Epistemic Reserve Notes

The metaphor of learning-as-purchasing pervades language — “are you buyin’ this?”

What is the currency of knowledge exchange?

Perhaps it used to be ‘facts’ — but as explored in Wittgenstein’s Revenge, focusing on facts will never improve public discourse.

We need a new “epistemic currency,” common to everyone. Fortunately, one already exists, and it’s more fundamental than facts: Trust.

What you spend when you buy an idea

Trust is required for an exchange of ideas, like currency is required for an exchange of goods.

Grandma won’t believe you unless you preface your opinion with “According to The New York Times.”

If you don’t have your counterparty’s trust — or piggyback on someone who does — an exchange of ideas can’t even begin.

Casually, trust is like a currency in that way.

Formally, trust embodies many of the qualities praised in Bitcoin, gold, and fiat currencies. To show this, I’ve ripped off Winklevoss Capital’s famous comparisons of Bitcoin with other money from their presentation in 2014:

Trust is scarce.

There is only as much trust in the world as there are people to offer it. More trust cannot be created unilaterally, without consent.

Trust is durable.

Trust cannot be destroyed, only revoked. Trust lasts exactly as long as each “truster” wants in a given circumstance.

Trust is portable.

Trust, and the capacity to trust, don’t weigh anything and are easy to carry around.

Trust is divisible.

People are free to dispense trust in as great or as small quantities as they choose.

Trust can sometimes be authenticated.

If by “authenticate” you mean “determine whether you’re transacting with counterfeit currency” (e.g., looking at a $100 dollar bill in the light to see if it has the stripe), trust is mostly easy to authenticate. If you’re trusting someone else, it’s self-evident that you’re doing it. 

If you mean “determine whether others are transacting with counterfeit currency” — in this case, whether someone else is as trustworthy as they seem — trust is difficult to authenticate.

Trust is easy to store.

See “Trust is portable.”

Trust is fungible.

Trust need not change its nature between applications. It’s the same “stuff” everywhere, and can be used to elevate any mere conjecture into a Fact.

Trust is easy to counterfeit.

People can fake being trustworthy. This is a huge problem.

Trust also displays qualities not explored in the Winklevoss slide:

Trust is costly to obtain.

Trust is backed by risks and labors of every kind. 

If you risk your job to tell your boss a difficult truth, that’s valuable. If you risk a friendship to tell your friend a difficult truth, that’s valuable. Trust demonstrates its value in the risk one takes to obtain it. 

Orwell’s warning that “journalism is what somebody doesn’t want you to hear, everything else is public relations” speaks to risk as the prerequisite for journalistic trust.

Trust — like money — must be earned. 

Trust captures value.

Skillful allocation of trust creates more trust (without needing more humans), in the same way that skillful allocation of capital creates more capital (without printing more dollars).

200 years ago we might fear that a relative has died, and that we won’t find out for months or years. We don’t fear that so much anymore — not only because we have cell phones, but because we trust them to work properly, and we trust each other to use them for important matters. We feel safe driving a car at 75 miles per hour because we trust that cars work properly enough of the time, and aren’t going to suddenly buck like a wild horse. There is more trust, where there once would have been less.

One could even call trust “the universal security” — we all profit from the well-placed trust of others, and suffer from their ill-placed trust.

The weaknesses of Trust as a currency all involve authenticity, and we discuss how to solve this in Part 3. To the extent authenticity can be solved for, trust resembles ideal currency. 

Assuming Trust is like a currency, how does the epistemic economy function?

Epistemic reserve notes

The epistemic economy functions much like the reserve bank economy on the gold standard.

Journalists mine for “epistemic gold.” They do research and investigate, intent on unearthing some shiny truth, no matter what perils stand in their way.

They know readers won’t or can’t redo all that work themselves, so they take the knowledge they’ve gained and summarize it in an article. The article says “I know this stuff for many reasons — to verify my reasons for yourself, look them up here.”

A journalistic article, like a reserve bank note, is a lightweight convenience that invites the holder to redeem it for the promised underlying asset. For worldly currencies, it’s gold. For epistemic currencies, it’s truth.

Articles — “epistemic reserve notes” — thus represent trust in their publishers. They’re not truth; they’re supposedly redeemable for truth. They’re promises that if you do your own research, you’ll reach the same conclusions the publishers claim.

Epistemic sanctions

Like worldly currencies, each publisher’s reserve notes are only accepted by a certain group of people.

Everyone suspects certain publishers don’t actually have truth in their reserves. “Those epistemic reserve notes aren’t actually redeemable,” we say. “They print them, but there’s nothing behind them.”

The publishers we trust define who you can teach and learn from (“sell to and buy from”). This artificially limits the knowledge we could ever gain, to that which our trusted publishers endorse.

For better or worse, trust breathes life into epistemic reserve notes.

Its presence creates demand, and inspires trade.

Its absence imposes sanctions.

Consensus is trust, not facts

The notion of epistemic sanctions clarifies what we might really mean by “consensus” in the context of public discourse — universal mutual listening, rather than universal agreement.

“Universal mutual listening” happens when publishers compete on the basis of trustworthiness, instead of on the basis of ‘facts.’

Competing on the basis of ‘facts’ mostly requires parroting institution-backed claims — or as some call it, “empirical rigor.”

Competing on the basis of trustworthiness demands not only equal empirical rigor, but also fairness and charity toward opposing viewpoints, as defined by their proponents. Without this treatment, nobody can tell which are ‘the real facts,’ and which will crumble if they’re ever adequately interrogated.

Herein lies the Crisis of Credibility — with nobody listening to anyone else, each opinion-group is forced to impose epistemic sanctions on the many publishers who treat their opinion unfairly.

Everyone has their own facts, because no one has everyone’s trust.

(Part 2 of a series. Read Part 1 and Part 3.)

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About Mike Elias

Mike is building the credibility layer of the internet at ideamarket.io. Newsletter & other work: mikeelias.com.


  1. You might be right that we lack a common “epistemic currency.” But even more problematic is the fact we use an economic metaphor to define, perceive, and act upon ‘truth’. Also, it could be valid to say that facts have been a proxy for ‘Trust’. But that might fundamentally come down to what Julian Jaynes refers to as authorization, archaic authorization vs self-authorization.

    In the archaic authorization of the bicameral mind, trust does not respect free will because it was not conceivable. Jaynes admitted he didn’t know what people meant when they spoke of ‘agency’. The question arises of who is the ‘person’ of which personal judgment is supposedly demanded by ‘truth’. This comes down to a profound disagreement between the ego theory of mind and the bundle theory of mind.

  2. Faith is another word for trust, though less popular. Though neither can be seen, really, or quantified, but it doesn’t take but a mere smidgen to create the stuff of real action, provided the possessor cares to act upon it. This is the will. I will is many times posited as “I would.” Should have, would have, could have, but … will I ever? Probably not if you have no trust or faith in your own self, first.

    And when it comes to facts, I see them as bedrocks and not the sorts of things that can be true today and false tomorrow based on the whims of someone’s/anyone’s whims (baseless trust in oneself). Now’s where we get into deep water, so I will remain here at the edge of the water and enjoy the surface tension of the water, as the little bit of light that is left bounces off of it. That is a fact that can evaporate or turn to ice. Changeable. Some things are not changeable. These are the things beneath the surface. In the deep.

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