Science-Like Gossip, or Gossip-Like Science? Tommaso Bertolotti

SERRC —  June 8, 2017 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Tommaso Bertolotti, University of Pavia, Italy,

Bertolotti, Tommaso “Science-Like Gossip, or Gossip-Like Science?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 7 (2017): 15-19.

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Image credit: Megan, via flickr

Richard Feynman is credited for having once quipped that “philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is useful to birds.” Feynman, a Nobel prize laureate, got called the smartest man on Earth. Hearing this, his mother said, “Then I don’t want to think about the others.”

Ornithologists normally won’t teach birds how to fly. But they can tell the rest of us people how to protect birds, how to make our activities less harmful with their respect. They can teach us how to tell a bat from an owl, a butterfly from a hummingbird, and also how to determine whether what is soaring above us is a hawk or a drone. Ornithologists, teaming up with engineers and medical scientist, can directly affect birds by recreating broken beaks, patching up wings, or even teaching them to fly. All of those things couldn’t be achieved without the knowledge carefully gathered by ornithologists.

Today, the analogy between epistemology and ornithology is all the more actual. Science is under attack. Research is being cut most everywhere in the North-Western Hemisphere. Where it is not heavily cut, it is arguably managed by leveraging the Matthew Effect[1] in ways that hardly encourage, for instance, the diversification of Science. Science needs philosophy of science. Philosophy, especially in its epistemological avatar, needs to protect the formidable adversary it was once challenged by. A stern claim that radically collaborative science shows no cause for epistemic alarm seems a quick way of washing one’s hands, thus endorsing Feynman’s mockery.

The fact that there is no epistemic alarm, Søren Klausen (2017) concedes, does not imply saying there is no cause for alarm. There can be pragmatic, social, political causes for alarm (although the author seems to take them quite lightly). But what if the pragmatic, social, political causes for alarm are actual, and this in turn has alarming epistemic effect?

Alarmed By Radically Collaborative Science?

Let’s consider gun control: we can say that it’s pointless to engage a moral discourse about weapons because weapons have no volition, and ultimately, it’s people as moral subjects that kill through them. Would it be reasonable to hold that guns don’t cause moral alarm on such bases? In spite of their being morally neutral, if certain things cause morally alarming outcomes, then they give reason to be morally alarmed.

Klausen, against the so-called Georgetown Alarmists, maintains that there is no reason to be alarmed about radically collaborative science. The Georgetown Alarmists, conversely, present an epistemically alarmed view and they issue an epistemologically negative judgement on radically collaborative science. In my view, being alarmed does not entail issuing a negative judgement. If I hear a huge ruckus coming from the ground floor at night, I have the right to be alarmed. It would be reasonable that I go down and check. I am not necessarily justified in going down and blindly fire a full round in the dark. I am epistemically alarmed about radically collaborative science, if only for the pragmatic consequences that seem likely to affect the epistemic procedures of Science. Considering that there is reason to be epistemically alarmed amounts to say “Hey, there is something strange going on there. Let’s pull it over and have a closer look.”

By this, I’m not saying that we must condemn radically collaborative science on epistemic grounds, but we might be at the same time a little more careful before green-lighting it.

Let me start with a minor yet compelling reason why the non-epistemic effects of radically collaborative science might not be neutral from an epistemological point of view and hence cause some kind of epistemic alarm: citation indexes. Citation indexes are the mixed blessing of contemporary academia. Academics care about their h-index, their i-10 index, their Scopus, their Google Scholar index. Like it or not, right or wrong, these indexes rule the academic job market through the world. Even humanities adhered to it, producing indexes that are quite ridiculous compared to their scientific counterparts. How will radically collaborative science impact the indexing? How is this going to affect the job market? This is clearly not an epistemic trait, but since what is at stake are the next generations of scientists and academics, the next prime producers of episteme, this issue is somehow allowed to trigger some epistemic alert.

Let’s now consider some properly epistemic issues: one of the Georgetown Alarmists’ chief reasons for epistemic alarm is that scientific claims are not fully accountable in the framework of radical collaboration. In their view, an epistemically relevant feature of scientific knowledge is that it is accountable. Such accountability has been traditionally enforced in scientific practice, for instance in publications: if Black & White make a claim in a paper, if that claim is proved true or wrong they are held accountable for it. And if they are wrong because of some results they have received from Green and Brown’s paper, Green and Brown will be held epistemically accountable. Such epistemic accountability has tacitly regulated the publishing heuristic according to which it is better to publish fewer accurate papers than many shakier ones.[2]

Science has a kind of a double standard concerning failures and drawbacks: in the finest Popperian spirit, falsifications are sought for, any truth is provisional and errors illuminate the correct path. Science thrives through its mistakes, but scientists don’t. If you are the leader of a important research program and you got it wrong, you won’t be charged nor prosecuted but chances are you won’t get hired again. As said in the Gospel of Matthew (18:7), “[…] it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes”.

A radically collaborative paper may have dozens of authors, some extreme cases have hundreds, including honorary authorship attributions. The authors might even count the programmers who developed a certain data mining or machine learning software, and such software might be credited with a certain authorship, too. What kind of accountability is there left? Claims in the paper are shared between dozens or hundreds of subjects. It doesn’t make sense anymore to look for the accountable origin of this and that claim. This as far as authorship is concerned. What about the accountability relating to references to similarly collaborative outputs?

Epistemic Accountability and Gossip

Klausen interestingly argues that sticking to epistemic accountability as we’ve always known it is somewhat of an old-fashioned feat, inasmuch as it might be desirable, it may make things easier, but it is not an epistemic must for the constitution of scientific knowledge. I say, “fine”. I don’t have any argument in favor of strong accountability. Still, if I accept with Klausen that accountability is a preferable feature that I can actually make without, and not a must, something makes me wonder: How can I tell science from gossip? Let me explain why.

The 1990s marked the turning point in gossip studies, especially as far a new ethical evaluation of gossip was concerned. The edited book Good Gossip is one of the best examples of this new view. A feminist Peircean scholar, Maryann Ayim, contributed to this book with the essay “Knowledge through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry”, in which she pointed out the epistemological resemblance between scientific inquiry and gossipy investigations in a social group.

Gossip’s model captures several aspects of Peirce’s notion of a community of investigators. Describing what he sees as the causes of “the triumph of modern science,” Peirce speaks specifically of the scientists’

unreserved discussion with one another … each being fully informed about the work of his neighbour, and availing himself of that neighbour’s results; and thus in storming the stronghold of truth one mounts upon the shoulders of another who has to ordinary apprehension failed, but has in truth succeeded by virtue of the lessons of his failure. This is the veritable essence of science” (CP7.51).

If Peirce is right that the unreserved discussions with one another are a cornerstone in the triumph of modern science, then gossip, by its very nature, would appear to be an ideal vehicle for the acquisition of knowledge. Gossips certainly avail themselves of their neighbours’ results, discussing unreservedly and sharing results constitute the very essence of gossip.[3]

Elaborating on the epistemology of gossip together with Lorenzo Magnani,[4] we unfolded Ayim’s seminal insight, showing how the inquiries of gossip can be modeled as abductions: abduction is the prime inferential structure to describe hypothetical reasoning, namely science. One cannot work on gossip without working on rumor, and we took from social epistemologist David Coady this intriguing distinction:

This is one difference between rumor and another form of communication with which it is often confused, gossip. Gossip may well be first-hand. By contrast, no first-hand account of an event can be a rumor, though it may later become.[5]

It can be said that what Coady is referring to is the accountability of gossip. Gossip is, in principle, accountable because gossip traces back to some eye-witnessed even and its inferential elaboration by a specific group of people with their specific background and so on (Bertolotti & Magnani, 2014). Why then do we have a problem with gossip, usually relating to the fact that gossip cannot be trusted because no-one is accountable for it? Because there are two dynamics at play in gossip: the actual dynamic between peers, and the “projected”, subject-less dynamic concerning the group-level. The projected subject instantiated by sentences such as “Oh come on, everybody knows that Joe’s been cheating on his wife for ages!”. When we say things such as “everybody knows” referring to our social group, we mean that those small idle exchanges that are the bricks of gossip leveled up and became as true rumors for the whole group. At group level, a true rumor is a fact. Gossip that makes it all the way up to become common knowledge entertains an ambiguous relation with accountability, akin to the one described by Klausen concerning radically collaborative science. The collaborators’ contribution is sublimated into the radically collaborative accountability, which is indeed different from the accountability in traditional, less collaborative science.

By these considerations, I am not smuggling in a bad company fallacy, suggesting that if radically collaborative science is like gossip then radically collaborative science is bad. I don’t have strong opinion on radically collaborative science, I am careful. I am neither as hostile as the Georgetown Alarmists, nor as permissive as Klausen. I think that scientists might not have any choice but to go with the flow, but philosophers of science might accept the epistemic alarm, unravel it, and then decide whether such alarm was justified or not. There is no need to endorse it too quickly.

If we think of gossip in the evolution of human cognition, gossip is one of the most ancient form of social cognition and social communication, to the point that some argue that language as an adaptation was selected for its capacity to afford gossip.[6]

Gossip is an extremely sophisticated tool for collective inferences, and as such it might have permitted the emergence of hypothesis taking into account multiple causality.[7] At the same time, human beings needed to go beyond gossip and find more rigorous methods to produce and secure knowledge, keeping the latter’s inferential power but leveraging its accuracy and predictive power at the same it. In a speculative gaze, it can be argued that both justice and science developed by and for making people accountable for their claims. Sure, accountability has had its shortcomings (people have been forced to pay with their freedom or their life for some erroneous claim) but the other face of this coin is recognition. Recognition is not an epistemic value, but it is an epistemic drive.

We struggled our way out of gossip by making hypotheses and predictions accountable, and we got to science. Science shaped its own way of producing knowledge, which basically amounts to the world as we know it. Now, if we feel compelled to sacrifice traditional accountability at the altar of our challenges and our current means, it is maybe the epistemically right thing to do, but there is need to be epistemically alert, to think it through, and so help us God.


Ayim, Maryann. “Knowledge Through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry.” In Good Gossip edited by Robert F. Goodman & Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, 85–99. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1994.

Bertolotti, Tommaso and Magnani, Lorenzo. “An Epistemological Analysis of Gossip and Gossip-Based Knowledge.” Synthese 191, no. 17 (2014): 4037–4067.

Bertolotti, Tommaso and Lorenzo Magnani. “Gossip as a Model of Inference to Composite Hypotheses.” Pragmatics & Cognition, 22 (2016): 309–324.

Coady, David. What to Believe Now: Applying Epistemology to Contemporary Issues. New York: Blackwell, 2012.

Dunbar, Robin. “Gossip in an Evolutionary Perspective.” Review of General Psychology, 8 (2004): 100–110.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm: Radically Collaborative Science, Knowledge and Authorship.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 3 (2017): 38-61.

Merton, Robert K. “The Matthew Effect in Science.” Science 159 (1968): 56-63.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Vol 7. Edited by Arthur W. Burks, CP7.51. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

[1] Robert K. Merton “The Matthew Effect in Science” (1968). The expression was coined by sociologist Robert Merton and it refers to a snowball-like, cumulative advantage of the good at stake. It is inspired by the ominous sentence in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew’s Gospel 25:29: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” It is used to indicate how rich people get richer, famous people get more famous, and highly cited papers get even more citations.

[2] In certain disciplinary fields, characterized by lesser degrees of collaboration such as the humanities, the accountability principle is sometimes led to paroxysm, for instance when “the contribution of each author to the paper is to be clearly described.”

[3] Ayim, “Knowledge Through the Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry,” 87.

[4] Bertolotti & Magnani, “An Epistemological Analysis of Gossip and Gossip-Based Knowledge.”

[5] Coady, “What to Believe Now,” 87.

[6] Dunbar, “Gossip in an Evolutionary Perspective.”

[7] Bertolotti and Magnani, “Gossip as a Model of Inference to Composite Hypotheses.”

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