Epistemology is a branch of philosophy concerned with theories of knowledge. The name is derived from the Greek terms for episteme (knowledge) and logos (explanation). Epidemiology is the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations. While the names of the two fields sound alike, they are obviously distinct. But I want to propose a subbranch of epistemology that could be called “epistemic epidemiology” or perhaps given a silly name like “epistidemology.” This subbranch would not be focused on the epistemic features of epidemiology (which would also be interesting). That is, it would not be about knowledge of diseases. Rather it would be about diseases of knowledge.
These diseases of knowledge can include corruption or infection of normally healthy epistemic systems as well as epistemic systems that are fundamentally pathological in nature. One goal of this subbranch would be to work out descriptive accounts of various epistemic diseases as well as theories of how such diseases arise, spread, and do damage. There would also be descriptive accounts of epistemic systems that are inherently pathological. Of special interest would be the nature and causes of epistemepidemics—widespread epistemic pathologies in populations.
This subbranch, I propose, should be more than descriptive. Like ethics (and medicine) it should also be prescriptive: epistemic pathologies should be analyzed with an aim to curing (or replacing) them, so that people can have healthy belief forming systems. As would be expected, doing prescriptive epistemology will involve disputes and controversies like those in ethics—arguments will be needed to defend claims about which epistemic systems are pathological and how they might be treated. Fortunately, there are already two established areas of thought that will be useful here.
One area is what epistemologists call the ethics of belief (thanks to William Clifford) —this deals, obviously enough, with such matters as the moral obligations we might have when forming beliefs. In fact, it could be argued that there is no need for epistemic epidemiology since the ethics of belief already covers the normative aspects of epistemology. While this view is reasonable, while epistemic epidemiology includes normative components it also covers non-normative areas that are not covered by the ethics of belief. An obvious example is that the ethics of belief does not address questions of why pathological epistemologies can be so widespread. So, just as medical ethics and medical epidemiology are distinct the same holds for the ethics of belief and epistemic epidemiology.
A second area is the realm of logic, with special attention on critical thinking methods. While people can engage in endless debates about epistemic theories, what counts as defective (even pathological) reasoning is well established. Someone who insists on forming beliefs based solely on rhetoric would be in error; someone who insists on forming beliefs based on fallacies would seem to be pathological (pun intended). As such, logic provides an excellent toolkit—much like medical techniques provide an excellent tool kit for medical epidemiologists.
There would certainly seem to be important roles in this field for findings from neuroscience, psychiatry, and psychology. For example, delusional disorder is a serious mental illness that has a profound impact on a person’s epistemic systems: they claim to have knowledge of something that is not true and will persist even in the face of evidence that should logically undermine their false belief. This is not to claim that all or even most false beliefs or epistemic flaws arise from mental illness but that the science of how such epistemically connected illnesses (might) work would be especially useful to addressing epistemic issues in general. Naturally, this matter must be addressed with due sensitivity and there is the obvious worry that the unscrupulous might weaponize claims about mental illness. Example of this sort of thing include when critics of President Trump are accused of having Trump Derangement Syndrome or when Trump supporters are accused of being mentally ill because of their support for Trump. This is, of course, analogous to how people use claims of disease to demonize migrants.
While it is critical to guard against the weaponizing of epistemic epidemiology, it is also important to be willing to apply it to outbreaks of epistemic pathologies. To use a terrifying analogy, can you imagine what would happen if the response to a medical pandemic were hijacked by political ideology and a scientific response was derailed? As with disease outbreaks, the appropriate approach is to not engage in demonizing those impacted but by taking an objective approach aimed at analyzing and (if possible) recommending treatments. While there have long been widespread epistemic pathologies, the rise of mass media and social media have enabled these pathologies to become pandemics—some are global in nature. National and global conspiracy theories provide excellent examples of the likely presence of pathological epistemic systems—though it is worth considering that even healthy epistemic systems can generate many false beliefs.
As with addressing medical pandemics, addressing epistemic pandemics is essential for the health, safety, and well-being of humanity. While philosophers have long struggled to help inoculate people with good logic, we must accept that a global effort is needed to address what is now a global problem. The first step is the easiest—the creation of this subbranch of epistemology.