03/06/2012 03:39 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Philosopher Christopher Robichaud on Truth and Knowledge In the American Political Context

Christopher Robichaud's office at Harvard Kennedy School is filled with role-playing board games, at least one giant John F. Kennedy action figure, and hundreds upon hundreds of books. Most are standard philosophy volumes, but several shelves are devoted to his other passion: horror.

Robichaud's penchant for the dark side also colors the title of the class he's currently teaching. Ignorance, Lies, Hogwash and Humbug: The Value of Truth and Knowledge in Democracies explores a range of questions in social epistemology, particularly in the political context. What can we know? How can we know it? And why are we so bad about discussing it as a public?

MATT BIEBER: My sense is that you believe that our contemporary political discourse doesn't place much value on getting at the truth. Is that right?

CHRISTOPHER ROBICHAUD: I think that's true. I'm open to someone with more of a historical eye informing me that it's always been bad. But I also think that there's a certain zeitgeist going on right now of the form: How can we live in an age so rich in information, with so many educated people across the world, and still seem to be susceptible to such embarrassing and deep ignorance? You would have hoped at this point that a civil society would agree on the basic facts and could get about disagreeing about the interesting things -- what to do about them. That's where disagreements are supposed to happen.

But no, we don't even agree on the basic facts. You look at the climate science debate. [Makes air quotes.] There's a lot to disagree with about what the way forward is, about how bad it's going to get and how soon -- there's a lot of things we don't know. But there's a lot of things we do know, and those are the things that are still being contested -- it's an embarrassment.

There's a lot of ignorance about basic economics. And I'm not talking about projections -- that's a very tricky business -- but just how the financial world works. It's stunning to me that when you've got a society that needs to be informed, to make decisions that are going to work, not just for its own members but for the global community, both how little we know as a general population and how bad it seems we are at getting at the facts. And a lot of people are a little bit exasperated by this.

In this country, and this is just a confession, a lot of us were just stunned at the birther debate. Not at first -- you always expect some absurdity to arise when you have a presidential candidate whose name is Barack Hussein Obama, who's black. That's going terrify a certain portion of the population.

But after a while, I mean... I think that the number of people who became convinced that he wasn't a U.S. citizen grew after he was elected president. You start to wonder, "What the hell?" I know that's just one example, and that may be unfair because it seems so fringe (and yet the numbers suggest it's not as fringe as we would like). But all the same, it just causes you to scratch your head and go, "What's going on?

I realized how uninformed I was when the financial crash of 2008 happened. To be perfectly honest, I didn't understand a darn thing about what was going on. I mean, words were floating around that I got -- you know, mortgage crisis, this, that, and the other thing. I got the impression that I might not have been able to go to the bank and take out money. That's scary.

But how did this happen? It turns out that it's really complicated. And a lot of us, most of us, people who are educated, didn't have a clue. And that's frightening.

MB: You described the birther debate with air quotes. And you're right -- it's really a misnomer. A debate suggests people who have some desire to get at the truth -- whose priority is to actually discover something about the world.

But on Obama's birth certificate, on climate, and in lots of other areas in our political life, I think we tend to see people speaking out of need or desire, not clear thought. Tribal, partisan interests dominate discourse much more than an honest pursuit of truth.

CR: I completely agree. When you look at Chapter 2 of Mill's On Liberty, he thought that the marketplace of ideas would get a society to arrive at the truth. Part of the story there was you needed your experience, but you also need the discussion. Discussion for him was crucial.

But not all discussions have as their goal the arrival at the truth. And so much of public conversation does not seem to be devoted to truth-seeking at all.

Now that may be okay. I mean, there shouldn't be one kind of public conversation. Sometimes, if a tragedy happens, you don't want the public conversation to be obsessed with, What is the truth? Eventually, that conversation has to happen. But sometimes, you just want to share, you just want to emote, you just want to yell or cry or laugh or whatever. But there better be some conversation that's directed at getting clear on what's going on.

And it seems reasonable that we look to our politicians, in part, to have that kind of a conversation. I don't want that conversation just to be had amongst a sort of elect few bloggers that I can go to. They are having that conversation, great for them. But why aren't people who are in everyone's faces all the time having that kind of conversation?

Your point about debate is right. Take the presidential debates -- they're not debates, if by that we mean a careful conversation in which both sides slowly articulate their views and really take care to challenge each other.

[The full version of this interview is available here.]