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How to Play Spectrum Street Epistemology (Reverse Q&A)
Spectrum Street Epistemology (SSE) is an engaging, non-threatening way to understand the reasons people have for their beliefs and to help them calibrate the confidence in those beliefs to the reasons they have for believing. This brief video will explain how to host an SSE event.
I first outlined Street Epistemology (SE) in A Manual for Creating Atheists. Basically, SE is a way to take epistemology (how one knows what one thinks one knows) out of the academy and bring it to the streets. While it uses the Socratic method at its core, it draws from relevant literature in multiple domains of thought—hostage negotiations, applied epistemology, motivational interviewing, etc. Originally meant as a gentle way for atheists to engage believers, it can be effectively applied with any belief or set of beliefs. In 2022, my team and I took SE and mapped that onto a spectrum so that participants and onlookers could see—in real time—people physically move as they recalibrated their beliefs. You can watch those initial SSE videos here.
Few things could advance reason, sanity, and mutual understanding more than people hosting, facilitating, and “playing” SSE. You can host a spectrum conversation in almost any situation—at home with family members, in a classroom with students, at the park with strangers, at a board meeting with colleagues, etc. The possibilities are endless. It’s a game that everyone wins.
For the facilitators:
Although you have your own beliefs about claims, it is important that you remain neutral. Your neutrality creates an open space for participants to move out of debate mode and into a frame of mind that allows them to revise their beliefs. Remaining neutral also presents an opportunity for you to change your mind through the course of the conversation.
Here’s a roadmap for how to facilitate SSE events:
1. Determine claims participants would like to engage. Claims should be simple statements where participants can agree or disagree. Examples of claims we’ve explored:
-Police should be defunded.
-Third-trimester abortion should be legal.
-Gender is a social construct.
-Sexual orientation should not be discussed in elementary schools.
-Equality of outcome is more important than equality of opportunity.
2. Clearly write claims on paper or a white board and have the players determine which claim to address first.
3. With tape, or whatever is available, create the spectrum on the ground/floor. You need seven lines, evenly spaced: strongly disagree, disagree, slightly disagree, neutral, slightly agree, agree, strongly agree.
4. The exercise begins with participants standing on the neutral line. Explain to players that they can move at any time, but if they do so then they must stand on a line when they do. (In other words, you can’t stand between lines or put one foot on one line and one foot on another line.)
5. Read the claim aloud and count down: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, MOVE. To avoid influencing each other’s choices, it’s important that players move simultaneously.
6. Ask players what reasons they have for standing on the line they chose. Have participants with disagreeing opinions repeat what they think heard from each other. Ask players on different lines if that is an accurate description of why they believe what they believe—not whether participants agree with each other, but if they’ve summarized each other’s arguments correctly.
7. Once it’s clear that players understand each other’s positions, ask what evidence they would need to move one line to the right or left. See if players with different opinions can provide evidence or reasons that would change other player’s minds (that is, cause them to move) or decrease their confidence in their belief. Have players engage each other directly. The aim is understanding, not winning. This is not a debate, but an exploration of the reasons behind beliefs and what it would take for people to change their minds.
Every spectrum conversation will be unique, and the host must adapt to each. Whatever happens, stay focused on the goals of the exercise: help others analyze their epistemology, clearly express the reasons for their beliefs, and understand the reasons people have for holding different beliefs.
If you have any SSE videos you’d like to send us to post, please send them along. Most important: Have fun!