New Practices, Open Questions: A Reply to Bertolotti, Søren Harnow Klausen

SERRC —  August 17, 2017 — Leave a comment

Author Information: Søren Harnow Klausen, University of Southern Denmark, harnow@sdu.dk

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “New Practices, Open Questions: A Reply to Bertolotti.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 35-38.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Jk

Please refer to:

Image credit: Jen Leonard, via flickr

In his perceptive comment on my “No Cause for Epistemic Alarm” (Klausen 2017; henceforth NCEA), Tomasso Bertolotti argues that new forms of organizing and conducting science, like radically collaborative research (henceforth RC), deserve to be examined closely and critically. I agree wholeheartedly. But I do not think that there is, at least as things stand, any reason for alarm. I fail to see anything inherently problematic in the way RC is currently conducted; and as for its possible problematic consequences, we have no significant indications. It is not that I am highly optimistic about the prospects of RC. It is just that we have neither theoretical nor empirical reasons for being particularly suspicious at the outset. It is also true, however, that even in the absence of such reasons, social epistemologists and philosophers of science had better keep a close watch over new developments in scientific practice.

Epistemic Alarm

In NCEA I argued that there is, more specifically, no reason for epistemic alarm. Bertolotti suggests that I may have been too quick to draw this conclusion. He rightly points out that the pragmatic, social or political effects of RC may in turn have significant epistemic effects. I have myself stressed that epistemic and other normative factors interact so closely that it makes a purely (or narrowly focused) epistemic evaluation of real-world affairs almost impossible (Klausen 2009a; 2009b; 2015). Especially on an externalist epistemology, which I favour, a large range of factors can be potentially relevant for the epistemic evaluation of a certain process or arrangement. In principle, there is no end to them, as even an inquirer’s nutritional condition could influence the reliability (or other significant epistemic properties) of a belief-forming process. So if the advance of RC significantly changes processes of credit allocation, the scientific reward system, recruitment processes, or the public perception of science, this is likely going to have epistemic effects as well.

The claims I make in NCEA are quite compatible with this, however. They are, first, that there is no reason to assume that existing epistemological frameworks cannot cope with RC (which is therefore not a cause of epistemological alarm, to put it more precisely)—and, secondly, that it is an open question what the result of a detailed epistemological assessment would eventually be.

Precisely because epistemological a priori considerations are hardly able to discriminate between different forms of organization of epistemic labour, and the empirical evidence is scarce, to say the least, I think we should withhold definite judgment (but surely allow ourselves to speculate). We should also, as social epistemologists or philosophers of science, put more effort into initiating and designing relevant empirical studies. Comparing the merits and drawbacks of different scientific practices is complicated and difficult, and no decisive result should be expected in the short run. On the other hand, every bit of ever so limited, but more or less solid empirical evidence will be a leap forward as compared to the present state. Treating the historical record as such evidence would be wrong, as we know very little about how alternative practices would have fared. Criticizing RC or other new scientific practices merely on the grounds that they break with a venerable tradition that has proven immensely successful in the past is really not very convincing.

Bertolotti makes an interesting analogy between science and gossip. I think it is very fitting; in some respects even more so than Bertolotti himself seems to think, in other respects perhaps less so. Inasmuch as he and Magnani are right that abductive inference is central to gossip (Bertolotti and Magnani 2014), that is one significant point of similarity. More generally, scientific communication does appear very gossip-like; and since gossip, as understood by Bertolotti, is a potentially efficient source of knowledge, this does not by itself do anything to discredit science.

The difference between gossip and (traditional) science lies, according to Bertolotti, in their different accountability structures (whereas he contends that RC is more gossip-like and so in a way could be seen as a regression back into pre-scientific practices). I think there are more obvious differences, having to do not so much with accountability as with the reliability of the input sources (e.g. controlled observation and experiment and the use of rule-guided inference versus casual observation), the degree of expertise of the group members, the reliable declaration and easy identification of such expertise, the degree of formalized organization (as I pointed out in NCEA, radically collaborative science is in fact more firmly organized and in a way more transparent than old-fashioned collaboration between individual scientists), etc., etc.

On Radically Collaborative Science

Bertolotti seems to assume that radically collaborative science is markedly different from traditional science with regard to accountability and centralized control. In NCEA I question this assumption, arguing that so-called traditional, small-scale science has been indirectly massively collaborative, but in an even less transparent or regulated way. As I see it, one of the noteworthy similarities between science and gossip is precisely their accountability structure. Bertolotti quotes Peirce’s description of scientists’ “unreserved discussion with one another … each being fully informed about the work of his neighbour, and availing himself of that neighbour’s results” (Peirce 1958, 7.51; quoted in Bertolotti (2017, 17).  But this is an extreme idealization. Scientists are very rarely fully informed about the work of their neighbours, and they seldom engage in fully unreserved discussions, for that matter (Bertolotti assumes, with Ayim (1994) that discussing unreservedly is also an essential feature of gossip. While it may be correct that gossip is often shared with less reservation than what is typical of official scientific communication, I am not sure if this is quite right).

As an example of the kind of loose accountability structure I have in mind (and take to be typical of even old-fashioned, single-author science), notice that I quoted Bertolotti and Magnani’s view about the central role of abductive inference in gossip earlier in this paper, with apparent endorsement. You—or some other academic colleague—may have picked that up and might even go on to use it as a premise in some future piece of scientific reasoning. But frankly the reasons for Bertolotti and Magnani’s claim are not completely transparent to me, at least not at the time of writing. I actually read their paper quite closely some years ago, and remember their proposal as well argued, while I am not sure that I became completely convinced, and have forgotten some of the details, anyhow. This did not prevent me from referring to it in passing. And in my experience, you cannot always expect a researcher to have read a text closely and penetratingly in order for her to refer to it and even use some of its claims as premises for her own work.

Of course, one might say that this is not how it should be. But for one thing, I fear that actual conformity with the strict ideals of traditional science would stifle scientific progress to such a degree that we had better live with the errors, imprecisions, rashness and sloppiness that comes from not enforcing those ideals too rigorously. More importantly, the ideals are very far from met in practice. And it is a mistake—in fact a rather common and problematic mistake, I think—to evaluate a practice on the basis of ideals to which it merely aspires.

Of course, one could also say that traditional science does, at any rate, have a clear accountability structure, which distinguishes it from both gossip and RC. Inasmuch as there is a single author, or small group of authors, it is clear who is to be held accountable for the results and methods presented, regardless on how much the author actually knows about the work she is presenting. But this is a mere formal status. It does not ensure that the author is in any epistemically privileged position. It may oblige her to put her cards on the table if we demand her to do so; and we might reasonably expect her to vouch for her claims. Yet by doing so she may merely disclose the degree to which she has relied, blindly or semi-blindly, on the testimony of others.

Bertolotti and I agree that there is no reason to be particularly alarmed (as I understand this notion) by the advance of RC, but good reason to keep a close eye on it. But while an analysis in terms of accountability structures etc. may be of academic interest, an assessment of its actual merits and drawbacks (aimed at determining the appropriate societal response) must focus the epistemic work it actually does (as well as its moral and political consequences). Merely pointing out how RC deviates from an ideal that was never fully met by real-life science, anyway, does not warrant any substantially negative verdict. As I argue in NCEA, even if the claim could be sustained that RC leads to a loss of knowledge, this would merely show that knowledge is less important than we have assumed—as long as the overall consequences, including the epistemic ones, turn out to be sufficiently positive.

I very much share some of Bertolotti’s specific worries, for example that the Matthew Effect hampers the diversification of science (but see Strevens 2006 for an appropriately nuanced discussion). I suspect that there are significant drawbacks of big science, for example that it leads to a disproportionate allocation of funding to certain hyped fields or avenues of research. But I do not see these problems as having anything to do with the radically collaborative nature of big science (as I notice in NCEA, big science may in some respects be too streamlined and conformist; part of the problem seems to be not epistemic anarchy, but rather epistemic overregulation). And so we can—and should—speculate, but also accept that we know very little for sure. There are lots of wide open questions regarding new scientific practices, which call for calm and realistic assessments and empirically informed studies in social epistemology.

References

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

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

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

Klausen, Søren Harnow. ”Applied Epistemology: Prospects and Problems.” Res Cogitans 6, no. 1 (2009): 220-258.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “Two Notions of Epistemic Normativity.” Theoria 75 (2009): 161-178.

Klausen, Søren Harnow. “Group Knowledge: A Real-World Approach.” Synthese 192, no. 3 (2015): 813-839.

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.

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

Strevens, Michael. “The Role of the Matthew Effect in Science.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 37, no. 2 (2006): 159–170

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