrible idea.
- Prep the room: Put seven lines of tape on the floor. The middle line symbolises neutrality. The other lines cover the spectrum from slightly agree, agree, strongly agree on one side to slightly disagree, disagree and strongly disagree on the other.
- Start the game: Players start by standing on the neutral line. The moderator presents them with one of the claims and counts down from five. On cue, players move on the line that represents their level of agreement with the claim.
- Eliciting reasons: After they moved, the moderator asks each player for their reason for choosing the particular line. This is where Socratic questioning comes in. For example: What makes you strongly disagree with the claim that homeschooling is a terrible idea?
- Eliciting dissent: If there are players with an opposing viewpoint, ask them to repeat the reasoning of the person who disagrees with them on the issues. The goal is for them to understand where the other person is coming from. The game cannot continue until the other person confirms the other player understood correctly.
- Eliciting satisfiable evidence: In this step, players are asked to say what reasons or evidence it would take for them to move one line in either direction. For example: I might change my mind if I knew about the limitations of homeschooling in practice.
- Providing satisfiable evidence: The moderator asks other players to provide the requested evidence to make others change their minds. For example: Most parents neither have the expertise to teach chemistry or physics at a senior-year level. Not to mention the teaching methodology.
- Open dialogue: The moderator facilitates direct interactions between the players. He or she makes sure they’re centred around understanding rather than winning. Players should not be able to discern where the moderator stands on the issue discussed.
It’s a fascinating exercise. Even though approaching strangers in the streets, drawing a few lines and asking questions about people’s beliefs isn’t all it takes to make Street Epistemology a success.
The Street Epistemology Mindset
Street Epistemology is about more than just going through the motions. It requires the organisers and moderators to have a certain mindset. It’s worth taking a closer look at the implicit conversation strategies used, the art of establishing rapport and the overall mindset of successful street epistemologists.
Beyond the Socratic Method, Spectrum Street Epistemology incorporates other conversation strategies. Four of those stand out to me and are worth taking a closer look at:
- Steelmanning asks you to craft the best possible argument for your opponent
- Rapoport’s Rules force you to understand your opponent’s position and merit in full before being allowed to criticise it
- Alexander’s Question stops confirmation bias in its tracks by asking what new information it would take to make you change your mind.
- Tactical Empathy is a negotiation strategy that seeks to make people feel understood by seeing the world through their eyes.
It’s worth noting that the use of these strategies is implicit. The whole point of Street Epistemology is not to smack participants in the face with fancy concepts. Rather, the game incorporates the techniques in a playful, subtle and elegant manner. All these methods put perspective change and understanding over winning an argument. So the whole exercise stands and falls with the ability to create a non-judgmental atmosphere.
Establishing rapport is the art of building a genuine connection with people and fostering mutual trust and understanding. This starts with how the game is framed and then moderated. When approaching potential players, it helps to start out with lighthearted small talk and let participants know what they’re getting themselves into.
If players don’t accept the moderator as an impartial broker of the conversation, any questioning can come across as judgemental or even passive-aggressive. People who sense a hidden agenda won’t think through their beliefs with honesty let alone position them truthfully on the spectrum.
Check out some videos of veteran street epistemologist Anthony Magnabosco who knows how to build rapport and make people feel comfortable sharing their beliefs. “We take something that you think is true and explore it by asking questions,” is a great one-liner for explaining the basic method. His conversations remain civil and low-key throughout.
The organisers and facilitator of Spectrum Street Epistemology set the tone. They must be comfortable listening to controversial opinions without judgment. Groupthink is a bias that leads people to abandon critical thinking and align themselves with the perceived group consensus instead. If dissent is not a legitimate option for members of someone’s organisation, chances are Spectrum Street Epistemology will fall flat as people are not comfortable exploring their real beliefs.
If you have a hard time tolerating opposing viewpoints try treating them as an unfamiliar culture you discover as a curious field worker. Negotiation expert Chris Voss once said: “You can’t be angry and curious at the same time.” Your personal attitude will have a huge influence on the success of your epistemological experiment. And if you want to go further down this rabbit hole, check out the official website with a self-directed learning course about building rapport and mindset in general.
Small interventions can indeed have large effects. The beauty of Spectrum Street Epistemology is that it integrates many useful methods into one non-confrontational debate game. It won’t make us fully grasp the nature of knowledge and truth. But we’ll certainly be more understanding of other people’s viewpoints and therefore less wrong.