Truth: Empowering Flourishing through Epistemic Vigilance

Jocelyn Dautel
Queen's University Belfast


Information (and misinformation) are more abundant than ever. As a truth-seeking species, humans rely on many mechanisms to produce, transmit, and consume information and these vary by cultural and environmental constraints. Divergent truths can reduce human flourishing, from macro-level cultural and political conflict, to meso-level spread of harmful health-related misinformation, to individual-level wellbeing. For instance, misinformation about the efficacy of social distancing and mask-wearing has resulted in part to the continued spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Increasing epistemic vigilance in truth-seeking, therefore, may contribute to human flourishing through improving physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being, and creating more knowledgeable and resilient societies.
The goal is to take a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary ecological systems approach to explore how truth is defined and produced, how it is evaluated and transmitted at different levels of society, how it is related to moral, spiritual and socio-political orientations, and how to increase epistemic vigilance. Integrating individual, micro (family), meso (schools, social media), macro (historic narratives and cultural evolution) levels of study using mixed-methods will allow for effective design of interventions to increase epistemic vigilance, empower individuals and communities and enact social change for healthy, peaceful, and equitable societies.


The study of (mis)information has seen a surge in attention due to recent societal upheavals. Many projects have focused on acute problems (e.g. Covid-19, USA elections). There is a significant opportunity to develop a more holistic understanding of truth-seeking. We apply a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, ecological systems approach to examine the definitions of and relationships to truth held by individuals and groups. By identifying the basic mechanisms that support epistemic vigilance across different temporal, spatial, and population scales, we can develop more robust theories and interventions to ward against the uptake of misinformation and support human flourishing across domains.


"Truth" is subjective, value laden, and culturally constructed. Developing a shared definition is necessary.
Some cultures and/or governments may be difficult to access and/or reluctant to participate in research encouraging epistemic vigilance.
Connecting findings across ecological system levels and the varying research methods.
Some research methods are more effortful, including (1) Maso, Exo, and Macro levels, (2) developmental research, (3) research with less technologically developed societies. These require more researchers and Covid restrictions may bring an additional challenge.
International and multi-method projects entail mass collaboration, requiring project management and administrative support.
Building and implementing effective and practical interventions across levels.

Breakthroughs Needed

The first crucial step is to reach a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary consensus on definitions of basic concepts around truth and values (e.g. acceptance of subjective elements of truth) that guide individual research questions. This should be based on diverse perspectives; incorporating philosophy, linguistics, history, communication, cognitive science, and psychology. This process should yield a set of concepts and, ideally, quality-indicators for corresponding operationalizations to ensure that outcomes of individual projects are comparable.
To ensure that individual projects can uncover basic mechanisms that drive our relationship with truth, it is important that the relevance of findings is demonstrated across multiple levels of analysis and different methodologies. Projects under this initiative should thus combine perspectives on at least two cultures and trace the dynamics governing key concepts through at least two levels of analysis.
To maximize global impact of this program, it is crucial to translate valid and reliable findings into robust interventions across cultures and domains. To achieve long-lasting interventions, projects should explore effects of systemic changes (e.g. to the structure of online spaces) and developmental/educational approaches to the development of epistemic vigilance.

Key Indicators of Success

3 years: Can we establish a common language of "truth" across disciplines and cultures? Have we found valid and reliable methods to investigate truth across ecological systems? (Both answers need to be 'yes.')
5 years: Have studies successfully shown interrelations between levels? Do experimental data and real-world data complement and support each other? (Both answers need to be 'yes' to be a true success, but a 'no' might not be a complete failure, it might lead to new inquiry and discovery later).
10 years: Have 2 or more interventions been successfully implemented? Has epistemic vigilance increased motivating critical action ?

Additional Information

This idea represents a collaboration across an interdisciplinary team of researchers including Jocelyn Dautel, Kathleen Corriveau, Emma Flynn, Mariah Kornbluh, Jennifer Watling Neal, Christin Schulz, Lara Wood, and Jing Xu. This team could advise and/or run projects to execute this idea.

5 references: [Pascal Boyer, Anthropology] [Robert Schiller, Economics] [Dan Sperber, Cognitive Science] [Matthew Diemer & colleagues, Education] [Paul Harris, Kathleen Corriveau & colleagues, Developmental Psychology]


These research ideas were submitted in response to Templeton World Charity Foundation’s global call for Grand Challenges in Human Flourishing, which ran from September through November 2020.

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