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Author Information: Neil Levy, Macquarie University,

Levy, Neil. “The Bad News About Fake News.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 20-36.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Image credit: Paul Townsend, via flickr


We are surrounded by sources of information of dubious reliability, and very many people consume information from these sources. This paper examines the impacts on our beliefs of these reports. I will argue that fake news is more pernicious than most of us realise, leaving long lasting traces on our beliefs and our behavior even when we consume it know it is fake or when the information it contains is corrected. These effects are difficult to correct. We therefore ought to avoid fake or dubious news and work to eliminate it.

We consume a great deal of fiction. We seek it out for entertainment and we are plunged into it inadvertently. While the dangers of fiction have been a subject of philosophical controversy since Plato, the contemporary environment raises new worries, and also provides news ways of inquiring into them. In this paper, I focus on a subset of fictions: that subset that has come to be known as fake news. Fake news is widely held to have played a surprisingly large role in recent political events and appears to be proliferating unchecked. Its scrutiny is among the most urgent problems confronting contemporary epistemology.

Fake news is the presentation of false claims that purport to be about the world in a format and with a content that resembles the format and content of legitimate media organisations.[1] Fake news is produced and reproduced by a range of organisations. Some of them manufacture fake news deliberately, to entertain, to seek to influence events or to make money through the provision of click bait (Allcot & Gentzkow 2017). Some outlets serve as conduits for fake news due to deliberately permissive filters for items that support their world view, operating a de facto “print first, ask questions later” policy (the UK Daily Mail might be regarded as an instance of such a source; see Kharpal 2017). Genuinely reputable news organizations often reproduce fake news: sometimes because they are taken in by it (for one example at random, see Irvine 2017), but more often deliberately, either to debunk it or because politicians who they cannot ignore retail it.

Fake news raises a number of obvious concerns. Democracies require informed voters if they are to function well. Government policy can be an effective means of pursuing social goals only if those who frame it have accurate conceptions of the relevant variables. As individuals, we want our beliefs to be reflect the way the world is, for instrumental reasons and for intrinsic reasons. Fake news can lead to a worse informed populace and take in those in positions of power, thereby threatening a range of things we value. It might have genuinely disastrous consequences. However, while the threat from fake news is serious, many believe that it arises only in limited circumstances. It is only to the extent to which people are naïve consumers of fake news (failing to recognize it for what it is) that it is a problem. Careful consumption and fact checking can eliminate the problem for responsible individuals.[2]

In fact people often knowingly consume fake news. Some consume it in order to know what the credulous believe. Others confess to consuming fake news for entertainment. Most centrally, in recent months, fake news has been unavoidable to those who attempt to keep up with the news at all, because it has stemmed from the office of the most powerful man in the world. Journalists have seen it as their duty to report this fake news (often, but not always, as fake), and many people believe that they have a duty to read this reporting. Fact checks, for instance, repeat fake news, if only to debunk it.

According to what I will call the naïve view of belief and its role in behavior, fake news is a problem when and to the extent to which it is mistaken for an accurate depiction of reality, where the measure of such a mistake is sincere report. On the naïve view, we avoid the mistake by knowing consumption of fake news, and by correction if we are taken in. The naïve view entails that careful consumption of fake news, together with assiduous fact checking, avoids any problems. It entails, inter alia, that reading the fact check is at worst an innocuous way of consuming fake news.

The naïve view seems common sense. Moreover, advocates can point to extensive psychological research indicating that in most contexts even young children have little difficulty in distinguishing fact from fantasy (Weisberg 2013). Fiction, it seems, poses no problems when it is appropriately labelled as such; nor should fake news. I will argue that the naïve view is false. Worries about fake news may indeed be more serious when it is consumed by those who mistake it for genuine, but more sophisticated consumers are also at risk. Moreover, fake news corrected by fact checking sites is not fake news disarmed; it continues to have pernicious effects, I will suggest.

Some of these effects have received a great deal of attention in the psychological literature, if not the philosophical literature, though not in the context of fake news specifically. There is a great deal of evidence that people sometimes acquire beliefs about the world outside the story from fictions in a way that directly reflects the content of the claims made in the fiction,[3] and there is a great deal of evidence that people are surprisingly unresponsive to corrections of false claims once they come to accept them. To a large extent, I simply review this evidence here and show how it applies in the context of fake news. In addition, though, I will argue for a claim that has not previously been defended: consuming fake news shapes our further beliefs and our behavior even in those (many) cases in which we do not acquire false beliefs directly from the fiction. The representations we acquire from fake news play some of the same roles in subsequent cognition that false beliefs would play.

I will not argue that the costs arising from the consumption of fakes news outweigh the benefits. The claim that the media should report fake news when it is retailed by central figures on the political landscape is a compelling one, and I do not aim to rebut it. However, showing that the knowing consumption of fake news is itself a serious problem is a significant enough goal to justify a paper. If I am right that the costs of consumption are far from trivial, that should serve as an impetus for us to formulate proposals to minimize those costs.

Against the Naïve View

The naïve view assumes that mental representations are reliably and enduringly categorized into kinds: beliefs, desires, fantasies and fictions, and that we automatically or easily reclassify them given sufficient reason to do so. On this picture, fake news is a problem when it results in representations that are categorized as beliefs. That problem is averted by ensuring that the representations we form as we consume fake news are not wrongly categorized. We will then not access them when we self-ascribe beliefs and they will not guide our behavior in the manner characteristic of beliefs. Sometimes, of course, we make a mistake and are misled, and a false claim comes to be categorized as a belief. But the problem may be solved by a retraction. All going well, encountering good evidence that a claim is false results in its reclassification.

This naïve view is false, however. The available evidence suggests that mental representations are not reliably and enduringly stored into exclusive categories. Instead, the self-ascription of beliefs is sensitive to a range of cues, internal and external, in ways that can transform an internal state from a fantasy into a belief.

Minded animals continually form representational states: representations of the world around them and (in many cases) of internally generated states (Cheney & Seyfarth 2007; Camp 2009). These representations include beliefs or belief-like states, desires, and, in the human case at least, imaginings (which are presumably generated because it is adaptive to be able to simulate counterfactuals). These representations have certain causal powers in virtue of the kind of states they are; beliefs, for instance, are apt to be used as premises in reasoning and in systematic inference (Stich 1978; AU 2015). These representations include many subpersonal states, to which the language of commonsense psychology apply only uneasily if at all. For ease of reference, I will call these states ground level representations.

When we ascribe states to ourselves, these representations powerfully shape the kind and content of the attitude ascribed. It remains controversial how exactly this occurs, but there is widespread agreement that cues—Like questions probing what we believe—cause the activation of semantically related and associatively linked representations, which guide response (Collins & Loftus 1975; Buckner 2011). Perhaps we recall a previous conversation about this topic, and our own conclusion (or verbal expression of the conclusion). Perhaps we have never thought about the topic before, but our ground level representations entail a response. The person may generate that response effortfully, by seeing what their representations entail, or automatically.

Belief self-ascription is powerfully shaped by ground-level representations, in ways that make it highly reliable much of the time. Beliefs entailed by these representations, or generated by recalling past acts of endorsement, are likely to be very stable across time: asked what she believes about a topic at t or at t1, for any arbitrary values of t and t1, the person is likely to ascribe the same belief (of course, if the person is asked at t and t1, she is even more likely to ascribe the same belief because she may recall the earlier episode). But often the representations underdetermine how we self-ascribe. In those circumstances, the belief may be unstable; we might self-ascribe p were we asked at t but ~p were we asked at t1. When ground-level representations underdetermine beliefs, we come to ascribe them by reference to other cues, internal and external.

Consider cognitive dissonance experiments; for example, the classic essay writing paradigm. Participants are assigned to one of two groups. One group is paid to write an essay defending a claim that we have good reason to think is counter-attitudinal (college students may be paid to defend the claim that their tuition fees should rise, for instance), while the other group is asked to defend the same claim. (Participants in this arm may be paid a small amount of money as well, but compliance is secured by mild situational pressure; essentially appealing to their better nature. It is essential to the success of the manipulation that participants in this arm see themselves as participating voluntarily). The oft-replicated finding is that this paradigm affects self-ascribed beliefs in those who defended the thesis under mild situational pressure, but not those paid to write the essay (see Cooper 2007 for review). That is, the former, but not the latter, are significantly more likely to assert agreement with the claim they defended in the essay than matched controls.

These data are best explained by the hypothesis that belief self-ascription is sensitive to cues about our own behavior (Bem 1967; Carruthers 2011). Participants in the mild pressure arm of the experiment are unable to explain their own behavior to themselves (since they take themselves to have voluntarily defended the view) except by supposing that they wanted to write the essay, and that, in turn, is evidence that they believe the claim defended. Participants in the other arm can instead explain their behavior to themselves by reference to the payment they received. In this case, external cues swamp the evidence provided by ground level representations: college students can be expected to have ground-level representations that imply the belief that their tuition should not rise (indeed, control participants overwhelmingly profess that belief).

Choice blindness experiments (Johansson et al. 2005; Hall, Johansson and Strandberg 2012) provide further evidence that we self-ascribe mental states using evidence provided by our own behavior, together with the ground-level representations. In these paradigms, participants are asked to choose between options, with the options represented by cards. The card selected is then placed in a pile along with all the others chosen by that participant. In the next phase of the experiment, the cards are shown to the participants and they are asked why they chose the options they did. Using sleight of hand, however, the experimenters substitute some unchosen options for chosen ones. On most trials, the participants fail to detect the substitutions and proceed to justify their (apparent) choice. Choice blindness has been demonstrated even with regard to real policy choices in a forthcoming election, and even among the respondents who identified themselves as the most committed on the issues (Hall et al. 2013). While these respondents were more likely to detect the substitution, around one third of them defended policies they had in fact rejected.

Again, a plausible explanation of these data is that respondents self-ascribed belief via interpretation. The card they were presented with was drawn from the pile that represented their choices, they believed, so it was evidence that they actually agreed the policy they had were now asked to justify. Of course, the card was not their only evidence that they agreed with the policy. They also had internal evidence; recall of previous discussions about the policy or related issues, of previous experiences related to the policy, of principles to which they take themselves to be committed, and so on. Because they have these other sources of evidence, the manipulation was not effective in all cases. In some cases, individuals had strong evidence that they disagreed with the policy, sufficient to override the external evidence. But in some cases the ground-level representations underdetermined belief ascription (despite their taking themselves to be strongly committed to their view) and the external cue was decisive.

The large literature on processing fluency provides yet more evidence against the naïve view. Processing fluency refers to the subjective ease of information processing. Psychologists typically understand processing fluency as an experiential property: a claim is processed fluently when processing is subjectively easy (Oppenheimer 2008). It may be that fluency is better understood as the absence of an experiential property: that is, a claim is processed fluently just in case there is no experience of disfluency. Disfluency is a metacognitive signal that a claim is questionable and prompts more intensive processing of the claim (Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley & Eyre 2007; Thompson; Prowse Turner & Pennycook 2011). When the claim is processed fluently, on the other hand, we tend to accept it (Reber & Schwarz 1999; Schwartz, Newman & Leach, in press). When a claim is processed fluently, it is intuitive, and the strong default is to accept intuitive claims as true: we self-ascribe belief in claims that are intuitive for us.

(Dis)fluency may be induced by a variety of factors. The content of the claim plays a significant role in the production of disfluency: if the claim is inconsistent with other things that the agent believes and which she is likely to recall at the time (with claim content as a cue for recall), then she is likely to experience disfluency. Thus, the content of ground-level representations and their entailments help to shape fluency. But inconsistency is just one factor influencing fluency, because processing may be more or less difficult for many reasons, some of them independent of claim content. For instance, even the font in which a claim is presented influences processing ease: those presented in legible, high-contrast, fonts are more likely to be accepted than those presented in less legible fonts, even when the content of the claim is inconsistent with the person’s background knowledge (Song & Schwarz 2008).

The effects of disfluency on belief ascription may be significant. Consider the influence of retrieval effort on claim acceptance. Schwartz et al. (1991) asked participants to recall either 6 or 12 times on which they had acted assertively. Participants who recalled 12 occasions rated themselves as less assertive than those who recalled 6 instances; presumably the difficulty of recalling 12 occasions was implicitly taken as evidence that such occasions were few and far between, and trumped the greater amount of evidence of assertive behavior available. How these cues are interpreted is modulated by background beliefs. For instance, telling experimental participants that effortfulness of thought is an indicator of its complexity, and therefore of the intelligence of the person who experiences it, may temporarily reverse the disposition to take the experience of effortfulness as a cue to the falsity of a claim (Briñol, Petty & Tormala 2006).

A final example: evidence that a view is held by people with whom they identify may powerfully influence the extent to which participants agree with it. The effect may be sufficiently powerful to overwhelm strong ground-level representations. Maoz et al. (2002) found that attitudes to a peace proposal among their Israeli sample were strongly influenced by information about who had formulated it. Israeli Arabs were more likely to support the proposal if it was presented as stemming from Palestinian negotiators than from the Israeli sides, while Israeli Jews were more likely to support it if it was presented as stemming from the Israeli side. Cohen (2003) found that attitudes to welfare policies were more strongly influenced by whether they were presented as supported by House Democrats or House Republicans than by policy content, with Democrats (for example) supportive of quite harsh policies when they were presented as stemming from the side they identified with.

These data are probably explained by a similar mechanism to the choice blindness data. Whereas in the latter people ascribe a belief to themselves on the basis of evidence that they had chosen it, in these experiments they ascribe a belief to themselves on the basis of evidence that people (that they take to be) like them accept it. The effect is powerful enough to override content-based disfluency that may have arisen from consideration of the details of the policies under consideration. It may be that a mechanism of this kind helps to explain why his supporters are not bothered by some of Donald Trump’s views we might have expected them to find troublesome. Until recently, Russia was regarded as extremely hostile to the United States by most conservative Americans, but Trump’s wish for a friendly relationship has softened their views on the issue.

All this evidence (which is only a subset of the total evidence that might be cited) powerfully indicates that belief ascription does not work the naïve view suggests. That, in turn, indicates that representations are not (always) stored neatly, such that they can be compartmentalized from one another: they are not stored reliably and enduringly into kinds. Ground-level representations often underdetermine the beliefs we come to hold. Even when they might reasonably be expected to strongly imply a belief (that my tuition fees should not rise; that our welfare policies should be supportive and not harsh, and so on), contextual cues may swamp them. Even previous endorsement of a claim may not insulate it from revision. Using the classic essay writing paradigm, Bem & McConnell (1970) showed that explicitly asking participants about the topic a week beforehand, and recording their responses in a manner that linked responses to individuals, did not prevent belief revision. Participants denied that their beliefs had changed at all.

All this evidence (and a great deal more) indicates that mental states are not exhaustively and exclusively categorized into kinds, such that we can reliably self-attribute them via self-scanning. While there is no doubt that we self-ascribe beliefs in ways that are pervasively and powerfully shaped by the properties of our ground-level representations, these representations are often leave a great deal of leeway for self-ascription. Ground level representations may come to play all kinds of different roles in our cognition and behavior, regardless of how they were acquired.

That, in turn, suggests that the consumption of fiction may lead to the formation of representations that subsequently come to be accepted by the person whose representation they are, even when they did not take the source to be factual. That prediction is, in fact, a retrodiction: there is already good evidence that people come to believe claims made in texts they recognize as fictions.

Breaking Through the Fourth Wall

Let ‘fiction’ refer to two categories of sources of false information. One category is made up of information sources that are either explicitly presented as false (novels, The Onion and so on) and sources that are taken by consumers to be false. The latter conjunct is subject-relative, since one person may read The National Inquirer believing it is accurate while another may read it for entertainment value despite believing it to be false. The second category is information consumed as true, but which is subsequently corrected. Both kinds of fiction have effects on agents’ mental states that cannot be accounted for on the naïve view.

A great deal of the information we acquire about the world beyond our direct experience we acquire from fiction. In many cases, such acquisition is unproblematic. Someone may know, for instance, that New York has a subway system solely on the basis of having watched films set in the city. Since fictions usually alter real world settings only when doing so is germane to their plots, the inference from film to real world is very often reliable. We may also acquire beliefs about human psychology from fictions in a way that is unproblematic (Friend 2006). However, we come to acquire beliefs from sources we take to be fictional in a way that we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, endorse on reflection.

The relevant experiments have typically proceeded as follows. In the experimental conditions, participants read a version of a fictional story in which assertions are made about the world outside the story. The stories differ in the truth of these statements, so that some participants get a version in which a character states, for example, that mental illness is contagious while others get a version in which they state that mental illness is not contagious (control subjects, meanwhile, read a story in which no claims about the target propositions are made). After a filler task, participants are given a general knowledge quiz, in which they are asked about the target propositions (e.g., is mental illness contagious?) The participants who read a version containing the false assertion are significantly more likely to assert it than those who read a version containing the true assertion or who read the control version (this description is based on Prentice, Gerrig & Bailis 1997; Wheeler, Green & Brock 1999 report a replication). Other studies produced the same results using a slightly different methodology; rather than having the true or false propositions asserted, they are mentioned as peripheral narrative details (e.g. Marsh & Fazio 2006). Again, participants are significantly more likely to accept claims presented in the fiction as true in the real world.

More troublingly still, we may be more inclined to accept claims made in a fiction than identical claims made in a passage presented as factual (Prentice & Gerrig 1999; Strange 2002). Moreover, factors known to reduce acceptance of claims presented as factual do not significantly reduce reliance on claims presented as fictional. Need for cognition, the personality trait of being disposed to engage in effortful thought, is protective against false information in other contexts, but not in the fictional context (Strange 2002). Even when participants are warned that the stories may contain false information (Marsh & Fazio 2006) or when stories are presented slowly to allow for intensive processing (Fazio & Marsh 2008), acceptance of false claims does not decrease.

We are much less likely to acquire false information from fantastic fiction (Rapp et al. 2014), probably because its claims are not easily integrated with our existing model of the world. But when fictions are consistent with what we know of the world, false beliefs are often acquired (of course fake news is designed to be compatible with what we know about the real world: It concerns real people, often acting in line with their real motivations and in ways that are generally possible). Worse, when false beliefs are acquired people may forget their source: information acquired from fiction is sometimes subsequently misattributed to reliable sources (Marsh, Cantor & Brashier 2016), or held to be common knowledge. This may occur even when the claim is in fact inconsistent with common knowledge (Rapp 2016).

We are therefore at risk of acquiring false beliefs from fiction; when those fictions are fake news, the beliefs we acquire may be pernicious. However acquired, these beliefs may prove resistant to correction. In fact, corrections rarely if ever eliminate reliance on misinformation. Sometimes agents rely on the misinformation subsequent to correction because they reject the correction. Sometimes they accept the correction and yet continue to act on the corrected belief. I begin with the former kind of case.

The phenomenon of belief perseverance has long between known to psychologists. Classical demonstrations of belief perseverance involve giving people feedback on well they are doing at a task, leading them to form a belief about their abilities. They are subsequently informed that the feedback was scripted and did not track their actual performance. This information undercuts their evidence for their belief but does not lead to its rejection: participants continue to think that they are better than average at the task when they have been assigned to the positive feedback condition (Ross, Lepper & Hubbard 1975). Wegner, Coulton, & Wenzlaff (1985) demonstrated that telling people beforehand that the feedback would be unrelated to their actual performance—i.e., fictitious—did not prevent it from leading to beliefs that reflected it contents.

Research using different paradigms has demonstrated that even when people remember a retraction, they may continue to cite the retracted claim in explaining events (Fein, McCloskey, & Tomlinson 1997; Ecker, Lewandowsky, Swire, & Chang 2011). In fact, corrections sometimes backfire, leaving agents more committed to false claims than before. The most famous demonstration of the backfire effect is Nyhan and Reifer (2010; see Schwartz et al. 2007 for an earlier demonstration of how the attempt to debunk may increase belief in the false claim). They gave participants mock news articles, which contained (genuine) comments from President Bush implying that Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program at the time of the US invasion. In one condition, the article contained an authoritative correction, from the (also genuine) congressional inquiry into Iraqi WMDs held subsequent to the invasion. Participants were then asked to indicate their level of agreement with the claims that Iraq had stockpiles of WMDs and an active WMD development program at the time of the invasion. For conservative participants, the correction backfired: they expressed higher levels of disagreement with the claim than conservative peers whose false belief was not corrected. Since Nyhan and Reifler’s initial demonstration of the backfire effect, these results have been replicated multiple times (see Peter & Koch 2016 for review).[4]

Even when a correction succeeds in changing people’s professed beliefs, they may exhibit a behavioural backfire. Nyhan, Reifler, Richey & Freed (2014) found that correcting the myth that vaccines cause autism was effective at the level of belief, but actually decreased intention to have one’s children vaccinated among parents who were initially least favourable to vaccines. Nyhan and Reifler (2015) documented the same phenomenon with regard to influenza vaccines. Continued reliance on information despite explicit acknowledgement that it is false is likely to be strongest with regard to emotionally arousing claims, especially those that are negatively valenced (e.g., arousing fear or disgust). There is extensive evidence that children’s behavior is influenced by pretence. In the well-known box paradigm, children are asked to imagine that there is a fearsome creature in one box and a puppy in another. Young children are quick to acknowledge that the creatures are imaginary, but prefer to approach the latter box than the former (Harris et al. 1991; Johnson and Harris 1994). They may exhibit similar behavior even when the box is transparent and they can see it is empty (Bourchier and Davis 2000; see Weisberg 2013 for discussion of the limitations of this research). Emotionally arousing claims are also those that are most likely to be transmitted (Peters, Kashima & Clark 2009). Of course, fake news is often emotionally arousing in just these ways. Such news can be expected to proliferate and to affect behavior.

Despite our knowing that we are consuming fiction, its content may affect our beliefs in ways that cannot be accounted for by the naïve view. Perhaps worse, these contents may continue to influence our beliefs and (somewhat independently) our behavior if and when they are retracted. This evidence indicates that when we acquire ground level representations from fiction, recognizing that the source is fictional and exposure to fact checking may not prevent us from acquiring false beliefs that directly reflect its contents, or from having our behavior influenced by its contents. Even for sophisticated consumers, the consumption of fiction may be risky. This is especially so for fake news, given that it has features that make fictional transfer more likely. In particular, fake news is realistic, inasmuch as it portrays real people, acting in line with their genuine motivations in circumstances that closely resemble the real world and it is emotionally arousing, making it more memorable and more likely to be transmitted and repeated. If it is in addition absorbing, we are especially likely to acquire false beliefs from it.

How Fake News Parasitizes Belief and Behavior

When we consume information, we represent the events described to ourselves. These representations might be usefully thought of as ways a possible world might be. Once these representations are formed, they may persist. In fact, though we may forget such information rapidly, some of these representations are very long-lasting and survive retraction: coming to accept inconsistent information does not lead to older representations being overwritten. These representations persist, continuing to shape the beliefs we ascribe to ourselves, the ways in which we process further information, and our behavior.

As we saw above, we acquire beliefs that directly reflect the content of the fictions we consume. We may therefore expect to acquire beliefs from that subset of fiction that is fake news. One way this may occur is through memory-based mechanisms. Sophisticated readers may be especially wary of any claim that they recall came from a fake news site, but source knowledge and object knowledge are stored separately and may dissociate; readers may fail to recall the source of the claim when its content comes to mind (Pratkanis et al. 1988; Lewandowsky et al. 2012). Worse, they may misattribute the claim to a reliable source or even to common knowledge (Marsh, Cantor & Brashier 2016; Rapp 2016). These effects are particularly likely with regard to details of the fake news story that are apparently peripheral to the story, about which the exercise of vigilance is harder and likely less effective. If the person does come to ascribe the belief to themselves, they will then have further evidence for future self-ascriptions: that very act of self-ascription. The belief will now resist disconfirmation.

We may also acquire beliefs from fiction through fluency effects. Repetition of a claim powerfully affects fluency of processing (Begg, Anas & Farinacci 1992; Weaver et al. 2007). This effect may lead to the agent accepting the original claim, when she has forgotten its source. Even when repetition is explicitly in the service of debunking a claim, it may result in higher levels of acceptance by promoting processing fluency (Schwartz et al. 2007). The influence of repetition may persist for months (Brown & Nix 1996), increasing the probability that the source of a repeated claim may be forgotten. All these effects may lead to even careful consumers coming to accept claims that originate in fake news sites, despite a lack of evidence in their favour. Because the claim will be misattributed to common knowledge or a reliable source, introspection cannot reveal the belief’s origins.

There are steps we can take to decrease the likelihood of our acquisition of false claims from fiction, which may form the basis of techniques for decreasing transfer from fake news too. Online monitoring of information, in order to tag it as false as soon as it is encountered, reduces acquisition of false information (Marsh & Fazio 2006). While these steps likely would improve somewhat effective, there are reasons to think that nevertheless a significant problem would persist even with their adoption. First, in near optimal conditions for the avoidance of error, Marsh and Fazio found that the manipulation reduced, rather than eliminated, the acquisition of false claims from fiction. Second, the measures taken are extremely demanding of time and resources. Marsh and Fazio required their participants to make judgments about every sentence one by one, before the next sentence was displayed. More naturalistic reading is likely to produce the kind of immersion that is known to dispose to the acquisition of false claims from fiction (Green & Brock 2000; Lewandowsky et al. 2012). Third, Marsh and Fazio measured the extent of acquisition of false claims from fiction soon after the fiction was read and the error tagged, thereby greatly reducing the opportunity for dissociations in recall between the claim content and the discounting cue. We should expect a sleeper effect, with an increase of acquisition over time. Finally, Marsh and Fazio’s design can be expected to have little effect on the fluency with which the claims made were processed. As we have seen, repetition increases fluency. But many of the claims made in fake news are encountered multiple times, thereby increasing processing fluency and promoting an illusion of truth.

On the other hand, many sophisticated consumers of fake news come to it with fiercely partisan attitudes toward the claims made. They expect to encounter not merely false claims, but glaringly and perniciously false claims. It is reasonable to expect this attitude to be protective.[5] Moreover, it is should be obvious that we routinely encounter fake news or egregiously false claims without coming to believe them. When we think of such claims (about the Bowling Green attack, for instance), we think of false claims we recognize as false.  Confidence that we can consume fake news without acquiring false beliefs from it should be tempered by recognition of the impossibility of identifying candidate beliefs, since we are unable to identify false claims we take to be true and we are likely to misattribute claims we do acquire. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that we routinely succeed in rejecting the claims we read on such sites. But that doesn’t entail that these claims don’t have pernicious effects on our cognition and subsequent behavior.

There is good reason to believe that even when we succeed in rejecting the claims that we encounter in fake news, those claims will play a role in our subsequent belief acquisition in ways that reflect their content. Even when they are not accepted, claims are available to shape beliefs in a similar (and for some purposes identical) kind of way as those that the person accepts. As noted above, successfully retracted claims are not overwritten and their continuing influence on cognitive processing has been demonstrated. O’Brien, Cook & Guéraud (2010) found that information inconsistent with retracted claims was processed more slowly than other information, indicating that it continues to play an active role in how the text is comprehended, despite the fact that the readers fully accepted the retraction. Representations like these may shape how related information is processed, even (perhaps especially) when it is not explicitly recalled. There are at least three pathways whereby this may occur: one fluency-based, one via the activation of related information, and one through the elicitation of action tendencies.

First, the fluency-based mechanism: An agent who succeeds in recalling that the claim that Hillary Clinton is a criminal stems from a fake news site and therefore does not self-ascribe belief in the claim may nevertheless process claims like Hillary Clinton is concerned only with her own self-interest more fluently, because the semantic content of the first representation makes the second seem more familiar and therefore more plausible. The more familiar we are with a false claim, even one we confidently identify as false, the more available it is to influence processing of semantically related claims and thereby fluency. Independent of fluency, moreover, the activation of semantically or associatively related information plays a characteristic role in cognitive processing. Representations prime other representations, and that biases cognition. It influences what else comes to mind and therefore what claims come to be weighed in deliberation (negative false claims about Clinton may preferentially prime the recall of negative true claims about her—say, that she voted in favor of the war in Iraq—and thereby to influence deliberation about her). Without the false prime, the person may have engaged in more even-handed deliberation. Perhaps priming with fake news might result in her deciding to abstain from voting, rather than support ‘the lesser evil’. Sufficiently prolonged or repeated exposure to fake news about a person might result in the formation of implicit biases against her, in the same way in which, plausibly, implicit biases against women or minorities arise, at least in part, from their negative portrayal in explicitly labelled fictions (Kang 2012).

While it is unclear whether the mechanism is fluency-based or content-based, there is experimental evidence that suggests that claims known from the start to be false play a role in information processing. For instance, Gilbert, Tafarodi, and Malone (1993) had participants read crime reports, which contained some information marked (by font color) as false. In one condition, the false information was extenuating; in the other, it was exacerbating. Participants who were under cognitive load or time pressure when reading the information judged that the criminal should get a longer sentence when the false information was exacerbating and a shorter sentence when the false information was extenuating. At longer delays, it is likely that those who were not under load would be influenced by the information, even if they continued to recognize it as false. Its availability would render related information accessible and more fluently processed, or activate it so that it played its characteristic role in processing, affecting downstream judgments.

Fictions also elicit action tendencies. As we saw above, scenarios that children recognize to be imaginary affect how they behave. They are, for instance, reluctant to approach a box in which they had imagined there was a monster, despite being confident that it was only make-believe (Harris et al. 1991; Johnson and Harris 1994), and even when they can see for themselves that the box is empty (Bourchier and Davis 2000). There is no reason to think that the kinds of effects are limited to children. Many people in fact seek out fiction at least partly in order to experience strong emotions with associated action tendencies. We might go to the cinema to be moved, to be scared, to be exhilarated, all by events we know to be fictional; these emotions dispose us, at least weakly, to respond appropriately. We may cry, flinch away, even avert our gaze, and these action tendencies may persist for some time after the film’s end.[6]

The offline stimulation of mechanisms for simulation and the elicitation of action tendencies is pleasurable and may even be adaptive in highly social beings like us. It is also risky. When we simulate scenarios we know (or should know) to be false, we elicit action tendencies in ourselves that may be pernicious. Fake news might, for instance, retail narratives of minorities committing assaults. We may reject the content of these claims, but nevertheless prime ourselves to respond fearfully to members of the minority group. Repeated exposure may result in the formation of implicit biases, which are themselves ground-level representations. These representations, short or long term, play a distinctive role in cognition too, influencing decision-making.


In this paper, I have argued that fake news poses dangers for even its sophisticated consumers. It may lead to the acquisition of beliefs about the world that directly reflect its content. When this happens, we may misattribute the belief to a reputable source, or to common knowledge. Beliefs, once acquired, resist retraction. We do better to avoid acquiring them in the first place.

I have conceded that we routinely succeed in rejecting claims made by those who purvey fake news. That may suggest that the threat is small. Perhaps the threat of belief acquisition is small; I know of no data that gives an indication of how often we acquire such beliefs or how consequential such beliefs are, and introspection is an unreliable guide to the question. I have also argued, however, that even when we succeed in consuming fake news without coming to acquire beliefs that directly reflect its content (surely the typical case), the ground level representations will play a content-reflecting role in our further cognition, in ways that may be pernicious. Cognitive sophistication may not be protective against fake news. Need for cognition (a trait on which academics score very highly) is not protective against the acquisition of beliefs from fiction (Strange 2002). There is also evidence that higher levels of education and of reflectiveness may correlate with higher levels of credulousness about claims that agents want to believe. For example, higher levels of education among Republicans are associated with higher levels of belief that Obama is a Muslim, not lower (Lewandowsy et al. 2012), and with higher degrees of scepticism toward climate change (Kahan 2015). This may arise from what Taber & Lodge (2006) call the sophistication effect, whereby being more knowledgeable provides more ammunition with which to counter unpalatable claims.

I have not argued that the dangers of fake news outweigh the benefits that may arise from reading it. Perhaps these benefits are sufficient such that its consumption is all things considered justifiable. This paper is a first step toward assessing that claim. There is a great deal more we need to know to assess it. For instance, we have little data concerning the extent to which the partisan attitude of those people who consume fake news in order to discover just how it is false may be protective. Showing that the dangers are unexpectedly large is showing that gathering that data, as well as assessing the benefits of the consumption of fake news, is an unexpectedly urgent task.[7]


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[1] This definition is intended to fix the reference for discussion, not serve as a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. While there may be interesting philosophical work to do in settling difficult questions about whether a particular organization or a particular item is or is not an instance of fake news, this is not work I aim to undertake here. We can make a great deal of progress on both the theoretical and the practical challenges posed by fake news without settling these issues.

[2] It is difficult to find an explicit defence of this claim. I suspect, in fact, it is taken for granted to such an extent that it does not occur to most writers that it needs a defence. In addressing the dangers of fake news, however, they focus exclusively or near exclusively on the extent to which people are duped by it (see, for instance, Silverman & Singer-Vine 2016; McIntye 2015). Lynch (2016) expands the focus of concern slightly, from being taken in by fake news to becoming doubtful over its truth. On the other hand, the solution they propose for the problem is better fact checking and increased media literacy (Orlando 2017; Holcombe 2017).

[3] We acquire many beliefs about the world from reading fiction, but only some of those beliefs directly reflect the content of the claims made in the fiction. For example, from reading Tristram Shandy I might learn that 18th century novels are sometimes rather long, that they could be surprisingly bawdy and (putative) facts about Wellington’s battles. Only the last belief is a belief about the world outside the fiction that directly reflects the contents of the claims made in the fiction. The first reflects the formal properties of the novel; the second reflects its content but not directly (the book neither claims, nor implies, that 18th century novels could be bawdy).

[4] It is possible that the backfire effect is very much less common than many psychologists fear. Wood and Porter (2016) conducted 4 experiments with a large number of participants, and failed to produce a backfire effect for any item other than the Iraq WMDs correction. It is unclear, however, whether these experiments provide strong evidence against the backfire effect. First, Wood and Porter presented the claim to be corrected and the correction together, and probed for corrections immediately afterwards. The backfire effect seems to be strongest after a delay of at least several days (Peter and Koch 2016). The evidence may also be compatible with there being a strong backfire effect for corrections given at around the same time judgments are made. The reason is this: Wood and Porter deliberately aimed mainly at correcting a false impression that might arise from the (genuine) words of the politicians they aimed to correct, not at correcting the literal meaning of their claims. For example, they quote Hillary Clinton as saying “Between 88 and 92 people a day are killed by guns in America. It’s the leading cause of death for young black men, the second leading cause for young Hispanic men, the fourth leading cause for young white men. This epidemic of gun violence knows no boundaries, knows no limits, of any kind.” The correction given was: “In fact, according to the FBI, the number of gun homicides has fallen since the mid 1990s, declining by about 50% between 1994 and 2013.” Subjects were asked to agree or disagree on a five-point scale with “The number of gun homicides is currently at an all-time high”. Answering “disagree” to this question—that is, giving the answer that Wood and Porter take to be supported by the “correction”—is compatible with thinking that everything Clinton said was true (because her claims and the correction are logically compatible). Accepting the “correction” does not require one to disagree with someone with whom partisans might identify. It may be that the backfire effect concerning judgments made without the opportunity for memory dissociations is limited, or strongest, with regard to, directly conflicting statements. Bolstering this interpretation of the results reported by Wood and Porter is the fact that they replicated the backfire effect for the original WMDs in Iraq case, and subsequently eliminated the backfire effect by giving respondents an option which allowed them to accept the correction without contradicting the literal meaning of President Bush’s words. Finally, it should be noted that Wood and Porter’s corrections did not eliminate reliance on false information. The corrections they provided still left the most partisan quite firmly convinced—though somewhat less than they would otherwise have been—that the false implication was in fact true. Thus, they did not demonstrate the “steadfast factual adherence” of the title of their paper.

[5] I owe this point to Jason D’Cruz.
. It should be noted that there is to my knowledge no data on whether a partisan attitude of the kind described is protective; given that the discoveries made by cognitive science are sometimes counterintuitive, we cannot be very confident that the reasonable presumption that it is protective is true.

[6] Plausibly, these phenomena arise because fictions parasitize—or exapt—mechanisms designed for behavioural control. That is, the creation and consumption of fictional narrative utilizes machinery that evolved for assessing counterfactuals in the service of decision-making. Cognitive scientists refer to our capacity to reconstruct the past and construct the future as mental time travel (see Suddendorf & Corbalis 2008 for review of supporting evidence). This machinery is adaptive, because it allows us to utilize stored knowledge to prepare for future contingencies (Suddendorf, Addis & Corbalis 2011). It is this machinery, used offline, which is used for the simulation of counterfactuals and the construction of fictions for entertainment purposes. Because this machinery is designed to prepare us to respond adaptively, it is closely linked to action tendencies.

[7]  I am grateful to an audience at the Groupe de Recherche Interuniversitaire sur la Normativité, Montreal for helpful comments. Jason D’Cruz provided extensive and extremely helpful comments on a draft of the paper.

Author Information: Søren Harnow Klausen, University of South Denmark,

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.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Image credit: stop that pigeon!, via flickr


New forms of radical collaboration—notably “big science,” multi-authorship and academic ghostwriting—have brought renewed attention to the social nature of science. They have been thought to raise new and pressing epistemological problems, especially because they appear to have put in jeopardy the transparency, accountability and responsibility associated with traditional scientific practice. Against this worried stance, I argue that the new practices can be adequately accounted for within a standard epistemological framework. While radical collaboration may carry serious practical problems and risks, and requires critical attention to the way science is organized and communicated, it raises no fundamentally new epistemological problems. It may even serve as an example of a less restrained and more fruitful, albeit calculatedly risky, mode of conduct that could enhance scientific creativity.

Science is a collaborative enterprise. It is arguably becoming ever more collaborative. A number of contemporary trends seem to support such a diagnosis. There is, first, the rise of big science, that is, of large-scale, infrastructure-dependent research, epitomized by high-energy physics or the Human Genome Project. Even in fields still dominated by smaller-scale science, research has become increasingly collective. The research group has long been recognized as the fundamental unit of scientific knowledge production,[1] and global and regional research networks are gaining importance.[2]

A further significant manifestation of the trend towards increased collaboration is multi-authorship. The average number of authors per paper is growing steadily, with some fields now turning out papers with several hundreds or even thousands of names on the author list. Many of the persons named may not have done any authoring in the traditional sense, but appear on the byline due to their contributions as fundraisers, managers, project partners or engineers, and some may have been granted so-called honorary or gratuitous authorship. And although bylines are getting crowded, not all authors may actually be listed as such, as academic ghostwriting is also becoming widespread.

The recent trends towards free or forced collectivization of science have prompted a new wave of critical inquiry. It has been argued that radically collaborative research (henceforth RC) raises a new kind of epistemic problem, because it has put in jeopardy the transparency, accountability and responsibility associated with traditional scientific practice. When there is no centre of command, when epistemic labour is distributed widely over a seemingly uncoordinated mass of people, it not only gives rise to moral and political concerns or engineering challenges, but calls into doubt whether the activities in question can count as scientific knowledge production at all.

Worries like these have been raised by a group of philosophers of science and cognition whom I shall refer to as the Georgetown Alarmists, consisting of Bryce Huebner, Rebecca Kukla and Eric Winsberg.[3] In a series of papers written jointly or individually, the Georgetown Alarmists argue that we are facing are not only problems of scale, but a whole new quality of problems.[4]

Against this I will argue that although multi-authorship and collectivization are obviously trends that call for critical attention, they do not give rise to any significantly new problems. In particular, they should not be a cause for epistemic alarm. There is plenty of reason for ethical and political concerns about how big science is conducted—but that is a different issue (and, again, it can be doubted whether there is anything inherently problematic about big science, even when measured by these non-epistemic standards). More traditional forms of science and scientific authorship exhibit the same basic features. So if there is a problem, it is neither new nor special to large-scale collaborative research. Moreover, I will argue that traditional mainstream epistemology has all the resources needed to handle the new cases of collaborative science.

The Case for Epistemic Alarm

The reasoning of the Georgetown Alarmists (hereafter abbreviated GA) can be summarized as follows (it should not be understood as a single argument, but rather a set of more or less interrelated theses).[5]

i) Genuine authorship requires accountability (being able to justify and vouch for the truth for the claims made in one’s publication)

ii) Genuine group authorship is possible, but requires a unified and coherent group. It requires that each author is accountable for all the claims made in the publication, or that each author knows which collaborator is responsible for which claims, or that at least one member of the group retains centralized control over the research process[6]

iii) Genuine authorship is more than a purely institutional status; it must represent a “specific form” of epistemic labor[7]

iv) Authorship in RC does not meet the criteria for genuine authorship (since neither i) nor ii) is fulfilled). Radical collaboration leads to authorless publications[8]

v) Epistemic responsibility requires accountability[9]

vi) Knowledge requires epistemic responsibility[10]or accountability[11]

vii) Radical collaborations yield a fundamental epistemic problem rather than a mere engineering problem[12]; they lead to a lack or loss of scientific knowledge

To put it very briefly: Radical collaboration leads to authorless publications, which in turn lead to a loss of knowledge. One way of construing the position of GA on authorship is to say that they accept the poststructuralist “death of the author” view, famously expounded by Barthes[13] and Foucault,[14] as an account of radically collaborative authorship, but reject it as an account of traditional authorship—and that they take traditional authorship to be the normatively superior notion of authorship, the notion of genuine authorship. Contrary to the poststructuralists, they do not welcome the death of the author.

It must be said that although the GA appear to be conservative or “traditionalists” in some of their attitudes toward science, they do have an accurate and realistic understanding of contemporary scientific practice, and they can hardly be accused of being luddites. They take the recent trends to be far from surprising.[15] And not only do they recognize that a return to smaller-scale formats is practically impossible; they agree that it would hardly be desirable.[16] Instead they seem to call for a new framework for assessing and regulating collaborative research processes. Still, their sketchy suggestions for what has to be done do point towards a relatively tight system of control and more rigorous demands for transparency and accountability, which I fear could hamper scientific progress.

I find it difficult to render GA’s reasoning in a balanced way, since it strikes me as relying on a series of questionable assumptions. But I think at least the following can be said to in favour of their conclusions: Collaborative science is an extremely messy affair. It exhibits little transparency or personal accountability. It can surely cause some initial worry to see how bits of evidence and interpretation are tossed around, and how little individual researchers understand, at least in some cases, of what their collaborators are doing or even of the overall process of which they are part.

Moreover, it is a widespread assumption in epistemology that knowledge requires a subject, and that a subject needs to be both sufficiently unified—i.e. have an integrated and coherent mental architecture—and have some kind of reflective access to its own mental states and processes. It is, furthermore, common to expect the process of scientific knowledge-production to exhibit an extraordinary high degree of transparency, reflectivity, unity and systematic coherence. In order to rebut GA’s claims, I have to show these assumptions, which cannot be denied a certain naturalness or initial appeal, to be either wrong or irrelevant.

It may be objected that my attribution of a distinctive, and joint, ”alarmist” position to Kukla, Huebner and Winsberg is an untenable construction. Thus it could be noted that only Huebner has been directly concerned with group knowledge. [17] Now my main interest is of course not exegesis or contemporary intellectual history. It suffices that the views discussed are typical, influential and have been voiced or suggested by at least part of GA. I do, however, find ample evidence in the writings of GA that they do hold a distinctive joint position. They do make clearly located epistemic agency a central condition for scientific knowledge.[18] While the term “knowledge” may not surface in all of their writings, they see multi-authorship as the source of an epistemic problem—and since they all adopt a fairly narrow an orthodox conception of the epistemic, it seems fair to assume that this must mean a problem concerning knowledge. Moreover, while they do distinguish authorship from knowing (as one should; an author can of course be wrong!), they come very close to claiming, and clearly do suggest, that authorship is a necessary condition for knowledge in the cases of radical collaboration they consider.

For example, Kukla writes, following up immediately on her claim that the traditional author in collaborative research is dead, that “[i]n radically distributed, collaborative research, there is no one who has a cognitive state instantiating a full justification for the claims that make it to print.”[19] This sounds very much like a claim that inasmuch as there is no author in the traditional sense, the standard conditions for knowledge are not fulfilled. Moreover, the connection between accountability and scientific knowledge production is posited by Kukla, Huebner and Winsberg alike; and they analyse the alleged lack of epistemic accountability in radically collaborative research in terms of a failure to meet the conditions for group authorship.[20] At any rate, should it turn out, contrary to these strong indications, that GA do not posit any necessary connection between authorship and knowledge, then they owe us an explanation of the sort of pressing epistemic problem they do, quite persistently, claim has been raised by multi-authorship.

Dismantling the Case for Epistemic Alarm

The structure of GA’s argument makes several different lines of response possible. One might (A) accept that publications in radically collaborative science are authorless, but reject the connection between authoring and knowledge (v-vii). Or one might (B) accept this connection, but insist that the requirements for authorship can be met. This in turn can be done either by trying (B1) to show that collaborative science actually meets the requirements laid down by GA (i-iii), or by arguing (B2) that these requirements are too strong. In fact I think that both (A) and (B2) can be developed quite convincingly. (B1) appears less promising, since GA are obviously right about the empirical facts, i.e. the messiness of collaborative research (though even here there is room for debate, as we shall see).

There is also the possibility of (C) accepting the whole reasoning up until vi)—agreeing that new forms of collaboration leads to a loss of knowledge, but denying that this makes for an epistemic crisis. One might hold that knowledge is not the most relevant epistemic desideratum, arguing that the production of reliable information may be valuable enough, perhaps that such information feeds into a larger societal process that is likely to lead to a gain in significant knowledge in the long run. I am less attracted to this line of reply, which would leave intact GA’s spectacular and apparently alarming claim that large parts contemporary science are unable to directly produce knowledge. But it provides a relevant fall-back position, because some might want to follow GA in upholding some relatively strong internalist requirements on knowledge.[21]

Now to the arguments. I will proceed in two steps, first considering the requirements for authorship and then the requirements for knowledge. I shall argue that the production of publications in radical collaborative research may still qualify as authorship, if this is understood in a less demanding and more realistic way. I shall then further argue that at least the kind of authorship favoured by GA is not a necessary condition for knowledge.

Forms and Conditions of Authorship

GA reject the possibility that the publication practices associated with radical collaboration can qualify as group authorship. This appears to fit well with the received view of such authorship. It is common to require of a group that there must be some relation of mutual recognition among its members. Group membership has also been taken to entail reflexivity—i.e. each and every member of a group must view herself as a member of group in question.[22] Last, but not least, it has been assumed that for a group to function as an epistemic agent, it must exhibit joint attention i.e. all the members must attend to—and take a stand on—a common target proposition or set of propositions,[23] or a common body of evidence.[24] In line with these views, Livingston has proposed that genuine joint authorship requires a significant degree of “mutual knowledge” and “reciprocal monitoring and assistance.”[25]

Cases of RC do not meet these criteria. But it should be noted that in spite of their almost axiomatic status among philosophers of collective agency, the strict conditions for group membership just outlined appear rather idiosyncratic. They seem to limit the domain of collective epistemic agency quite substantially. Many groups have a much loser structure; and it is debatable whether even the paradigmatic cases of small and tightly knit groups really meet the proposed criteria. Moreover, even the otherwise strict criteria imposed by theories of collective agency do not necessarily add up to an accountability requirement of the sort espoused by GA. With the possible exception of Mathiesen’s[26] account of groups with explicitly epistemic goals,[27] such theories do not demand that the group members should be able to justify the beliefs to which they commit themselves collectively.

Outside the narrow field of the philosophy of social agency, groups have been defined less demandingly. In organization theory groups are individuated with reference to their tasks.[28] I have myself suggested that we delimit an epistemic collective by taking it to consist of all and only those members who contribute significantly to an epistemic task—a task which does not need to be recognized as such by all, or even any, of them.[29] I am aware that such an inclusive notion of an epistemic collective is controversial. It makes it difficult to draw a clear boundary between the members of the group and those with whom the group is merely interacting; a problem that becomes especially pressing in the absence of a clear notion of what should count as a significant epistemic contribution. In any case, GA would no doubt insist that an epistemic collective in this more inclusive sense is unable to function as a genuine author.

Still, the appropriateness of the strict requirements on group authorship is put in serious doubt by the fact that even individual subjects are hardly able to meet them. It seems unlikely that even so-called individual authors retain a high degree of “centralized control” over the research processes documented in their publications.

For one thing, researchers have to depend extensively on the work of other researchers, often without knowing very much about its epistemic merits. A famous example has been given by Hardwig,[30] as part of his case for the claim that scientists generally have to rely on what he describes as blind trust. Hardwig pointed out that even though the Bieberbach conjecture is considered to have been proven by de Branges in 1985, no single mathematician, including de Branges himself, has ever had sufficient justification for each step in the proof. De Branges relied on computer verification by Cautchy, and especially on work of Askey, who had the specialized knowledge of hypergeometric functions which he himself lacked. Askey, on the other hand, did not know enough complex analysis to complete or verify the proof himself. Though de Branges’ original 1985 paper seems to be a typical case of classical authorship, and even the result of an individual research project, the knowledge formation process behind it turns out to have been highly collective, complex, and far from completely transparent.

It may be said that the broad accountability requirement laid down by GA[31] is still met by this example, since de Branges at least knew which contributor was responsible for which claims. He did retain some kind of centralized control, and probably also had a fairly clear idea of the sort of work Askey was good at, since he had some knowledge of hypergeometric functions himself. But the example shows that even paradigm examples of centralized control are often indirect and partly blind, based on a more or less superficial identification of collaborators’ competences and the relevance of their contributions. Other examples of scientific knowledge production can be expected to be further out on the continuum between the completely controlled and completely uncontrolled processes. The celebrated modern evolutionary synthesis is a complex network of results and hypotheses from, inter alia, selectionism, genetics, statistics, paleontology, botanics, cytology, ecology and geology. While it is again likely that the key proponents of this view have been able to gauge the overall significance and reliability of the different contributions, it is also clear that have not been able to epistemically penetrate the whole system of interdependent assumptions. To take one of GA’s favourite themes, they have not, for example, been able to assess the underlying inductive risk-taking decisions.[32]

It is an open question to what extent centralized control and monitoring is aimed at as a regulative ideal, and to what extent it is actually achieved. Authors of literary fiction frequently employ deliberate strategies for reducing the impact of authorial metacognition, allowing for a freer play of ideas.[33] Scientific authors seldom do something like that. Standard formats for scientific papers function as a means for forcing the author to say all and only what ought to be said, to lay all her cards on the table and address the key issues directly. There may also be a relevant difference between papers in the natural sciences and the humanities, inasmuch as the former usually report the results of independent research processes, whereas in the case of a least some of the latter, the writing itself is an integral part of the research process, making it more open-ended and less subject to complete authorial control.

Yet even in the case of standard natural science papers, complete transparency and metacognitive control is at most a regulative ideal. Idioms are borrowed uncritically; references and quotations are made with incomplete knowledge and understanding of the work cited; formulas and rules of inference are applied blindly, and so on. Textbook accounts of the history of science give an impression of a smooth process of almost perfect dissemination; the original discovery was the hard bit, but afterwards it was easy to pick up for other scientists. Yet closer scrutiny reveals that in many cases, scientists assented to and built on theories they did not yet fully understand. A famous example is the reception of Newton’s Principia, which was very quickly recognized as immensely important, but appeared inaccessible and almost incomprehensible to his contemporaries, even the most capable of whom were only able to achieve a partial understanding. Locke is told to have got the gist of Principia from Huygens, who reassured him that the mathematics and mechanics were sound; and many physicists of his time likewise had to rely on authority and their overall estimation of the credibility of the work.[34]

I am not saying that we should give up the very idea of authorial control and authority, only that we should understand these notions more modestly and realistically. By doing so, we may avoid buying into the death-of-the-author-thesis even in the case of RC. Like other texts, multi-authored papers do have real authors, who are, to a certain degree, responsible for their content. In most cases, pains have been taken to establish and follow procedures that regulate the writing process. Rules are laid down as to who should and who should not be included among the authors. Approval is required from the leaders of different subgroups. Not least, measures are taken for imposing coherence on the process and assure that a unified result is arrived at and communicated unambiguously.[35] The individual contributors can all be assumed to know at least the general kind and rough outline of the project in which they are involved. This seems similar to cases from non-scientific text-production in which authors willingly and knowingly engage in processes of interaction that are likely to lead to results that they may not have specifically intended as such.[36]

Hence there is plenty of unifying metacognition present in cases of RC, even if it can be questioned how far it is relevant. In the case of so-called individual authorship, it apparently suffices that a text can be seen as depending on, and informed by, the intentions of authors. There is no need to require the presence of overarching, strategic intentions—though in most actual cases, some such intentions have clearly been at work. Even among conservative defenders of authorial authority, it is widely acknowledged that meaning-constitutive intentions can be unconscious, in the sense that the author need not herself be aware of having them.[37] Traditional intentionalists about literary meaning may have emphasized first-order intentions too strongly and given too little emphasis to the role of authorial metacognition.[38] Nevertheless, their view seems plausible enough to serve as a clear indication that authorship in general does not require any particularly comprehensive or effective strategic intentions. What matters it that what the author meant was successfully communicated, not whether it was her intention to communicate it thus.[39]

It may still be argued that collective authorship requires more in terms of metacognition, because in this case the unity of the author subject and the writing process is much more precarious. Individual authors are individuated as a particular subjects independently of the writing process, whereas groups authors have no such “natural” unity.

There are least three things to say in reply. First, it is an open question how much “natural unity” there is to an individual subject qua author. Though she may be a distinct human being, the mental subsystems responsible for her production of meaningful text need not be closely integrated; and she may function mostly as a transmitter for external influences. Secondly, for all the undeniable messiness of RC, it is still not impossible that at least the sensible, more or less intuitive metacognition requirements are actually met. The rules and procedures followed may not satisfy the strong transparency required by GA; but they may suffice for ensuring something like the “meshing of plans” and “monitoring” required by Livingston’s analysis of collective authorship.[40] Since joint commitments are generally allowed to be merely implicit, the regulatory policies adopted may also suffice for turning even large and heterogeneous groups of collaborators into something like a plural subject (even if it must then be admitted that such a subject can, in other respects, be disintegrated, and its doings messy and intransparent).

Thirdly, it may be admitted that authorship in radically collaborative science falls short of a certain traditional notion of authorship, but denied that this notion is the relevant one. When it comes to scientific publications, there is long tradition, much older than the trend towards large- scale collaboration, of using the notion of authorship for other purposes than to indicate the intentional creation of bits of meaningful text. Authorship is used to lay claim to scientific results and appoint credit for ideas and discoveries. This does not mean that scientific authorship is a “purely institutional status.” It functions as a means for declaring who has been predominantly responsible for generating the knowledge presented in a publication. In fact, it meets GA’s requirement (iii)) that authorship should represent a “specific form of epistemic labor”; it is just that it is not merely, or primarily writing labor. It is an open question to what extent new forms of radical collaboration still follow this practice in an epistemically innocuous way. But at least there need not be any problem merely because it departs from the traditional “literary” notion of authorship. It should be added that the “credit-appointing” notion is not special to scientific publication practice, but also widely applied to even literature of the more artistic kind. It is always a partly pragmatic decision whether a collaborator and/or strong source of inspiration (be it a muse, an editor or assistant or) should be listed as a co-author or merely mentioned in the acknowledgments.[41]

Loss of Knowledge?

Now to the more fundamental question of the requirements for knowledge. Again, several lines of reply are available. First, consider the assumption that knowledge requires a subject, which is implicit in vii) and connects the worries about authorship with the concern for knowledge. How exactly is this to be understood? I take it too be quite intuitive (though not obviously correct) that knowledge must be realized by a conscious being, or at least a being capable of forming mental states like beliefs.[42] But this does not by itself require any specific degree of mental integration or the presence of metacognitive states.

When thinking about the requirements for group knowledge, we should pay close attention to the kind of psychological requirements that are usually made for individual knowledge, the paradigm case of traditional epistemology. Philosophers do not generally require any general reflective awareness on part of the subject (and in this they are clearly in line with ordinary ways of thinking about and ascribing knowledge). Nor is it required that a knowing subject needs any knowledge of epistemological principles or of the justificatory power of her evidence.[43] It is also regarded as unproblematic that the ingredients of knowledge are distributed among different mental states of the subject, which do not generally embody representations of each other. We should not use a double standard and impose stricter conditions on group knowledge.[44] Hence it seems that a weak group subject could qualify as a bearer of knowledge. If a group of individuals are sufficiently well connected, if they contribute to a common epistemic task, and if they possess the necessary cognitive capacities, so that all the necessary epistemic factors are present among them, then they can be said to know. This is in line with ordinary usage, as we often say things like “biologists knew that traits were passed down from generation to generation” or “the CIA knew that the terrorist group was planning an attack.” We ascribe knowledge to groups that are loosely delineated and within which the relevant epistemic factors are likely to be distributed.[45]

There is nothing inherently externalist about the idea of weak group subject functioning as a bearer of knowledge. We can attribute knowledge to such a subject in virtue of the reliability of the belief-forming processes it employs, but also by observing that it posses sufficient evidence and/or acts according to certain principles, e.g. rules of inference. The only kind of internalism that is ruled out is one that requires a high degree of metacognitive access to the evidence and rule-following in question, and central control of the sub-processes. But this is a version of the theory that has little to say for it and is rejected by leading contemporary internalists. There may be good reason to prefer higher-order or centralized control in specific cases, but only inasmuch as it enhances the reliability of the first-order processes.

A sensible internalism may even be compatible with the possibility of knowledge that is not realized by a subject at all. This may sound outlandish, but once it is accepted that the subject as such contributes little to the epistemic status of its mental states, it becomes hard to say why it should be considered necessary for knowledge. Internalist criteria could be fulfilled simply by the presence of sufficient evidence. Of course this evidence would probably have to consist in, or be necessarily related to, states of consciousness awareness, which arguably presuppose some minimal form of self-consciousness or subjectivity. But this is different from the notion of a cognitive centre of control that monitors and unifies the individual mental states.

GA defend the need for positing a subject in the stronger sense by arguing that epistemic responsibility is a necessary condition (vi). But this again buys into an implausibly extreme form of externalism, viz. a strongly deontological theory, according to which epistemic justification requires the fulfilment of certain epistemic duties. The implausibility of such a theory is highlighted by the fact that individuals are able to acquire knowledge in very passive ways, as when I come to know that the sun has set by seeing the light fade. This does not seem to depend on any kind of norm fulfilling or responsibility on my part; I have come to know, regardless of whether I am prepared to defend any claims or act in any particular way. This does not render epistemic responsibility unimportant. Even though I reject group responsibility as a necessary condition for group knowledge, it is likely that well-functioning epistemic collectives do exhibit a significant degree of distributed responsibility.[46] That is, their members will be alert to risks and errors in their sub-domain, and committed to controlling and improving the sub-procedures they employ. As with authorship and subjectivity, there is also room for alternative interpretations of responsibility.

We have thus explored two ways of countering the claims of GA. One can accept the general subject requirement for knowledge, but insist that a subject does not need to meet the strong criteria for group authorship. The authors, or a significant subset of the authors, of papers in high energy physics might be said to know the results presented, even if they fail to constitute a group author. Or one can agree that there is hardly any subject in a significant sense to whom the knowledge can be attributed, but insist that there may be sufficient knowledge around anyhow.

In spite of this, I reckon that many will want to uphold the subject requirement in a relatively strong form. Fortunately, my case against GA does not hang on any controversial thesis on authorship or group knowledge. There is a much less controversial line of reply. It may be admitted that the author, whoever that might be, cannot not the subject of the putative knowledge. Instead it can be argued that knowledge is produced by the collective[47]—and that it is either possessed by some or one of the authors or will be produced in competent readers of the paper. It is natural to describe the cases of radical collaboration as typical social process of knowledge creation, in which testimony plays a crucial part.

GA also reject this suggestion. Kukla argues that individual collaborators cannot be attributed testimony-based knowledge. For this would have to be based on an assessment of the reliability, in context, of the source of the testimony.[48] And it is precisely such an assessment that, according to GA, cannot be performed in cases of radical collaboration.

Again, the reasoning is based on controversial assumptions. First, GA only consider the—admittedly unrealistic, but also less relevant—possibility of all the authors having testimony-based confidence in all of its parts.[49] In contrast, I am suggesting that a network of local testimonial relationships may be sufficient to bind together the whole process and ensure that someone ends up forming the relevant item of knowledge. Secondly, it appears that GA are committed to a strongly reductionist view of testimony. They require that the recipient should have positive reasons for taking the giver of testimony to be a reliable source. Such a view has been rejected by a large number of philosophers who have instead taken testimony to be a fundamental source of justification and so advocated a non-reductionist or “direct” view.[50] But even though non-reductionism provides an easy, and not altogether implausible, way out, I think that GA are right in requiring some sort of vindication of the testimonial practices in question. This seems especially pertinent in the case of scientific collaboration. The thought of scientists just passing on and taking up bits of putative evidence does seem discomforting. So the question is rather what, and how much, it takes for an individual collaborator to acquire knowledge through testimony, and how far it is exemplified in cases of radical collaboration.

As mentioned above, Hardwig argued that scientists have to rely on blind trust. But this may be a somewhat exaggerated description of the actual practice.[51] Trustworthiness is not assigned randomly. At least in scientific collaboration, it is indeed based on some kind of assessment, even if the assessment is often done quickly and almost instinctively. Assignments of trustworthiness are made on the basis of institutional status, known track record, indications of field of expertise, meta-knowledge about the state and potential of the research domain and approach in question, etc. They are semi-blind: Blind as to the internal epistemic merits of the data or piece of theorizing in question, inasmuch as the recipient would not generally be able to generate the knowledge herself (otherwise the testimony would be more or less redundant)—but not completely blind, as they are sensitive to external features of the contributions, the subject matter, general methodology employed and the qualifications of the contributor.

Moreover, instead of requiring of individual collaborators that they themselves assess the reliability of the source, it might be sufficient that the sources are sufficiently reliable. This could be the case in a scientific community, the members of which can generally be expected to make contributions that are competent and relevant (what Hardwig calls a “climate of trust”). GA are sceptic of such view a, because it substitutes mere reliability for accountability.[52] But even if they were right that such accountability is necessary for the collaborators to qualify as a group author or subject of collective knowledge, it is hard to see why it should be necessary for individual collaborators to acquire knowledge by testimony. Besides, a wide range of intermediate positions are available, which retain smaller or larger internalist elements. Hardwig, for one, did not opt for mere reliability. By taking trust to be a necessary requirement for testimonial knowledge, he demanded that an individual scientist must hold certain warranted beliefs about the testifier.

GA may be right that there is a special problem with interdisciplinarity.[53] It might be feared that even though a source is reliable in its own domain, its reliability when combined with, or applied to, another domain, is not sufficient, or at least something that cannot be taken for granted. I think the best answer to this worry is simply to admit that interdisciplinary science is generally more challenging and risky, but that it is justified by its potential gains.[54] It should be added, however, that much of the same risk pertains to so-called mono-disciplinary science as well, since this does also regularly involve the transfer and application of theories or findings from other domains, be it other parts of the same science or neighbouring sciences (e.g. optics in astronomy, computer or information science in cell biology or sociology in the study of religion). It is one thing to know a theory or a set of data and another to know it to be applicable or significant to some other field. Moreover, despite the lack of transparency and centralized expertise, we should not underestimate the capacity of individual collaborators to understand and even assess contributions from other fields. Goldman argues that even laymen can be in a position to evaluate the trustworthiness of experts.[55]

Collins and Evans[56] point out that there is a kind of expertise that falls short of “full-blown practical immersion” in a field, but still involves mastery in its language—what they call “interactional expertise,” and see as especially important for forging collaborative relationships. Theoretical physicists do usually have some, and sometimes considerable, understanding of the contributions of the experimental physicists, and vice versa. Even research managers, though they may be managers first and researchers second, still know considerably more than the layman about the different fields involved in radical collaboration, their compatibility and potential contributions. And fields like high-energy physics or genetics are, in spite of the huge scale of the research activities and the sophisticated technology involved, probably not the most extreme and challenging forms of interdisciplinarity, as they draw on a common pool of compatible and already partly integrated theories and results from the natural sciences. In sum, it seems likely that less is needed for producing knowledge by radical collaboration than required by GA, but also that more than they assume is actually at hand.

Risks, Costs and Benefits

Let us now finally consider the costs and benefits of attempts restore transparency and accountability in RC. I think there is good reason to believe that the introduction of stricter control procedures will be counter-productive, though it is, admittedly, an open empirical question to what extent this is actually the case.[57]

First, we can ask if there is evidence that lack of transparency and responsibility has lead to significant epistemic loss. This does not seem to be the case. There are some spectacular cases of scientific fraud that might have been prevented by stricter control regimes. But even if still more cases have gone undetected, there is no need to assume that they have led to any general loss of quality or reliability of science.[58]

There are, of course, more subtle forms of negative influence that should also be taken into account. Even relatively few cases of outright fraud may suffice to give the public an unfavourable impression of science, which could in turn lead to waning support. Lack of accountability and control may create false images of state-of-the-art research, i.e. making some fields or paradigms appear more important or robust than they actually are, which in turn could lead to false research priorities and even a skewing of subsequent research, if certain approaches or theoretical paradigms, which are actually less well founded or relevant, come to lead the way for others. There is also a risk that the influence of commercial interests on research might go undetected.

It is, however, debatable how much of this should actually be considered an epistemic loss. There is a fairly well-documented, suspiciously strong correlation between private funding of research and industry-supportive conclusions.[59] Yet it is doubtful in how far this indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong when seen from a narrow epistemic standpoint. It is most likely that commercial interests cause researchers to ask certain questions and refrain from asking others, which might have led to less positive results. I am myself in favour of a highly inclusive notion of the epistemic, and so quite prepared to admit that a negative influence on research priorities, problem selection, relevance or uptake of research results, or even the future of science in general, could be considered an epistemic problem. But according to the more exclusive notion favoured by GA, these must be seen as problems of another, more external, kind. A researcher could be perfectly accountable (and act epistemically responsibly) while also acting badly in a wider sense, by e.g. deliberately avoiding carrying out experiments that might detect negative side-effects of drugs or food products.

In any case, I think the problems just outlined are best addressed by counter-measures on a very general level, rather than by meddling with the internal features of collaborative research processes. For example, decisions about research priorities may be subjected to democratic control (Kitcher 2001; 2011).[60] Privately funded research may be checked and counter-balanced by publicly funded research, some which could be directed specifically at issues of societal concern, so as to serve the wider interests of citizens. Moreover, there seem to be significant risks of the same sort even if one keeps to traditional forms of knowledge production. Quite generally, it seems plausible to assume that the drive towards collaborative research makes it more likely, all things considered, that interests, biases and fraud will be detected. Surely it is very far from certain that they will actually be detected in any specific case. Surely the messy, distributed character of large-scale research may even provide researchers with special opportunities to hide less laudable aspects of their conduct. But this should be compared with traditional individual or small-scale research, where there is hardly any external control prior to publication.

Now to the risks of imposing stricter control on collaborative research processes. It goes without saying that efficient control procedures are costly in terms of time, manpower and other resources. There is a special risk that collaborative science could become exaggeratedly slow and tedious, because the control, which has otherwise been “outsourced,” i.e. left to subsequent debate and testing by other scientists, now has to be done prior to publication. Traditionally, a single scientist has been able to come up with a bold conjecture, or publish apparent findings, with relatively little critical resistance to be surmounted in the first instance, thus quickly bringing it up for consideration and making it into a publicly available source of inspiration. I do not think that a completely free and extremely diverse market of scientific ideas is epistemically superior. Gatekeeping has its merits, as false or insufficiently justified beliefs can be difficult to weed out once they have become socially transmitted.[61] Noise is also a serious problem, and a reason for not allowing too much diversity, especially in an age that is already marked by an explosion in publication output and lack of perspicuity. On the other hand, there is hardly any doubt that a relatively diversified science, and a relatively quick process of scientific communication, are important goods that might justify loosening, or at least not strengthening, some of the prior control. The scientific community will not benefit from a situation in which significant findings are not published until a tedious negotiation process has been completed, nor from an extensive mainstreaming of research output and approaches. Peer-review has developed into a substantially delaying factor, and it should come as no surprise that quicker—and dirtier—publication formats are emerging (as they have in fact existed in some fields for a long time, cf. the “letters”-genre), e.g. journals like Plos One that eliminates subjective assessments of significance or scope from the review process, open or “dynamic” peer review etc.

In fact, it seems that actual large-scale collaboration is already marked by a tendency to introduce internal control mechanisms that slow down the publication and make the output less diverse. The authorship protocols in high energy physics serve not just to ensure the quality of research, but also to streamline and unify publications stemming from a particular research project.[62] Hence it seems again that actual practice may come closer to meeting the requirements of GA; but it is questionable whether this is really desirable, at least when one is concerned with epistemic efficacy. It is certainly possible that internal streamlining can be epistemically beneficial, inasmuch as it brings out the main significance of findings and confers upon them an authority that ensures ready uptake by the scientific community. There is a real risk that allowing for premature publication or ambiguous statements can hinder recognition of really important findings. Still, there is surely a limit to the amount of streamlining and prior control that can be beneficial, all things considered. In any case, it is interesting to notice that the requirements of GA, though allegedly motivated by a concern for transparency, could reduce general transparency: in order to achieve mutual consent and understanding among scientific collaborators, moving towards the ideal of group authorship (in the strong sense), it can be necessary to restrict and delay communication with the outside world, including scientific peers.

Of course it is debatable whether considerations of speed of scientific progress, fecundity or optimal use of resources are epistemically relevant. On a consequentialist understanding of epistemic normativity they obviously are.[63] On a more narrow deontological understanding, as appears to be favoured by GA, they are more likely to be not. But everyone must be somehow concerned with the balance between epistemic gains and other aspects of scientific practices. Feasibility conditions for science policies matter, regardless of whether they are seen as internal or external to scientific knowledge production.

The above discussion shows that the relationship between openness, transparency and responsibility is highly complex. Some of the measures that could enhance responsibility are likely to decrease openness (because results and their significance have to be negotiated internally among the collaborating scientists before being revealed to the larger scientific community). Full openness may not further transparency with regard to the main thrust and significance of joint research; it can also obscure it, causing it to drown in a multitude of statements, interpretations and less relevant details.

Openness (and accountability) is thus not always conducive to our epistemic goals. Communication on the internet is an instructive parallel case. Frost-Arnold has argued persuasively that internet anonymity can enhance both dissemination of true beliefs and error-detection, as it serves to remove social inhibition and so to ensure that relevant knowledge is disseminated quickly.[64] Research on computer-mediated group discussion likewise indicates that anonymity in discussion increase both the quantity and novelty of ideas shared.[65] The potential value of anonymity is acknowledged by the current practice of double-blind peer review, which is partly justified by the assumption that anonymous reviewers are less likely to be overly polite and will feel free to voice all sorts of potentially relevant criticism, and that reviewers would be even harder to recruit if they knew that their identity could be revealed. This is not to say that the practice of double-blind review, in its contemporary form, is generally superior.[66] There is also evidence of less beneficial effects of anonymity,[67] e.g. loafing.[68] As noted above, the function and value of openness is a complex issue, which probably does not admit of any general answer.

More generally, the role of tacit knowledge in science has long been acknowledged. There is often good reason to make such knowledge explicit as far as it goes. But some knowledge, or parts of it, is best left tacit. Explication is costly and may impair performance.[69] It is not just that codification and communication procedures take time; they can even reduce the competence of individual, and possibly also collective, agents.[70]

Both openness and explication may be defended by an appeal to the importance of reproducibility of studies and results in science. It can be argued that this epistemically important virtue is compromised if there are any “black boxes” or instances of blind trust in a scientific process. For example, probabilistic proofs in mathematics have been criticized for not being transferable. They can be performed over and over again, and so they are, strictly speaking, reproducible—but since they rely on e.g. randomization devices, they cannot be expected provide exactly the same justification in each instance, as the evidence, like the numbers picked, will differ from case to case.[71] But again, transferability is not an absolute value, only a desideratum that must be balanced against other concerns, and whose own value is arguably conditional on its contribution to more fundamental goals of truth and error-avoidance. Probabilistic proofs may thus promote the epistemic goals of mathematicians, even if they fall short of being transferable.[72] Moreover, at least from a reliabilist point of view, reproducibility in principle is hardly better than non-reproducibility if it is so rare and difficult to accomplish that actual testing will seldom or never be carried out.

In sum, there is no reason to assume that a reduction in the degree of openness or accountability must necessarily constitute an epistemic problem. Besides, it is even questionable whether radically collaborative science does represent an overall reduction in the degree of openness or accountability as compared to traditional, smaller-scale research.

Scientific Creativity

Another general concern that may go against regimenting scientific collaboration is the undisputed importance of scientific creativity. Reliably identifying conditions of such creativity, which are complex and elusive, has proven highly difficult.[73] But there is ample evidence that interdisciplinarity, and, more generally, diversity and combination of methodological and theoretical approaches, are among the most pervasive features of the processes that are known to have led to significant discoveries.[74] This is further supported by studies in group psychology likewise indicating that diversity is conducive to creativity,[75] though some studies also point to its possible drawbacks, as too many different—or too widely differing—standpoints tend to make mutual understanding and cooperation difficult.[76] Kitcher has argued more abstractly that a diversity of research programs is epistemically beneficial.[77] In a similar vein, Weisberg and Muldoon have demonstrated that scientific “mavericks” are epistemically more productive than “followers.”[78] Zollman has used computer modelling to show that disconnected research teams are more likely to converge upon the right hypothesis than strongly connected networks of scientists, who are more prone to accept initial results that favour the wrong hypothesis.[79]

In spite of all these a priori and a posteriori reasons for assuming diversity, of a certain qualified kind, to be conducive to scientific truth and error avoidance, it would be too much to say that interdisciplinarity or diversity as such is epistemically beneficial tout court. There is reason to assume that more often than not interdisciplinary research, at least of the more radical type, leads to dead ends or at least very meagre results. But the relatively few cases of great success achieved by interdisciplinarity may still suffice to justify it, considering that mono-disciplinary research also yield rapidly diminishing returns and generally have a poor success rate, especially if the goal is defined as the production of significant truths. We have here a case where a process—engaging in interdisciplinary collaboration—may have a reliability significantly below 0.5, yet still count as sufficiently effective, because of its capacity for producing new and relevant truths and the poor record of the alternative processes available.

The concern for creativity might also justify a relaxed stance when it comes to compliance with established standards and methods of particular subfields and their compatibility. It is characteristic of even canonical examples of individual scientific creativity, like Maxwell’s development of the theory of the electromagnetic field, that standards, including theoretical assumptions, have been combined and altered in the process.[80] It is doubtful that typical cases of large-scale collaboration involve such creative twisting of standards. It is more likely that researchers will keep to the usual repertoire of established theories from the natural sciences (and hence the fear that big science could hamper scientific creativity, because of its conformity-enforcing role). But it is still important to remember that there is a trade-off between the conservative and the creative aspects of the scientific process. As Kuhn urged, the tendency to convergent thought must be counterbalanced by a tendency to divergent thought.[81] Additional regulation or insistence that established standards and methods be followed very closely could seriously hamper creativity.

GA may object to the above considerations that they miss the central thrust of their criticism. They do not wish to erect barriers to creativity, or limit the free play or smooth propagation of ideas. They are worried about industry-like conditions being imposed on scientific collaborators, with the risk of minimizing relevant dissent and evading responsibility, and wish to ensure a certain level of critical awareness and dialogue within the scientific collective.

There should be no doubt about GA’s good intentions. And I do see how it can seem inappropriate to associate their view with an almost reactionary attitude, or to defend big science with a concern for creativity and free flow of ideas. But I am afraid that for all the good intentions, almost any practicable solution to the problem posed by GA are likely to have conservative implications. It is hard to see how one could ensure that channels and procedures will be used for supporting divergent, rather than convergent thinking. In the absence of any clear idea about how one might regulate more discriminately, in a way that promotes only epistemically beneficial practices, and does not e.g. lead to group-think, holding back of important results or a general slowing down of scientific progress, we are left with the choice between a generally permissive and a more restrictive policy. I am not averse to regulatory measures in general, and even open to the suggestion that policies could be justified that are not just formal but qualitative and content-related, i.e. a kind of “epistemic affirmative action” aimed at boosting particular processes and suppressing others.[82] But I am worried that the costs of imposing general requirements will outweigh the benefits.

A final worry[83] to be considered is this. I have repeatedly implied that there may be problems similar to those highlighted by GA, only they are not genuinely epistemic. To this is could objected that we ought not care about the label “epistemic.” But it is not me who is obsessed with epistemic purity. Quite to the contrary, I have contended that if GA are right in their view of knowledge, considered as a conceptual analysis, then we should conclude that knowledge matters less than we have assumed, and not necessarily change our practice. I do, however, see a point in distinguishing between the epistemic aspects of collaborative science in a broad sense of the word and distinctively ethical or political issues. Some of the questions I have considered may be said to be matters of stipulation; but again, the burden is on GA to show that theirs are the relevant concepts to bring to the table—and I have provided reasons for thinking that they are not.


I have argued that the reasoning of GA relies on a whole series of implausibly, or at least controversially, strong assumptions about the nature of authorship, group knowledge, collective subjectivity, knowledge, responsibility and testimony. I have argued tentatively in favour of alternatives, some of which may admittedly be perceived as too radical, or at least equally controversial. But I have also tried to show that more mainstream, or even conservative, epistemological positions allow for a less pessimistic diagnosis of the trend towards radical collaboration, as they do not have any alarmist implications. One can stick to epistemological internalism, but adopt a distributed view of justification and responsibility, and/or acknowledge the possibility that radical collaboration terminates in the production of significant knowledge through testimonial transmission.

The upshot of my discussion is that there is nothing fundamentally or inherently problematic about large-scale collaborative research. In fact it may be seen as merely an (admittedly large and otherwise spectacular) institutional rearrangement; a new way of organizing and delimiting the same types of knowledge creation and dissemination processes that have always been characteristic of science. Experts in different fields and subfields communicate and contribute, more or less (un)knowingly, to the solution of scientific problems, trusting each other to various degrees, depending on their beliefs about the credentials of their peers, on processes of certification etc. If anything, multi-authorship and related practices have contributed to make these messy and decentralised processes more regulated and transparent, for good and for bad.

I have given some reasons for believing that the benefits of more loosely regulated, radically collaborative science may trump the inevitable risks and losses. They have, admittedly, been somewhat speculative (although, I contend, much less so than are the alarmist arguments). This is inevitable. We have very little empirical evidence for the superiority or inferiority of specific ways of organizing and conducting research; and unfortunately, such evidence is extremely hard to obtain, as we cannot carry out large-scale experiments, and too little can be gained from consulting the historical record. Many of those who lament the way science is currently organized or conducted do present their views as being based on historical evidence. Their arguments often come down the colloquial wisdom that you should “never change a winning team.” But who knows how much the team has been winning, after all? Surely science has done much better than soothsaying or witchcraft. But we have very little basis for comparison with alternative paths of development that could still be considered developments of science. Hence we still have to rely on a priori reasoning, albeit informed by selective evidence, case-studies and the like. And there is simply no a priori reason to assume that RC should be epistemically inferior.

I must once again stress that I have not been arguing that big science is unproblematic. I have hinted in some ways in which it may, indirectly, have negative epistemic consequences, though these may be outweighed by other and more positive effects—while I have also noted that big science may inhibit creativity and knowledge production not by failing to meet, but rather by conforming too closely to the requirements laid down by GA. More serious, perhaps, are the ethical and political issues.[84] Practices like gratuitous authorship may not matter much for gain or loss of knowledge; but they may be bad for the distribution of credit and wear on scientists’ motivation and reduce mutual trust.[85] This could also have epistemic consequences in the long run, if it threatens the meritocratic system or makes scientists more suspicious and less keen on taking part in collaborative work or even working in specific fields. It is, however, an open question whether something this is likely to happen, and whether the negative side-effects will be balanced by the positive, e.g. the heightened visibility and impact of important research that may come from its being associated with certain persons, regardless of their actual contributions.

Let me finally note that the very notion of RC, though certainly suggestive, is actually too indiscriminate to be of much use for theoretical or empirical studies of contemporary science. It combines features like scale, distribution, decentralization and interdisciplinarity, which are in reality more loosely associated and may not be best exemplified by the favourite examples of GA. One way to move beyond pure speculation would be to carry out more detailed case studies of collaboration in specific fields and of specific types and comparing the results, which could in turn serve as a basis for the construction of more adequate concepts. In the meantime, I will allow myself to assume that for all the spectacular, indeed mind-blowing news about big-scale collaboration and multi-authorship, there is, from a philosophical point of view, really nothing new under the sun.


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[1] Etzkowitz, MIT and The Rise of Entrepreneurial Science.

[2] Adams, “Collaborations.”

[3] Winsberg is not from Georgetown, but I count him among the Georgetown Alarmists because of his association with Huebner and Kukla. It is likely that not all of GA subscribe to all of the claims attributed to them in this paper, at least not with equal confidence or emphasis. Nevertheless, a common “alarmist” attitude is clearly detectable in their writings.

[4] Huebner, Kukla, and Winsberg, “Making an Author in Radically Collaborative Research,” 13; 23.

[5] Thus, iv) follows from i) and ii) together with the empirical facts about RC. vii) follows from vi), v) and iv) (though vii is also inferred directly from the lack of accountability in RC; it may be said that GA do not generally claim that authorship is a condition for scientific knowledge, only that the conditions they lay down for collective scientific knowledge overlap those they lay down for authorship).

[6] Huebner, Kukla, and Winsberg, “Making an Author in Radically Collaborative Research,” 2ff.

[7] Kukla, “‘Author TBD,’” 848.

[8] Ibid., 857; Huebner, Kukla, and Winsberg, “Making an Author in Radically Collaborative Research,” 1.

[9] Winsberg, Huebner and Kukla, “Accountability and values in radically collaborative research,” 1.

[10] Huebner, Macrocognition, 213f.

[11] Winsberg, Huebner and Kukla, “Accountability and values in radically collaborative research,” 1.

[12] Huebner, Kukla, and Winsberg, “Making an Author in Radically Collaborative Research,” 13.

[13] Barthes, “The Death of the Author.”

[14] Foucault, “What is an Author?”

[15] Kukla, “‘Author TBD,’” 846.

[16] Ibid., 852.

[17] As one reviewer kindly did.

[18] E.g. right at the beginning of Winsberg, Huebner, and Kukla, “Accountability and values in radically collaborative research.”

[19] Kukla, “‘Author TBD,’” 849.

[20] Huebner, Kukla, and Winsberg, “Making an Author in Radically Collaborative Research.”

[21] It is, moreover, debatable whether scientific progress should be measured in terms of knowledge- or merely truth-production. See Rowbottom 2008 for a defence of the latter view.

[22] Tuomela, The Philosophy of Sociality; List and Pettit speak of a common awareness (Group Agency, 33).

[23] Gilbert, On Social Facts; Joint Commitment.

[24] Mathiesen, “The Epistemic Features of Group Beliefs.”

[25] Livingston, Art and Intention, Ch. 3.

[26] Mathiesen, “The Epistemic Features of Group Beliefs.”

[27] Mathiesen requires of the members of a group with an epistemic goal that its members must commit themselves to follow certain practices, viz. those that are seen as appropriately regulating epistemic endeavours. That still seems weaker than GA’s accountability requirement, which involves an actual ability to justify the claims in question (though it is weakened in some subsequent formulations—cf. 2) above.

[28] Scott, Organizations, 10; Donaldson, American Anti-Management Theories of Organization, 135; Kieser and Walgenbach, Organisation, 6.

[29] Klausen, “Group Knowledge.”

[30] Hardwig, “The Role of Trust in Knowledge.”

[31] Cf. 2.

[32] Nor is it likely that they have been able to point to a neighbouring scientist who could (contrary to what was suggested by a reviewer). The emergence of the evolutionary synthesis was structurally more similar to RC (as described by GA) than to a simple chain of ordered, cumulative epistemic tasks.

[33] Klausen, “Levels of Literary Meaning.”

[34] Iliffe, “Butter for Parsnips”; Nauenberg, “The Reception of Newton’s Principia.”

[35] Galison, “The Collective Author.”

[36] Cf. Livingston, Art and Intention.

[37] Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation; Juhl, Interpretation.

[38] Klausen, “Levels of Literary Meaning.”

[39] The ordinary notion of authorship may be ambiguous—or disjunctive—inasmuch as both the intentional production of first-order meaningful language (of certain specific kinds) and the selection, organization and communication of such language may suffice for authorship.

[40] Livingston, Art and Intention, Ch. 3.

[41] Ezra Pound was not recognized as co-author of Eliot’s The Waste Land, even if he appears to have acted as a kind of editor, or even metacognitive assistant, for Eliot, helping to select and arranging and arrange the vast and heterogeneous material that Eliot had compiled. There are numerous cases of works, by e.g. Wolfe, Yeats and Brecht, which appear to have been produced in a genuinely collective manner, without their co-authors having been explicitly recognized as such. Hence the scientific practice of authorship attribution can be said to be, at least in certain respects, more in line with the commonsense notion of authorship than the traditional “literary” one, which has often generated a wrong impression of solitary work.

[42] Though it has recently been suggested, not quite implausibly, that knowledge does not even require belief. See e.g. Myers-Schulz and Schwitzgebel, “Knowing that P Without Believing that P.”

[43] This is conceded even by leading internalists, e.g. evidentialists like Conee and Feldman, “Internalism Defended” or BonJour, “A Version of Internalist Foundationalism.”

[44] Klausen, “Group Knowledge.”

[45] See Bird, “Social Knowing” for a defense of a similar view.

[46] A socialized version of responsibilism has been proposed by Owens, Reason Without Freedom: “A belief is justified if every rational agent to whom responsibility for the belief applies or can pass acts responsibly with regard to the belief” (cf. Schmitt 2006, 215).

[47] Of course, GA have not claimed that no knowledge is produced in RC, as one reviewer pointed out. But they obviously worry that the relevant kind of knowledge—the putative scientific contribution, the end result—will not really be produced.

[48] “‘Author TBD,’” 850.

[49] Ibid., 849. In fairness to GA, it should be said that they are, perhaps, merely concerned with the possibility that testimony could tie together the whole group of collaborators, in the way required for authorship, and not with the possibility of distributed testimony-based knowledge. The latter possibility should be taken seriously, however.

[50] See e.g. the overview given by Graham, “Liberal Fundamentalism and Its Rivals.”

[51] Although the trust in question is blind as defined by Hardwig himself: The recipient does not have the reasons that are necessary to (directly) justify the belief in question (Hardwig, “The Role of Trust in Knowledge,” 699). Goldman, “Experts” argues convincingly that the actual practice of acquiring knowledge by testimony is less blind (in the wider sense) than Hardwig and proponents of a direct, non-reductionist view usually assume.

[52] Winsberg et al. 2013, 1.

[53] Huebner, Kukla, and Winsberg, “Making an Author in Radically Collaborative Research,” 13.

[54] Klausen, “ Sources and Conditions of Scientific Creativity.”

[55] Goldman, “Experts.”

[56] Collins and Evans, Rethinking Expertise.

[57] From the theoretical perspective of GA, this may be somewhat different. On their view, improved accountability will automatically increase knowledge production, as it is built into their definition of knowledge.

[58] Cf. Kitcher, Science in a Democratic Society, 145.

[59] Nestle, “Food company sponsorship of nutrition research and professional activities”; Lesser et al., “Relationship between Funding Source and Conclusion among Nutrition-Related Scientific Articles”; Krimsky, “Do Financial Conflicts of Interest Bias Research?”

[60] Kitcher, Science, Truth and Democracy; Science in a Democratic Society.

[61] Goldman, “Experts,” 205ff.

[62] Galison, “The Collective Author.”

[63] Klausen, “Two Notions of Epistemic Normativity”; Ahlstrom-Vii and Dunn, “A Defence of Epistemic Consequentialism.”

[64] Frost-Arnold, “Trustworthiness and Truth.”

[65] Connolly, Jessup, and Valacich, “Effects of Anonymity and Evaluative Tone on Idea Generation in Computer-Mediated Groups.”

[66] For arguments that point to the relative importance of accountability, see Petersen and Schaffalitzky, “Why not open the black box of journal editing in philosophy?”

[67] As one reviewer kindly pointed out.

[68] Christopherson, “The Positive and Negative Social Implications of Anonymity in Internet Interactions”; but see Chamorro-Premuzic, “Why Brainstorming Works Better Online” for a more favourable assessment.

[69] Stanley, Know How, 173f.

[70] See Boisot 1998, 42ff., for an instructive summary and analysis of the findings from management and organization science.

[71] Easwaran, “Probabilistic Proofs and Transferability.”

[72] See Fallis, “What Do Mathematicians Want?” and “Probabilistic Proofs and the Collective Epistemic Goals of Mathematicians.” The latter also points out that replication of experiments in science generally proceeds in this way; they are not based on the exact same evidence, only on evidence of the same specific type.

[73] Klausen, “Sources and Conditions of Scientific Creativity.”

[74] Koestler, The Act of Creation; Nersessian, Creating Scientific Concepts; Klausen, “Sources and Conditions of Scientific Creativity.”

[75] Milliken et al., “Diversity and Creativity in Work Groups”; Hong and Page, “Groups of Diverse Problem Solvers Can Outperform Groups of High-Ability Problem Solvers.”

[76] Levine et al., “Newcomer Innovation in Work Teams.”

[77] Kitcher, “The Division of Cognitive Labor”; The Advancement of Science.

[78] Weisberg and Muldoon, “Epistemic Landscapes and the Division of Cognitive Labor.”

[79] Zollman, “The Epistemic Benefit of Transient Diversity.”

[80] Nersessian, Creating Scientific Concepts.

[81] Kuhn, The Essential Tension; see also Andersen, “The Second Essential Tension.”

[82] Cf. Goldman 1999, 210; 216.

[83] Kindly raised by a reviewer.

[84] In its present state, big science is entangled with tendencies and assumptions, e.g. about the relationship between science and society, that certainly deserve critical attention. For a critical analysis of the assumptions behind post-WW2 science policy, see Sarewitz 1996

[85] See Marušić et al. 2011 for an instructive, but somewhat inconclusive survey that indicates that there is indeed a serious issue, but no clear evidence that the situation is problematic.

Author Information: William T. Lynch, Wayne State University,

Lynch, William T. “Darwinian Social Epistemology: Science and Religion as Evolutionary Byproducts Subject to Cultural Evolution.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 2 (2016): 26-68.

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Image credit: Susanne Nilsson, via flickr


Key to Steve Fuller’s recent defense of intelligent design is the claim that it alone can explain why science is even possible. By contrast, Fuller argues that Darwinian evolutionary theory posits a purposeless universe which leaves humans with no motivation to study science and no basis for modifying an underlying reality. I argue that this view represents a retreat from insights about knowledge within Fuller’s own program of social epistemology. I show that a Darwinian picture of science, as also of religion, can be constructed that explains how these complex social institutions emerged out of a process of biological and cultural evolution. Science and religion repurpose aspects of our evolutionary inheritance to the new circumstances of more complex societies that have emerged since the Neolithic revolution.  Continue Reading…

Author Information: Masudul Alam Choudhury, University of Toronto and International Islamic University,

Choudhury, Masudul Alam. “Islamic Political Economy: An Epistemological Approach.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 11 (2014): 53-103.

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The budding field of Islamic political economy as premised on the epistemological roots of the monotheistic law and explained by the Qur’an and the sunnah (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) is expounded. Several mainstream economic ideas are critically examined and their alternative treatment under Islamic political economy is expounded. The process-oriented model termed in this paper as the shuratic process or the discursively interactive, integrative and evolutionary process (IIE-learning process) is shown to be central to the methodology of the circular causation and continuity model of unified reality in Islamic political economy. Several concepts and applications are invoked in the methodological study of Islamic political economy. These involve a futuristic model of Arab political economy and the emergence of modern Turkish historicism a la Ibn Khaldun, by the Islamic contrariness to Eurocentricity. In order to bring out the widest conception and application of the methodology of Islamic political economy we examine the diverse problem of labour market wellbeing understood as labour market adaptation of Canadian Natives. This exam uses the methodology of Islamic political economy and shows its application to a contemporaneous real world issue. There is also a good deal of comparative study between Islam and the Occident concerning epistemological issues of the monotheistic law founded on the methodology of political economy. Such diverse applications bring out the extension of the field of Islamic political economy. Religious encumbrance are avoided and replaced by an epistemological worldview. Such a comprehensive study of Islamic political economy brings out a new and overarching economic, social, and scientific methodology that is extended to a field of intellectual inquiry beyond sheer religious outlook.

This paper was presented in the Seventeenth International Economic Association, Dead Sea, Jordan. July, 2014.

Political Economy and the Moral, Ethical, Cultural and Religions Groundwork

Every scientific treatment of great ideas emerges from epistemological foundations. This is true both of the natural and social sciences. Within both of these areas is embedded a methodology similar to that of political economy. This inclusive field comprises the methodological study of conflict and conflict resolution. In this regard, Smith’s idea of an economy and society governed by the law of natural liberty was a manifestation of the broad epistemological groundwork of a moral and scientific treatment (Smith, 1984). Yet in his Wealth of Nations the natural law of liberty gave rise to economic conflicts and the market system was treated as the resolver of the conflicts. Likewise, the French Physiocracy as the original school of political economy invoked the religious postulates of the just law within the framework of the monotheistic law. Quesnay and Turgot referred to the just law as jus divinumContinue Reading…

Author Information: Tommaso Castellani, Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, ; Emanuele Pontecorvo, Physics Department, Sapienza University of Rome; Adriana Valente, Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, National Research Council of Italy,

Castellani, Tommaso, Emanuele Pontecorvo and Adriana Valente. “Epistemological Consequences of Bibliometrics: Insights from the Scientific Community.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 11 (2014): 1-20.

This research has been supported by the ScienceOnTheNet project of the Italian Ministry for Education, University and Research.

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2890933648_8e232deaa9_z Image Credit: SamahR, via flickr


The aim of this paper is to investigate the consequences of the bibliometrics-based system of evaluation of scientific production on the contents and methods of sciences. The research has been conducted by means of in-depth interviews to a multi-disciplinary panel of Italian researchers. We discuss the implications of bibliometrics on the choice of the research topic, on the experimental practices, on the publication habits. We observe that the validation of the bibliometric practices relies on the acceptance and diffusion within the scientific community, and that these practices are self-sustained through their wide application. We discuss possible evolving scenarios, also considering the recent development of digital archives.

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Author Information: Justin O. Parkhurst, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, ; Sudeepa Abeysinghe, University of Edinburgh,

Parkhurst, Justin O and Sudeepa Abeysinghe. “What Constitutes ‘Good’ Evidence for Public Health and Social Policy Making? From Hierarchies to Appropriateness.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no 10 (2014): 40-52.

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Within public health, and increasingly other areas of social policy, there are widespread calls to increase or improve the use of evidence for policy making. Often these calls rest on an assumption that increased evidence utilisation will be a more efficient or effective means of achieving social goals. Yet a clear elucidation of what can be considered ‘good evidence’ for policy is rarely articulated. Many of the current discussions of best practice in the health policy sector derive from the evidence-based medicine (EBM) movement, embracing the ‘hierarchy of evidence’ that places experimental trials as preeminent in terms of methodological quality. However, a number of problems arise if these hierarchies are used to rank or prioritise policy relevance. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Richard W. Moodey, Gannon University,

Moodey, Richard W. “Models of Face-to-Face Interaction and the Epistemic Significance of Other Minds.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 7 (2014): 19-28.

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Please refer to:

Steve Fuller attacked ‘analytic social epistemology’ in 2012, and in 2013 Sanford Goldberg counter-attacked. Goldberg also prescribes a way of moving beyond the kind of conflicts exemplified by his exchange with Fuller. He says that social epistemologists should study the epistemic significance of other minds. I argue that constructing models of face-to-face interaction, specifically, models of cooperation, competition, and conflict, can be useful in implementing Goldberg’s prescription. Such models can help generate the propositions that must be the result of systematic study of a topic. I modify Goldberg’s image of epistemic communities as a result of including competition and conflict, as well as cooperation among the members.

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Author Information: Alexandra Hofmänner, University of Basel,

Hofmänner, Alexandra. 2014. “Science Studies Elsewhere: The Experimental Life and the Other Within.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3 (3): 1-26.

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This study is concerned with current images of Science Studies travelling to places outside Western Europe and North America. These images focus on the movement of Science Studies’ formative concepts and ideas. They eclipse other formative aspects specific to the context in which this field was established. For example, Science Studies has analysed science within the conceptual architecture of modernity. Michel-Rolph Trouillot has claimed that modernity requires an alterity—a constitutive Otherness. Expanding on his work, this paper hypothesises that modern science requires an alterity against which its knowledge claims attain their full meaning. To test this hypothesis, Trouillot’s concept of alterity (‘Elsewhere’) is applied to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s paradigmatic book Leviathan and the Air-Pump. The analysis confirms that the philosophical programmes of Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes required a relation to Otherness. The ‘New World’, ‘savages’ and ‘inferior creatures’ figured as oppositional referents for casting and legitimising their knowledge claims. This paper further argues that Shapin and Schaffer also required the residual category of the ‘ignorant stranger’ as a crucial referent to frame their symmetrical historical approach to experiment. A Programme in Science Studies Elsewhere is proposed in relation to David Bloor’s Strong Programme in the Sociology of Knowledge. This paper concludes that mainstream Science Studies constructs this field’s Western European and North American history and identity by relegating the Rest of Science Studies scholarship to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s imaginary waiting room of history. No matter how well the Rest assimilates or transforms Science Studies’ formative concepts and ideas, it is bound to remain waiting as long as this room, Elsewhere, remains overlooked.

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Author Information: J. Britt Holbrook,, and Adam Briggle,, University of North Texas

Holbrook, J. Britt and Adam Briggle. 2013. “Knowing and acting: The precautionary and proactionary principles in relation to policy making.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (5): 15-37.

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This essay explores the relationship between knowledge (in the form of scientific risk assessment) and action (in the form of technological innovation) as they come together in policy, which itself is both a kind of knowing and acting. It first illustrates the dilemma of timely action in the face of uncertain unintended consequences. It then introduces the precautionary and proactionary principles as different alignments of knowledge and action within the policymaking process. The essay next considers a cynical and a hopeful reading of the role of these principles in public policy debates. We argue that the two principles, despite initial appearances, are not all that different when it comes to formulating public policy. We also suggest that principles in general can be used either to guide our actions, or to determine them for us. We argue that allowing principles to predetermine our actions undermines the sense of autonomy necessary for true action.

Keywords: Precautionary Principle; Proactionary Principle; Policy; Decision Procedure

Knowledge kills action. (Nietzsche)[1]

1. Knowing and acting

How are knowledge and action related? This question is asked less often than another: When do we know enough to justify taking action? In the context of making science and technology policy, the question assumes yet a different form: When do we have sufficient scientific risk assessments about a new technological activity to warrant promoting that activity and embedding it in society? In this paper, we explore how the relation between knowledge and action should be structured in policymaking. Continue Reading…