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# Epistemic Authority

Last updated Mar 9, 2022 Edit Source

On when to trust epistemic claims

Trusting the word of others is necessary to expand knowledge beyond perception, e.g. we will never know what it is like to be another person (see Nagel’s Bat Argument)

## # Epistemic Authority with Anand Vaidya

• How do we distinguish between appeals to authority that are rationally/ethically problematic and appeals to authority that are morally and rationally wholesome and skillful
• Two concepts and distinctions
1. Epistemic Culture: what do members of the culture take to be valid sources of knowledge
2. Epistemic Self: an individual epistemic agent within a culture might have their own idiosyncratic belief about how the source work, how they’re weighted, etc.
• Three Knowledge Sources
1. Testimony
2. Perception
3. Inference
• Dogmatism: when one cannot understand differences in epistemic cultures
• We’re finite, we can only think and see certain amounts of the world and so our brains and bodies are in sub-personal way always helping us intelligently ignore huge swaths of information
• Question about demarcation of appeals to authority between good and bad turns into a much larger question that goes into the philosophy of mind and philosophy of neuroscience, the nature of the self, how that is created, and how that thing epistemically gains and accesses information in the first place through retention
• Defeaters
• Overriding defeater: given evidence presented, this piece of evidence is a countering piece of evidence that overrides the argument for what they’re saying
• Undermining/undercutting defeater: some kind of source is fundamentally wrong and nothing comes out of it
• Is it worth to assess overriding testimonial information from authorities? Whether critical thinking is good?
• Michael Huemer: you shouldn’t! Critically thinking is epistemically irresponsible.
• We can look to scientific cultures as epistemic enterprises for techniques to make things more robust
• Anand’s counter-argument: you always need to critically evaluate at least the following
1. who are the authorities?
2. are they currently properly performing their authority?
3. what does their authority amount to, within their expertise?
• In being an expert and giving expert testimony means that we want the expertise that the person has to be spoken for and performed – we want an expert performance
• Can be suspect when the information upon which the expert is drawing is ambiguous
• Skepticism starts to creep in because of the bureaucratic complexity through which the message is being delivered
• Media wise
• Interface between medical professions and politics
• Corporations that are providing the actual vaccines
• “Best bet view”: if the weighted average of authorities who meet these tests say something, we should trust that it’s true (this depends on epistemic culture and epistemic self)
• Throwing something from one epistemic culture that’s disjoint from another epistemic culture cannot lead to reconciliation without a shared epistemic culture
• Two views on argumentation
• Epistemic: trading of assertions has a way of leading to a better epistemic position either for both parties or for the conjunction of the two parties ( positive sum)
• Non-epistemic: trying to pull one side to another ( zero sum)
• Not only an issue of trust but also psychological exhaustion. One of the requirements of any epistemic enterprise is the use of attention
• Information that puts its receivers into an almost constant state of some kind of cognitive dissonance negative impacts their ability to attend and assess the information
• It is incredibly important to understand who is an epistemic peer and epistemic non-peers and the differences between peer-disagreement and non-peer-disagreement
• Huemer counterpoint: non-peers can still be good at catching peers in their performance
• Punditry: speaking with a certain level of diction, speed, volume, etc. and it will sound like whatever you are saying is true
• One of the main components of collective action is collective belief. We want everyone to do $f$ but that requires everyone to believe that doing $f$ is right
• How to ensure it’s possible to accurately evaluate whether or not someone is an authority
• Negative: Not always useful to be screaming about bias
• At any scale reasonably worth caring about, bias will exist as long as there is order to the universe and entropy hasn’t taken over. Bias is what enables salience, for distinction to even be made among differing classes.
• However, bias in the context of decision making is something that is seen as a strict negative. Bias here (in the form of preexisting bias, technical bias, or emergent bias) implies a negative systematic preference for the epistemic trust of some agent over enough.
• Positive: Look at it mathematically, think about what’s at stake and think about what the tolerance threshold is that we can have in the relevant domain
• From a purely mathematical perspective, this is factual. Achieving consensus is difficult, especially among a wide net of epistemic agents. In fact, without formal processes like voting or delegation, just peer-based discussion leads to a factorial explosion in time-taken to reach consensus.
• Thus in most cases, rough consensus (I found this proposal particularly interesting: https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/rfc7282) or trusting delegates (e.g. authorities like the CDC) to not be biased and accurately evaluate other authorities (e.g. scientists and pharmaceutical companies responsible for inventing/deploying the vaccine) is usually suitable when balancing tradeoffs between speed (for example when timeliness during a pandemic is important) and correctness (making sure vaccines are safe to the general public).
• Positive: Increased diversity (of critical thinking skills) leads to a decrease in the probability of the whole group being accurate in evaluating whether or not someone is an authority. You can fool some people some of the time but you can’t fool all the people all of the time
• I agree with Lincoln here in saying that diversity is greatly important for reducing the chance we ‘flatten’ entire perspectives and ignore critical facts. The Unflattening by Nick Sousanis is a great graphic novel exploring how having a limited number of fixed perspectives prevents one from seeing the whole picture.
• Positive: Listen to voices not being heard and figuring out how to repackage what they’re saying in a way that is significant – it is a unique skill to be trained as a cross-cultural philosopher. These philosophers can then teach experts to communicate better.
• Unsure about how this is super relevant to accurately assessing whether one is to be trusted as an epistemic authority. Yes, I agree that being a cross-cultural philosopher is important. I believe that philosophers are the boundary people between multiple fields and enable cross-field germination. Though, I argue this only allows experts to communicate with each other better, but not the general public. Perhaps this is the role of knowledge distillers like teachers and those who specialize specifically in pedagogy?