Archives For Alvin Goldman

Author Information: Stephen John, Cambridge University,

John, Stephen. “Transparency, Well-Ordered Science, and Paternalism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 30-33.

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Image by Sergio Santos and, via Flickr / Creative Commons


Should a physician tell you that you have cancer, even if she thinks this would cause you needless distress? Of course she should! How, though, should she convey that news? Imagine three, stylised options. Dr Knowsbest is certain you should have your cancer operated on, so tells you the news in a way which vividly highlights the horrors of cancer, but downplays the risk of an operation.

Dr Neutral, by contrast, simply lists all of the facts about your cancer, your prognosis, your possible treatment options, their likely benefits and risks and so on. Finally, Dr Sensitive reports only those aspects of your condition and those risks of surgery which she judges that you, given your values and interests, would want to know about.

Many Methods to Reveal

We can, I hope, all agree that Dr Knowsbest’s communicative strategies and choices are ethically problematic, because she acts in a paternalistic manner. By contrast, Dr Neutral does not act paternalistically. In this regard, at least, Dr Neutral’s strategies are ethically preferable to Dr Knowsbest’s strategies. What about the choice between Knowsbest and Sensititve? In one sense, Dr Sensitive acts paternalistically, because she controls and structures the flow of information with the aim of improving your well-being.

However, there is an important difference between Dr Sensitive and Dr Knowsbest; the former aims solely to improve your epistemic well-being, such that you can better make a choice which aligns with your own values, whereas the latter aims to influence or override your judgment. Knowsbest’s “moral paternalism” is wrong for reasons which are absent in the case of Sensitive’s “epistemic paternalism” (Ahlstrom-Vij, 2013).

Therefore, plausibly, both the Neutral and Sensitive strategies are ethically preferable to Knowsbest; What, though, of the choice between these two communicative strategies? First, I am not certain that it is even possible to report all the facts in a neutral way (for more, see below.) Second, even if it is possible, Dr Sensitive’s strategy seems preferable; her strategy, if successful, positively promotes – as opposed to merely failing to interfere with – your ability to make autonomous choices.

At least at an abstract, ideal level, then, we have good reason to want informants who do more than merely list facts, but who are sensitive to their audiences’ epistemic situation and abilities and their evaluative commitments; we want experts who “well-lead” us. In my recent paper in Social Epistemology, I argued that that certain widely-endorsed norms for science communication are, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, dangerous (John 2018). We should be against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.

It’s a Bit Provocative

One way of understanding that paper is as following from the abstract ideal of sensitive communication, combined with various broadly sociological facts (for example, about how audiences identify experts). I understand why my article put Moore in mind of a paradigm case of paternalism. However, reflection on the hypothetical example suggests we should also be against “anti-paternalism” as a norm for science communication; not because Knowsbest’s strategy is fine, but, rather, because the term “paternalism” tends to bundle together a wide range of practices, not all of which are ethically problematic, and some of which promote – rather than hinder – audiences’ autonomy.

Beyond the accusation of paternalism, Moore’s rich and provocative response focuses on my scepticism about transparency. While I argued that a “folk philosophy of science” can lead audiences to distrust experts who are, in fact, trustworthy, he uses the example of HIV-AIDS activism to point to the epistemic benefits of holding scientists to account, suggesting that “it is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science”. I agree entirely that such a dynamic is possible; indeed, his example shows it does happen!

However, conceding this possibility does not show that we must endorse a norm of transparency, because, ultimately, the costs may still be greater than the benefits. Much here depends on the mechanisms by which transparency and engagement are enacted. Moore suggests one model for such engagement, via the work of “trust proxies”, such as ACT-UP. As he acknowledges, however, although proxies may be better-placed than lay-people to identify when science is flawed, we now create a new problem for the non-expert: to adapt a distinction from Goldman’s work, we must decide which “putative proxies” are “true proxies” (Goldman, 2001).

Plausibly, this problem is even harder than Goldman’s problem of distinguishing the “true experts” among the “putative experts”; because in the latter case, we have some sense of the credentials and so on which signal experthood. Again, I am tempted to say, then, that it is unclear that transparency, openness or engagement will necessarily lead to better, rather than worse, socio-epistemic outcomes.

Knowledge From Observation and Practice

Does that mean my arguments against transparency are in the clear? No. First, many of the issues here turn on the empirical details; maybe careful institutional design can allow us to identify trustworthy trust-proxies, whose work promotes good science. Second, and more importantly, the abstract model of sensitive communication is an ideal. In practice, it is easy to fail to meet this ideal, in ways which undermine, rather than respect or promote, hearers’ autonomy.

For example, rather than tailor her communication to what her audiences do care about, Dr Sensitive might tailor what she says to what she thinks they ought to care about; as a result, she might leave out information which is relevant to their choices given their values, while including information which is irrelevant. An influential strain in recent philosophy of science suggests that non-epistemic value judgments do and must run deep in practices of justification; as such, even a bald report of what a study showed may, implicitly, encode or endorse value judgments which are not shared by the audience (Douglas, 2000).

Reporting claims when, and only when, they meet a certain confidence level may, for example, implicitly rely on assumptions about the relative disvalue of false positives and false negatives; in turn, it may be difficult to justify such assumptions without appeal to non-epistemic values (John, 2015). As such, even Dr Neutral may be unable to avoid communicating in ways which are truly sensitive to her audience’s values. In short, it may be hard to handover our epistemic autonomy to experts without also handing over our moral autonomy.

This problem means that, for research to be trustworthy, requires more than that the researchers’ claims are true, but that they are claims which are, at least, neutral and, at best, aligned with, audiences’ values. Plausibly, regardless greater engagement and transparency may help ensure such value alignment. One might understand the example of ACT-UP along these lines: activist engagement ensured that scientists did “good science” not only in a narrow, epistemic sense of “good” – more or more accurate data and hypotheses were generated – but in a broader sense of being “well-ordered”, producing knowledge that better reflected the concerns and interests of the broader community (Kitcher, 2003).

Whether engagement improves epistemic outcomes narrowly construed is a contingent matter, heavily dependent on the details of the case. By contrast, engagement may be necessary for science to be “well-ordered”. In turn, transparency may be necessary for such engagement. At least, that is the possibility I would push were I to criticise my own conclusions in line with Moore’s concerns.

A Final Sting

Unfortunately, there is a sting in the tail. Developing effective frameworks for engagement and contestation may require us to accept that scientific research is not, and cannot be, fully “value free”. To the extent that such an assumption is a commitment of our “folk philosophy of science”, then developing the kind of rigorous engagement which Moore wants may do as much to undermine, as promote, our trust in true experts. Moore is surely right that the dynamics of trust and distrust are even more complex than my paper suggested; unfortunately, they might be even more complex again than he suggests.

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Ahlstrom-Vij, K. (2013). Epistemic paternalism: a defence. Springer

Douglas, H. (2000). Inductive risk and values in science. Philosophy of science, 67(4), 559-579.

Goldman, A (2001) “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63(1), 85–110.

John, S. (2015). Inductive risk and the contexts of communication. Synthese, 192(1), 79-96.

John, S. (2018). Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty. Social Epistemology, 32(2), 75-87.

Kitcher, P. (2003). Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford University Press.

Author Information: Miika Vähämaa, University of Helsinki, Finland,

Vähämaa, Miika. 2013. “Secrets, Errors and Mathematics: Reconsidering the Role of Groups in Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (9): 36-51.

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This paper makes the claim that analytic social epistemology has slowed, if not halted, the development of social epistemology and the social sciences in general. Furthermore, I argue that social epistemology is unavoidably subjective due to its collective nature. Social epistemology, as it is generally understood, consists of the study of socially shared propositions and how they are understood by those communities. However, socially shared propositions of knowledge are not constrained by propositional logic[1] but are rather enabled by the limited quanta of reason and logic embedded in linguistic structure. From this viewpoint, analytic social epistemology is a sub-domain of social epistemology that, as the broadest domain in epistemology, is the study of knowledge and its creation and influence in real-life social settings.

The claims made in this essay run contrary to propositions by Alvin Goldman and his supporters who, following early suggestions in Wittgenstein’s “Blue Notebook,” view social epistemology as a sub-domain of analytic epistemology. From their view, “real” knowledge is constrained by propositional logic, which is derived from language and is constructed in social settings. The error of this view lies in its attempt to collapse social knowledge into propositional logic, thereby downplaying the many social groups and social practices that produce, create, restore and distort knowledge. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Paul Faulkner, University of Sheffield,

Faulkner, Paul. 2013. “Two-Stage Reliabilism, Virtue Reliabilism, Dualism and the Problem of Sufficiency.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (8): 121-138.

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Social epistemology should be truth-centred, argues Goldman. Social epistemology should capture the ‘logic of everyday practices’ and describe socially ‘situated’ reasoning, says Fuller. Starting from Goldman’s vision of epistemology, this paper aims to argue for Fuller’s contention. Social epistemology cannot focus solely on the truth because the truth can be got in lucky ways. The same too could be said for reliability. Adding a second layer of epistemic evaluation helps only insofar as the reasons thus specified are appropriately connected to reliability. These claims are first made in abstract, and then developed with regard to our practice of trusting testimony, where an epistemological investigation into the grounds of reliability must inevitably detail the ‘logic of everyday practices’. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Orestis Palermos and Duncan Pritchard, University of Edinburgh,,

Palermos, Orestis and Duncan Pritchard. 2013. “Extended Knowledge and Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (8): 105-120.

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The place of social epistemology within contemporary philosophy, as well as its relation to other academic disciplines, is the topic of an ongoing debate. One camp within that debate holds that social epistemology should be pursued strictly from within the perspective of individualistic analytic epistemology. In contrast, a second camp holds that social epistemology is an interdisciplinary field that should be given priority over traditional analytic epistemology, with the specific aim of radically transforming the latter to fit the results and methodology of the former. We are rather suspicious of this apparent tension, which we believe can be significantly mitigated by paying attention to certain recent advances within philosophy of mind and cognitive science. Accordingly, we attempt to explain how extended knowledge, the result of combining active externalism from contemporary philosophy of mind with contemporary epistemology, can offer an alternative conception of the future of social epistemology. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Finn Collin, University of Copenhagen,

Collin, Finn. 2013. “Two Kinds of Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (8): 79-104.

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Steve Fuller’s programme of Social Epistemology was initiated some 25 years ago with the launching of a journal and the publication of a monograph with those very words as their title. Since then, the programme has evolved in a constant critical dialogue with other players in the fields of epistemology and science studies. Fuller’s main confrontation has been with analytic epistemology which, in its classical form, adopts a contrary position on most key issues. However, analytic epistemologists have gradually moved in the direction of Fuller’s views and even adopted the term “social epistemology” for their emerging position. Still, substantial disagreement remains between the two identically named programmes with regard to the proper philosophical approach to knowledge as a social phenomenon; in this article, I try to pinpoint the locus of this disagreement. However, Fuller has also been engaged in minor skirmishes with his Science Studies fellows; I also examine these clashes. Finally, I express my wishes concerning the future direction of social epistemology. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Angelica Nuzzo, Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, CUNY,

Nuzzo, Angelica. 2013. “The Social Dimension of Dialectical Truth: Hegel’s Idea of Objective Spirit.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (8): 10-25.

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In this essay I argue for the claim that Hegel’s dialectical idea of truth, which is articulated in its pure forms in the Logic as the process of comprehension of partial positions of truth in an ultimate systematic unity, is socially and historically constituted within the structures of what Hegel calls “spirit.” I start by bringing to the fore those controversial issues of the Goldman-Fuller debate on which Hegel has important suggestions to make. In placing Hegel within this debate, my claim is that his theory offers a ‘third way’ of shaping a social epistemology developed on the basis of a dialectic-speculative logic and such as having the notion of spirit at the center. What Hegel has to offer to us is a “dialectical” social epistemology where truth is indeed the fundamental aim of science and yet it is a historical and collective construction of spirit. I examine the access to and the elaboration of truth and knowledge proper, respectively, to subjective and objective spirit: the psychological, individual dimension of subjective spirit, and the social and institutional context of objective spirit. I argue that the dimension of objective spirit is the mediating center that organizes and gives “reality” to all the forms of spirit’s knowledge. I conclude by briefly discussing the role that Bildung plays in shaping and articulating the institutions of knowledge and the activity of science within the social sphere. Continue Reading…