Archives For knowledge management

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why Scientific Knowledge Is Still the Best.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 18-32.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40I

For context, see also:

Image by Specious Reasons via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

It is common knowledge among scholars and researchers that the norms of academic research dictate that one must enter an academic conversation by properly acknowledging, citing, and engaging with the work done by other scholars and researchers in the field, thereby showing that a larger conversation is taking place.[1] See, for example, Graff and Birkenstein (2018, 1-18) on “entering the conversation.” Properly “entering the conversation” is especially important when one aims to criticize the work done by other scholars and researchers in the field.

In my previous reply to Bernard Wills’ attack on Weak Scientism (Wills 2018a), I point out that Wills fails in his job as a scholar who aims to criticize work done by other scholars and researchers in the field (Mizrahi 2018b, 41), since Wills does not cite or engage with the paper in which I defend Weak Scientism originally (Mizrahi 2017a), the very thesis he seeks to attack. Moreover, he does not cite or engage with the papers in my exchange with Christopher Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), not to mention other works in the literature on scientism.

In his latest attack, even though he claims to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34), it appears that Wills still has not bothered to read the paper in which I defend the thesis he seeks to attack (Mizrahi 2017a), or any of the papers in my exchange with Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), as evidenced by the fact that he does not cite them at all. To me, these are not only signs of lazy scholarship but also an indication that Wills has no interest in engaging with my arguments for Weak Scientism in good faith. For these reasons, this will be my second and final response to Wills. I have neither the time nor the patience to debate lazy scholars who argue in bad faith.

On the Quantitative Superiority of Scientific Knowledge

In response to my empirical data on the superiority of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge in terms of research output and research impact (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44), Wills (2018b, 34) claims that he has “no firm opinion at all as to whether the totality of the sciences have produced more ‘stuff’ than the totality of the humanities between 1997 and 2017 and the reason is that I simply don’t care.”

I would like to make a few points in reply. First, the sciences produce more published research, not just “stuff.” Wills’ use of the non-count noun ‘stuff’ is misleading because it suggests that research output cannot be counted or measured. However, research output (as well as research impact) can be counted and measured, which is why we can use this measure to determine that scientific research (or knowledge) is better than non-scientific research (or knowledge).

Second, my defense of Weak Scientism consists of a quantitative argument and a qualitative argument, thereby showing that scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge both quantitatively and qualitatively, which are the two ways in which one thing can be said to be better than another (Mizrahi 2017a, 354). If Wills really does not care about the quantitative argument for Weak Scientism, as he claims, then why is he attacking my defense of Weak Scientism at all?

After all, showing that “scientific knowledge is [quantitatively] better – in terms of research output (i.e. more publications) and research impact (i.e. more citations) – than non-scientific knowledge” is an integral part of my defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 358). To know that, however, Wills would have to read the paper in which I make these arguments for Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a). In his (2018a) and (2018b), I see no evidence that Wills has read, let alone read closely, that paper.

Third, for someone who says that he “simply [doesn’t] care” about quantity (Wills 2018b, 34), Wills sure talks about it a lot. For example, Wills claims that a “German professor once told [him] that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone!” (Wills 2018a, 18) and that “Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat” (Wills 2018a, 18). Wills’ unsupported claims about quantity turn out to be false, of course, as I show in my previous reply (Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44). Readers will notice that Wills does not even try to defend those claims in his (2018b).

Fourth, whether Wills cares about quantity or has opinions on the matter is completely beside the point. With all due respect, Wills’ opinions about research output in academic disciplines are worthless, especially when we have data on research output in scientific and non-scientific disciplines. The data show that scientific disciplines produce more research than non-scientific disciplines and that scientific research has a greater impact than non-scientific research (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44).

Wills (2018b, 35) thinks that the following is a problem for Weak Scientism: “what if it were true that Shakespeare scholars produced more papers than physicists?” (original emphasis) Lacking in good arguments, as in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, Wills resorts to making baseless accusations and insults, calling me “an odd man” for thinking that literature would be better than physics in his hypothetical scenario (Wills 2018b, 35). But this is not a problem for Weak Scientism at all and there is nothing “odd” about it.

What Wills fails to understand is that Weak Scientism is not supposed to be a necessary truth. That is, Weak Scientism does not state that scientific knowledge must be quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. Rather, Weak Scientism is a contingent fact about the state of academic research. As a matter of fact, scientific disciplines produce better research than non-scientific disciplines do.

Moreover, the data we have (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44) give us no reason to think that these trends in research output and research impact are likely to change any time soon. Of course, if Wills had read my original defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a), and my replies to Brown, he would have known that I have discussed all of this already (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10; 2018a, 9-13).

Likewise, contrary to what Wills (2018b, 36, footnote 2) seems to think, there is nothing odd about arguing for a thesis according to which academic research produced by scientific disciplines is superior to academic research produced by non-scientific disciplines, “while leaving open the question whether non-scientific knowledge outside the academy may be superior to science” (original emphasis). If Wills were familiar with the literature on scientism, he would have been aware of the common distinction between “internal scientism” and “external scientism.”

See, for example, Stenmark’s (1997, 16-18) distinction between “academic-internal scientism” and “academic-external scientism” as well as Peels (2018, 28-56) on the difference between “academic scientism” and “universal scientism.” Again, a serious scholar would have made sure that he or she is thoroughly familiar with the relevant literature before attacking a research paper that aims to make a contribution to that literature (Graff and Birkenstein 2018, 1-18).

Wills also seems to be unaware of the fact that my quantitative argument for Weak Scientism consists of two parts: (a) showing that scientific research output is greater than non-scientific research output, and (b) showing that the research impact of scientific research is greater than that of non-scientific research (Mizrahi 2017a, 356-358). The latter is measured, not just by publications, but also by citations. Wills does not address this point about research impact in his attacks on Weak Scientism. Since he seems to be proud of his publication record, for he tells me I should search for his published papers on Google (Wills 2018b, 35), let me to illustrate this point about research impact by comparing Wills’ publication record to a colleague of his from a science department at his university.

According to Google Scholar, since completing his doctorate in Religious Studies at McMaster University in 2003, Wills has published ten research articles (excluding book reviews). One of his research articles was cited three times, and three of his research articles were cited one time each. That is six citations in total.

On the other hand, his colleague from the Physics program at Memorial University, Dr. Svetlana Barkanova, has published 23 research articles between 2003 and 2018, and those articles were cited 53 times. Clearly, in the same time, a physicist at Wills’ university has produced more research than he did (130% more research), and her research has had a greater impact than his (783% more impact). As I have argued in my (2017a), this is generally the case when research produced by scientific disciplines is compared to research produced by non-scientific disciplines (Table 1).

Table 1. H Index by subject area, 1999-2018 (Source: Scimago Journal & Country Rank)

H Index
Physics 927
Psychology 682
Philosophy 161
Literature 67

Reflecting on One’s Own Knowledge

In his first attack on Weak Scientism, Wills (2018a, 23) claims that one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of [one’s] own existence.” In response, I pointed out that Wills (2018a, 23) himself admits that this reflexive procedure applies to “ANY fact” (original capitalization), which means that it makes no difference in terms of the quantity of knowledge produced in scientific versus non-scientific disciplines.

As I have come to expect from him, Wills (2018b, 35) resorts to name-calling again, rather than giving good arguments, calling my response “sophism,” but he seems to miss the basic logical point, even though he admits again that extending one’s knowledge by reflexive self-reflection “can be done with any proposition at all” (Wills 2018b, 35). Of course, if “it can be done with any proposition at all” (Wills 2018b, 35; emphasis added), then it can be done with scientific propositions as well, for the set of all propositions includes scientific propositions.

To illustrate, suppose that a scientist knows that p and a non-scientist knows that q. Quantitatively, the amount of scientific and non-scientific knowledge is equal in this instance (1 = 1). Now the scientist reflects on her own knowledge that p and comes to know that she knows that p, i.e., she knows that Kp. Similarly, the non-scientist reflects on her knowledge that q and comes to know that she knows that q, i.e., she knows that Kq. Notice that, quantitatively, nothing has changed, i.e., the amount of scientific versus non-scientific knowledge is still equal: two items of scientific knowledge (p and Kp) and two items of non-scientific knowledge (q and Kq).

Wills might be tempted to retort that p may be an item of scientific knowledge but Kp is not because it is not knowledge that is produced by scientific procedures. However, if Wills were to retort in this way, then it would be another indication of sloppy scholarship on his part. In my original paper (Mizrahi 2017a, 356), and in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b, 12-14; Mizrahi 2018a, 14-15), I discuss at great length my characterization of disciplinary knowledge as knowledge produced by practitioners in the field. I will not repeat those arguments here.

Baseless Accusations of Racism and Colonialism

After raising questions about whether I am merely rationalizing my “privilege” (Wills 2018a, 19), Wills now says that his baseless accusations of racism and colonialism are “not personal” (Wills 2018b, 35). His concern, Wills (2018b, 35) claims, is “systemic racism” (original emphasis). As a white man, Wills has the chutzpah to explain (or white-mansplain, if you will) to me, an immigrant from the Middle East, racism and colonialism.

My people were the victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide, lived under British colonial rule, and are still a persecuted minority group. Since some of my ancestors died fighting the British mandate, I do not appreciate using the term ‘colonialism’ to describe academic disputes that are trifle in comparison to the atrocities brought about by racism and colonialism.

Perhaps Wills should have used (or meant to use) the term ‘imperialism’, since it is sometimes used to describe the expansion of a scientific theory into new domains (Dupré 1994). This is another sign of Wills’ lack of familiarity with the literature on scientism. Be that as it may, Wills continues to assert without argument that my “defense of weak-scientism is ideologically loaded,” that it implies “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers,” and that I make “hegemonic claims for science from which [I] stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36).

In response, I must admit that I have no idea what sort of “ideologies” Weak Scientism is supposed to be loaded with, since Wills does not say what those are. Wills (2018b, 36) asserts without argument that “the position [I] take on scientism has social, political and monetary implications,” but he does not specify those implications. Nor does he show how social and political implications (whatever those are) are supposed to follow from the epistemic thesis of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). I am also not sure why Wills thinks that Weak Scientism implies “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers” (Wills 2018b, 36), since he provides no arguments for these assertions.

Of course, Weak Scientism entails that there is non-scientific knowledge (Mizrahi 2018b, 41). If there is non-scientific knowledge, then there are non-scientific knowers. In that case, on Weak Scientism, non-scientists are not excluded from “the circle of knowers.” In other words, on Weak Scientism, the circle of knowers includes non-scientists, which can be women and people of color, of course (recall Dr. Svetlana Barkanova). Contrary to what Wills seems to think, then, Weak Scientism cannot possibly entail “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers” (Wills 2018b, 36).

In fact, if it is “the exclusion of various others” that Wills (2018b, 36) is genuinely concerned about, then he is undoubtedly aware of the fact that it is precisely white men like him who are guilty of systematically excluding “various others,” such as women (Paxton et al. 2012) and people of color (Botts et al. 2014), from the academic discipline of philosophy (American Philosophical Association 2014). As anyone who is familiar with the academic discipline of philosophy knows, “philosophy faces a serious diversity problem” (Van Norden 2017b, 5). As Amy Ferrer (2012), Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association (APA), put it on Brian Leiter’s blog, Leiter Reports:

philosophy is one of the least diverse humanities fields, and indeed one of the least diverse fields in all of academia, in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. Philosophy has a reputation for not only a lack of diversity but also an often hostile climate for women and minorities (emphasis added).

In light of the lack of diversity in academic philosophy, some have gone as far as arguing that contemporary philosophy is racist and xenophobic; otherwise, argues Bryan Van Norden (2017a), it is difficult to explain “the fact that the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world.”

In fact, Wills’ attacks on Weak Scientism illustrate how white men like him attempt to keep philosophy white and “foreigner-free” (Cherry and Schwitzgebel 2016). They do so by citing and discussing the so-called “greats,” which are almost exclusively Western men. Citations are rather scarce in Wills’ replies, but when he cites, he only cites “the greats,” like Aristotle and Augustine (see Schwitzgebel et al. 2018 on the “Insularity of Anglophone Philosophy”).

As for his claim that I “stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36) from my defense of Weak Scientism, I have no idea what Wills is talking about. I had no idea that History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) and Science and Technology Studies (STS) “can often assert hegemony over other discourses” (Wills 2018b, 36). I bet this will come as a surprise to other HPS and STS scholars and researchers. They will probably be shocked to learn that they have that kind of power over other academic disciplines.

More importantly, even if it were true that I “stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36) from my defense of Weak Scientism, nothing about the merit of my defense of Weak Scientism would follow from that. That is, to argue that Weak Scientism must be false because I stand to benefit from it being true is to argue fallaciously. In particular, it is an informal fallacy of the circumstantial ad hominem type known as “poisoning the well,” which “alleges that the person has a hidden agenda or something to gain and is therefore not an honest or objective arguer” (Walton and Krabbe 1995, 111).

It is as fallacious as arguing that climate change is not real because climate scientists stand to benefit from climate research or that MMR vaccines are not safe (e.g., cause autism) because medical researchers stand to benefit from such vaccines (Offit 2008, 213-214). These are the sort of fallacious arguments that are typically made by those who are ignorant of the relevant science or are arguing in bad faith.

In fact, the same sort of fallacious reasoning can be used to attack any scholar or researcher in any field of inquiry whatsoever, including Wills. For instance, just as my standing to benefit from defending Weak Scientism is supposed to be a reason to believe that Weak Scientism is false, or Paul Offit’s standing to gain from MMR vaccines is supposed to be a reason to believe that such vaccines are not safe, Wills’ standing to benefit from his attacks on Weak Scientism (e.g., by protecting his position as a Humanities professor) would be a reason to believe that his attacks on Weak Scientism are flawed.

Indeed, the administrators at Wills’ university would have a reason to dismiss his argument for a pay raise on the grounds that he stands to benefit from it (Van Vleet 2011, 16). Of course, such reasoning is fallacious no matter who is the target. Either MMR vaccines are safe and effective or they are not regardless of whether Offit stands to benefit from them. Climate change is real whether climate scientists stand to benefit from doing climate research. Likewise, Weak Scientism is true or false whether or not I stand to benefit from defending it.

Image by Maia Valenzuela via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Revisiting the Joyce Scholar

Wills (2018b, 36) returns to his example of the Joyce scholar as an example of non-scientific knowledge “that come[s] from an academic context.” As I have already pointed out in my previous reply (Mizrahi 2018b, 41-42), it appears that Wills fails to grasp the difference between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism. Only Strong Scientism rules out knowledge that is not scientific. On Weak Scientism, there is both scientific and non-scientific knowledge. Consequently, examples of non-scientific knowledge from academic disciplines other than scientific ones do not constitute evidence against Weak Scientism.

Relatedly, Wills claims to have demonstrated that I vacillate between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism and cites page 22 of his previous attack (Wills 2018a, 22). Here is how Wills (2018a, 22) argues that I vacillate between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism:

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizhari [sic] to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to. Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the [sic] knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities” [Mizrahi 2018a, 22].

However, the full passage Wills cites as evidence of my vacillation between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism is from the conclusion of my second reply to Brown (Mizrahi 2018a) and it reads as follows:

At this point, I think it is quite clear that Brown and I are talking past each other on a couple of levels. First, I follow scientists (e.g., Weinberg 1994, 166-190) and philosophers (e.g., Haack 2007, 17-18 and Peels 2016, 2462) on both sides of the scientism debate in treating philosophy as an academic discipline or field of study, whereas Brown (2017b, 18) insists on thinking about philosophy as a personal activity of “individual intellectual progress.” Second, I follow scientists (e.g., Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) and philosophers (e.g., Kidd 2016, 12-13 and Rosenberg 2011, 307) on both sides of the scientism debate in thinking about knowledge as the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields of study, such as the humanities, whereas Brown insists on thinking about philosophical knowledge as personal knowledge.

Clearly, in this passage, I am talking about how ‘knowledge’ is understood in the scientism debate, specifically, that knowledge is the published research or scholarship produced by practitioners in academic disciplines (see also Mizrahi 2017a, 353). I am not saying that non-scientific disciplines do not produce knowledge. How anyone can interpret this passage as evidence of vacillation between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism is truly beyond me. To me, this amounts to “contextomy” (McGlone 2005), and thus further evidence of arguing in bad faith on Wills’ part.

Wills also misunderstands, as in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, the epistemic properties of unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability, and their role in the context of hypothesis testing and theory choice. For he seems to think that “a masterful exposition of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man will show the unity, coherence and simplicity of the work’s design to the extent that these are artistically desired features” (Wills 2018b, 36). Here Wills is equivocating on the meaning of the terms ‘unity’, ‘coherence’, and ‘simplicity’.

There is a difference between the epistemic and the artistic senses of these terms. For example, when it comes to novels, such as A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, ‘simplicity’ may refer to literary style and language. When it comes to explanations or theories, however, ‘simplicity’ refers to the number of entities posited or assumptions taken for granted (Mizrahi 2016). Clearly, those are two different senses of ‘simplicity’ and Wills is equivocating on the two. As far as Weak Scientism is concerned, it is the epistemic sense of these terms that is of interest to us. Perhaps Wills fails to realize that Weak Scientism is an epistemic thesis because he has not read my (2017a), where I sketch the arguments for this thesis, or at least has not read it carefully enough despite claiming to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34).

When he says that the Joyce scholar “tests [what he says] against the text,” Wills (2018b, 37) reveals his misunderstanding of testability once again. On Wills’ description of the work done by the Joyce scholar, what the Joyce scholar is doing amounts to accommodation, not novel prediction. I have already discussed this point in my previous reply to Wills (Mizrahi 2018b, 47) and I referred him to a paper in which I explain the difference between accommodation and novel prediction (Mizrahi 2012). But it appears that Wills has no interest in reading the works I cite in my replies to his attacks. Perhaps a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the difference between accommodation and prediction would be more accessible (Barnes 2018).

Wills finds it difficult to see how the work of the Joyce scholar can be improved by drawing on the methods of the sciences. As Wills (2018b, 37) writes, “What in this hermeneutic process would be improved by ‘scientific method’ as Mizrahi describes it? Where does the Joyce scholar need to draw testable consequences from a novel hypothesis and test it with an experiment?” (original emphasis)

Because he sees no way the work of the Joyce scholar can benefit from the application of scientific methodologies, Wills thinks it follows that I have no choice but to say that the work of the Joyce scholar does not count as knowledge. As Wills (2018b, 37) writes, “It seems to me that only option for Mizrahi here is to deny that the Joyce scholar knows anything (beyond the bare factual information) and this means, alas, that his position once again collapses into strong scientism.”

It should be clear, however, that this is a non sequitur. Even if it is true that scientific methodologies are of no use to the Joyce scholar, it does not follow that the work of the Joyce scholar does not count as knowledge. Again, Weak Scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. This means that scientists produce knowledge using scientific methods, whereas non-scientists produce knowledge using non-scientific methods, it’s just that scientists produce better knowledge using scientific methods that are superior to non-scientific methods in terms of the production of knowledge. Non-scientists can use scientific methods to produce knowledge in their fields of inquiry. But even if they do not use scientific methods in their work, on Weak Scientism, the research they produce still counts as knowledge.

Moreover, it is not the case that scientific methodologies are of no use to literary scholars. Apparently, Wills is unaware of the interdisciplinary field in which the methods of computer science and data science are applied to the study of history, literature, and philosophy known as the “Digital Humanities.” Becoming familiar with work in Digital Humanities will help Wills understand what it means to use scientific methods in a literary context. Since I have already discussed all of this in my original paper (Mizrahi 2017a) and in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), I take this as another reason to think that Wills has not read those papers (or at least has not read them carefully enough).

To me, this is a sign that he is not interested in engaging with Weak Scientism in good faith, especially since my (2017a) and my replies to Brown are themselves instances of the use of methods from data science in HPS, and since I have cited two additional examples of work I have done with Zoe Ashton that illustrates how philosophy can be improved by the introduction of scientific methods (Ashton and Mizrahi 2018a and 2018b). Again, it appears that Wills did not bother to read (let alone read closely) the works I cite in my replies to his attacks.

Toward the end of his discussion of the Joyce scholar, Wills (2018b, 37) says that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases.” If he accepts that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37), then Wills thereby accepts Weak Scientism as well. For to say that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37) is to say that scientific knowledge is generally better than non-scientific knowledge.

Of course, there are instances of bad science, just as there are instances of bad scholarship in any academic discipline. Generally speaking, however, research done by scientists using the methods of science will likely be better (i.e., quantitatively better in terms of research output and research impact as well as qualitatively better in terms of explanatory, predictive, and instrumental success) than research done by non-scientists using non-scientific methods. That is Weak Scientism and, perhaps unwittingly, Wills seems to have accepted it by granting that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37).

Inference to the Best Explanation

In my (2017a), as well as in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a) and to Wills (Mizrahi 2018b), I have argued that Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is used in both scientific and non-scientific disciplines. As McCain and Poston (2017, 1) put it:

Explanatory reasoning is quite common. Not only are rigorous inferences to the best explanation (IBE) used pervasively in the sciences, explanatory reasoning is virtually ubiquitous in everyday life. It is not a stretch to say that we implement explanatory reasoning in a way that is “so routine and automatic that it easily goes unnoticed” [Douven 2017].

Once this point is acknowledged, it becomes clear that, when judged by the criteria of good explanations, such as unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability, scientific IBEs are generally better than non-scientific IBEs (Mizrahi 2017a, 360; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17; Mizrahi 2018b, 46-47).

In response, Wills tells the story of his daughter who has attempted to reason abductively in class once. Wills (2018b, 38) begins by saying “Let me go back to my daughter,” even though it is the first time he mentions her in his (2018b), and then goes on to say that she once explained “how Scriabin created [the Prometheus] chord” to the satisfaction of her classmates.

But how is this supposed to be evidence against Weak Scientism? In my (2017a), I discuss how IBE is used in non-scientific disciplines and I even give an example from literature (Mizrahi 2017a, 361). Apparently, Wills is unaware of that, which I take to be another indication that he has not read the paper that defends the thesis he seeks to criticize. Again, to quote Wills (2018b, 38) himself, “All disciplines use abduction,” so to give an example of IBE from a non-scientific discipline does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism. According to Weak Scientism, all academic disciplines produce knowledge, and many of them do so by using IBE, it’s just that scientific IBEs are better than non-scientific IBEs.

Wills asserts without argument that, in non-scientific disciplines, there is no need to test explanations even when IBE is used to produce knowledge. As Wills (2018b, 38) writes, “All disciplines use abduction, true, but they do not all arrive at the ‘best explanation’ by the same procedures.” For Wills (2018b, 38), his daughter did not need to test her hypothesis about “how Scriabin created [the Prometheus] chord.” Wills does not tell us what the hypothesis in question actually is, so it is hard to tell whether it is testable or not. To claim that it doesn’t need to be tested, however, even when the argument for it is supposed to be an IBE, would be to misuse or abuse IBE rather than use it.

That is, if one were to reason to the best explanation without judging competing explanations by the criteria of unity, coherence, simplicity, testability, and the like, then one would not be warranted in concluding that one’s explanation is the best among those considered. That is just how IBE works (Psillos 2007). To say that an explanation is the best is to say that, among the competing explanations considered, it is the one that explains the most, leaves out the least, is consistent with background knowledge, is the least complicated, and yields independently testable predictions (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362).

Wills (2018b, 39) seems to grant that “unity, simplicity and coherence” are good-making properties of explanations, but not testability. But why not testability? Why an explanation must be simple in order to be a good explanation, but not testable? Wills does not say. Again (Mizrahi 2018b, 47), I would urge Wills to consult logic and reasoning textbooks that discuss IBE. In those books, he will find that, in addition to unity, coherence, and simplicity, testability is one of the “characteristics that are necessary conditions for any explanation to qualify as being a reasonable empirical explanation” (Govier 2010, 300).

In other words, IBE is itself the procedure by which knowledge is produced. This procedure consists of “an inference from observations and a comparison between competing hypotheses to the conclusion that one of those hypotheses best explains the observations” (Mizrahi 2018c). For example (Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2015, 196):

  • Observation: Your lock is broken and your valuables are missing.
  • Explanation: The hypothesis that your house has been burglarized, combined with previously accepted facts and principles, provides a suitably strong explanation of observation 1.
  • Comparison: No other hypothesis provides an explanation nearly as good as that in 2.
  • Conclusion: Your house was burglarized.

As we can see, the procedure itself requires that we compare competing hypotheses. As I have mentioned already, “common standards for assessing explanations” (Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2015, 195) include unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability. This means that, if the hypothesis one favors as the best explanation for observation 1 cannot be tested, then one would not be justified in concluding that it is the best explanation, and hence probably true. That is simply how IBE works (Psillos 2007).

Contrary to what Wills (2018b, 39) seems to think, those who reason abductively without comparing competing explanations by the criteria of unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability are not using IBE, they are misusing or abusing it (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-361). To reason abductively without testing your competing explanations is as fallacious as reasoning inductively without making sure that your sample is representative of the target population (Govier 2010, 258-262).

Image by Specious Reasons via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The Defense Rests

Fallacious reasoning, unfortunately, is what I have come to expect from Wills after reading and replying to his attacks on Weak Scientism. But this is forgivable, of course, given that we all fall prey to mistakes in reasoning on occasion. Even misspelling my last name several times (Wills 2018a, 18, 22, 24) is forgivable, so I accept Wills’ (2018b, 39) apology. What is unforgivable, however, is lazy scholarship and arguing in bad faith. As I have argued above, Wills is guilty of both because, despite claiming to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34), Wills has not read the paper in which I defend the thesis he seeks to attack (Mizrahi 2017a), or any of the papers in my exchange with Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), as evidenced by the fact that he does not cite them at all (not to mention citing and engaging with other works on scientism).

This explains why Wills completely misunderstands Weak Scientism and the arguments for the quantitative superiority (in terms of research output and research impact) as well as qualitative superiority (in terms of explanatory, predictive, and instrumental success) of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge. For these reasons, this is my second and final response to Wills. I have neither the time nor the patience to engage with lazy scholarship that was produced in bad faith.

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Ashton, Zoe and Moti Mizrahi. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the ‘Received Wisdom’ About Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis 83, no. 3 (2018a): 595-612.

Ashton, Zoe and Moti Mizrahi. “Show Me the Argument: Empirically Testing the Armchair Philosophy Picture.” Metaphilosophy 49, no. 1-2 (2018b): 58-70.

American Philosophical Association. “Minorities in Philosophy.” Data and Information on the Field of Philosophy. Accessed on August 13, 2018. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/resmgr/data_on_profession/minorities_in_philosophy.pdf.

Barnes, Eric Christian. “Prediction versus Accommodation.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), edited by E. N. Zalta. Accessed on August 14, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/prediction-accommodation/.

Botts, Tina Fernandes, Liam Kofi Bright, Myisha Cherry, Guntur Mallarangeng, and Quayshawn Spencer. “What Is the State of Blacks in Philosophy?” Critical Philosophy of Race 2, no. 2 (2014): 224-242.

Cherry, Myisha and Eric Schwitzgebel. “Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite.” Los Angeles Times, March 04, 2016. Accessed on August 13, 2018. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0306-schwitzgebel-cherry-philosophy-so-white-20160306-story.html.

Douven, Igor. “Abduction.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by E. N. Zalta (Summer 2017 Edition). Accessed on August 14, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/abduction/.

Dupré, John. “Against Scientific Imperialism.” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1994, no. 2 (1994): 374-381.

Ferrer, Amy. “What Can We Do about Diversity?” Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog, December 04, 2012. Accessed on August 13, 2018. http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2012/12/what-can-we-do-about-diversity.html.

Govier, Trudy. A Practical Study of Argument. Seventh Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2010.

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Fourth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2018.

Haack, Susan. Defending Science–within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

Kidd, I. J. “How Should Feyerabend Have Defended Astrology? A Reply to Pigliucci.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 11-17.

McCain, Kevin and Ted Poston. “Best Explanations: An Introduction.” In Best Explanations: New Essays on Inference to the Best Explanation, edited by K. McCain and T. Poston, 1-6. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

McGlone, Matthew S. “Contextomy: The Art of Quoting out of Context.” Media, Culture & Society 27, no. 4 (2005): 511-522.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why the Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism Ultimately Fails.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 43, no. 1 (2012): 132-138.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why Simpler Arguments are Better.” Argumentation 30, no. 3 (2016): 247-261.

Mizrahi, Moti. “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, Moti. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social

Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018a): 7-25.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018b): 41-50.

Mizrahi, Moti. “The ‘Positive Argument’ for Constructive Empiricism and Inference to the Best Explanation. Journal for General Philosophy of Science (2018c): https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-018-9414-3.

Offit, Paul A. Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Paxton, Molly, Carrie Figdor, and Valerie Tiberius. “Quantifying the Gender Gap: An Empirical Study of the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy.” Hypatia 27, no. 4 (2012): 949-957.

Peels, Rik. “The Empirical Case Against Introspection.” Philosophical Studies 17, no. 9 (2016): 2461-2485.

Peels, Rik. “A Conceptual Map of Scientism.” In Scientism: Prospects and Problems, edited by J. De Ridder, R. Peels, and R. Van Woudenberg, 28-56. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Psillos, Stathis. “The Fine Structure of Inference to the Best Explanation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74, no. 2 (2007): 441-448.

Rosenberg, Alexander. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on August 13, 2018. http://www.scimagojr.com/mapgen.php?maptype=bc&country=US&y=citd.

Schwitzgebel, Eric, Linus Ta-Lun Huang, Andrew Higgins, Ivan Gonzalez-Cabrera. “The Insularity of Anglophone Philosophy: Quantitative Analyses.” Philosophical Papers 47, no. 1 (2018): 21-48.

Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter and Robert Fogelin. Understanding Arguments. Ninth Edition. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015.

Stenmark, Mikael. “What is Scientism?” Religious Studies 33, no. 1 (1997): 15-32.

Van Norden, Bryan. “Western Philosophy is Racist.” Aeon, October 31, 2017a. Accessed on August 12, 2018. https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-western-philosophical-canon-is-xenophobic-and-racist.

Van Norden, Bryan. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017b.

Van Vleet, Jacob E. Informal Logical Fallacies: A Brief Guide. Lahman, MD: University Press of America, 2011.

Walton, Douglas N. and Erik C. W. Krabbe. Commitment in Dialogue: Basic Concepts of Interpersonal Reasoning. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Weinberg, Steven. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Random House, 1994.

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018a): 18-24.

Wills, Bernard. “On the Limits of any Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018b): 34-39.

[1] I would like to thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Bernard Wills’ second attack on Weak Scientism.

Author Information: Stephen John, Cambridge University, sdj22@cam.ac.uk

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zf

See also:

Image by Sergio Santos and http://nursingschoolsnearme.com, 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.

Contact details: sdj22@cam.ac.uk

References

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: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WS

See also:

Image by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Moti Mizrahi has been defending something he calls ‘weak scientism’ against Christopher Brown in a series of exchanges in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. His animus seems to be against philosophy in particular though he asserts that other disciplines in the humanities do not produce knowledge either. He also shows remarkable candor in admitting that it all comes down to money: money spent on philosophy would be better spent on the sciences because scientific knowledge is better qualitatively (i.e. because it makes true predictions) and quantitatively (scientists pump out more stuff than philosophers). (11)

Measuring Success

As he tells us: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.” (Mizrahi; 7). Furthermore: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge- in the form of scholarly publications-than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact)” (7)

The relevance of this latter claim seems to me unclear: surely by a quantitative measure, Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat.[1] A German professor once told me that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone! I will not, however, spend time scratching my head over what seems a tangential point. The quantity of work produced in the sciences would be of little significance were it not valuable by some other measure. No one would think commercials great works of art on the grounds that there are so many of them.

Then again some concerned by the problem of over-specialization might view the sheer quantity of scientific research as a problem not an advantage.  I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind.

He says this is so “in certain relevant aspects”. (10) I’m not sure what he means by this hedge. What makes an aspect relevant in this context? I will proceed though on the assumption that whatever these relevant aspects are they make for an over-all context independent superiority of science over non-science.[2]

Of course, were I a practitioner of the hermeneutic of suspicion I would point out the glaring conflict of interest in Mr. Mizrahi making these claims from the fastness of a technical institute. If someone pops up claiming that only half the university really earns its keep it is a little bit suspect (if not surprising exactly) when that half of the university happens to the very one in which he resides. I might also point out the colonialist and sexist implications of his account, which is so contrived to conveniently exclude all sorts of ‘others’ from the circle of knowledge. Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?

However, as Mr. Mizrahi seems unlikely to be overly impressed by such an analysis I will stick to something simpler.[3] Does science alone produce knowledge or do other epistemic forms produce knowledge as well? This is the question of whether ‘strong scientism’ is correct. Secondly, if strong scientism is not correct does weak scientism offer a more defensible alternative or does it suffer from the same drawbacks? Accordingly, I will refute strong scientism and then show that weak scientism is vulnerable to precisely the same objections.

Politicized Words and Politicizing Ideas

There are dangers to antagonizing philosophers. We may not be pulling in the big grants, true , but we can do a great deal of damage regardless  for when the ‘scientistic class’ is not accusing philosophy of being useless and ineffectual it is accusing it of corrupting the entire world with its po-mo nonsense.[4] This is because one of the functions of philosophy is the skeptical or critical one. When scientists go on about verification and falsification or claim the principle of induction can be justified by induction philosophers perform the Socratic function of puncturing their hubris. Thus, one of the functions of philosophy is deflationary.

A philosopher of science who makes himself unpopular with scientists by raising questions the scientist is unequipped to answer and has no time for anyway is only doing her job. I think this is a case in point. Since Descartes at least we been fascinated by the idea of the great epistemic purge. There is so much ‘stuff’ out there claiming to be knowledge that we need to light a great bonfire and burn all of it. This bonfire might be Cartesian doubt. It might be ‘scientific method’. Either way all the ‘pretend’ knowledge is burned off leaving the useful core. This may well be a worthwhile endeavour and in the time of Descartes it surely was.

However, I suspect this tradition has created a misleading impression. The real problem is not that we have too little knowledge but too much: as a phenomenologist might say it is a saturated phenomenon. Knowledge is all around us so that like bats our eyes are blinded by the sun. This is why I find the idea that only scientists produce knowledge the very definition of an ivory tower notion that has no basis in experience. To show this let me make a list of the kinds of non-scientific knowledge people have.

As we shall see, the problem is not making this list long but keeping it short. I offer this list to create an overwhelming presumption that strong scientism at very least is not true (I shall then argue that weak scientism is in no better a case).  This procedure may not be decisive in itself but I do think it puts the ball in the court of the ‘strong scientist’ who must show that all the things I (and most everybody else) call knowledge are in fact something else.

What is more, the ‘strong scientist’ must do this without violating the criterion of strong scientism itself: he cannot avail himself of any but scientific arguments. Moreover, he must show that science itself meets the criterion of knowledge he sets out which is not an easy task given such well known difficulties as the problem of induction. At any rate, prima facie, there seems overwhelming empirical evidence that strong scientism is incorrect: a claim so extraordinary should have an unusually strong justification, to paraphrase Hume. Let’s see if the ‘strong scientist’ can produce one.

Making a Problem of “Results”

To begin, I should point out is that there are bodies of knowledge that produce ‘results’ not through scientific method but through analysis and application to cases. Two prominent examples would be Law and Music Theory, practitioners of which use an established body of theory to solve problems like whether Trinity Western should have a law school or how Scriabin invented the ‘Prometheus chord’. What sense of ‘know’ can we appeal to in order to show that my daughter, who is a music theory student, does not ‘know’ that the Prometheus chord was derived from the over-tone series?

Secondly, there is knowledge about the past that historians uncover through the interpretation of primary documents and other evidence. In what sense do we not ‘know’ that the Weimar Republic fell? This claim is even more remarkable given there are sciences that deal with the past, like Paleontology, which ‘interpret’ signs such as fossils or tools in a manner much more like historians (there is hermeneutic judgment in science which functions no differently than hermeneutic judgment elsewhere).

Thirdly, there is first person knowledge which is direct. “Did that hurt?” asks the doctor because without accepting first-person reportage he cannot proceed with treatment. This is a kind of knowledge without which we could not even do science so that if Strong scientism wants to deny this is knowledge science itself will be the primary victim. Again science can go nowhere without direct factual knowledge (the strip turned green when I put it in water) that is not produced by science but which science itself rests upon.

What about know how? Craftsmen and engineers know all kinds of things by accumulated experience. They know how a shoe is made or what makes for good beer. They also built the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What are we to make of disciplines like mathematics, geometry or logic? What about ethical or aesthetic or critical judgments? In what sense does a translator not ‘know’ Japanese? Does anyone really think literature scholars don’t ‘know’ anything about the texts they discuss even on a factual level? What scientific justification does the claim “Marlowe did not write King Lear’ have or even require?  And while we are at it may well be that philosophers do not know much but they do know things like ‘logical positivism fails its own criterion of meaning’ or ‘Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone’. [5]

It could well be that in regarding all the above as instances of knowledge I am missing something fundamental. If so I wish someone would point it out to me. Let’s take a hypothetical knower, Jill: Jill knows she is feeling cold, knows how to repair watches, knows why the Weimar Republic fell, knows how to speak Portuguese, knows there are 114 Surahs in the Quran, knows how Beethoven transformed the sonata form, has extensive topographical knowledge of places she has travelled, prefers the plays of Shakespeare to those of Thomas Preston, can identify Barbara as valid syllogism, considers racial prejudice indefensible, understands how attorney client privilege applies to the Stormy Daniels affair, can tell an stone age arrowhead from a rock, can comment on the philology of Hebrew, can understand Euclid’s proofs, is engaged in correcting the received text of Finnegans Wake , can explain the Quine/Duhem thesis and its relevance to the question of falsification, has written a commentary on Kant’s third critique and on top of all this is performing experiments in chemistry.

Strong scientism may be correct that only the last endeavour constitutes Jill’s ‘knowledge’ but on what grounds can it defeat what to me looks like the overwhelming presumption that Jill is not just a Chemist who wastes her time at hobbies but a genuine polymath who knows many things in many fields along with all the ordinary knowledge all humans possess?

Problems of Both the Strong and the Weak

The ‘strong scientist’ has surprisingly few options here. Will he point out that science makes true predictions? So have craftsmen for millennia. Further, many of these forms of knowledge do not need to make true predictions: I don’t need to test the hypothesis that there 114 Surahs in the Quran because I know already having checked.[6] Is science more certain of its conclusions? According to the post-Popper consensus at least, scientific statements are always tentative and revisable and in any case first person knowledge so surpasses it in certainty that some of it is arguably infallible. Is science more instrumentally successful?

Craftsmen and hunters kept the species alive for millennia before science even existed in difficult circumstances under which no science would have been possible. What is more some craft knowledge remains instrumentally superior to science to this day: no baseball player chooses a physicist over a batting coach.[7] At any rate success is relative to one’s aims and lawyers successfully produce legal arguments just as philologists successfully solve problems of Homeric grammar.

Now as Aristotle would say science does have the advantage over craft of being explanatory but is explanation unique to science? No; because hermeneutic practices in history, literature, classics and so on also produce explanations of the meaning of things like documents and if the ‘strong scientist’ wants to say that these explanations are tentative and changing (abductions as it were not inductions) then the same is true of a great deal of science. In short, none of the features that supposedly make for the superiority of science are unique to science and some are not even especially exemplified by it. It seems then that there is no criterion by which scientific claims can be shown to be knowledge in a unique and exclusive sense. Until such a criterion is identified it seems to me that my initial presupposition about Jill being a polymath rather than a chemist with distractions stands.   

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizrahi to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to.  Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities.” (22)[8] Still, when pushed, he seems content with the position that all the things I mentioned above might count as knowledge in a weaker sense but that scientific knowledge is still better and, presumably, more worthy of grants.

Unfortunately, the exact same objections which tell against strong scientism tell against weak scientism too. It is interesting that at this point Mizrahi employs a kind of knowledge I did not discuss above: to defend weak scientism he appeals to the authority of textbooks! (17) These textbooks tell him that science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions. He then tells us that while other disciplines may also betray these traits they do not do so to the same extent so that any money spent on them would be better spent on science on the maxim of prudence (another knowledge form I did not discuss) that one should seek the most bang for one’s buck.

Mizrahi gains little by this move for the question immediately arises better how and at what? Better in what context? By what standard of value? Just take the example of quantity so favored by Mizrahi. Does science produce more knowledge that anything else? Hardly. As Augustine pointed out I can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of my own existence. (City of God; XI, 26) Indeed, I can do this by reflecting recursively on my knowledge of ANY fact. Similar recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics.

Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has a roughly 3 million-year head start? This does not even count the successful record of problem solving in law, politics, or art.[9] Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist. Science only explains the things it is good at explaining which is no more and no less than one can say of any other discipline. This is why many proponents of scientism tacitly assume that the explanations produced in other disciplines only concern frilly, trivial things that science needn’t bother about anyway.[10]

Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily? What is more, the inductive procedures of science seem relatively useless in the many endeavours that do not involve true prediction but some other method of justification like deduction or direct observation.

Thus, weak scientism seems in no better a case than strong scientism for the same reasons: there is no clearly applicable, context-independent, criterion that shows the superiority the ‘weak scientist’ claims: certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science. As I told someone once (who asserted the superiority of the French language over all others) French is indeed the best language for speaking French in.[11] Science is the best way to do science.

Why Make Science an Ism at All?

Thus, if Mr. Mizrahi wants a thesis to defend it may well be possible to show that science is at least somewhat better on average at certain things than other approaches. He may call that ‘even weaker’ scientism. This would be to admit after all, that science is superior only in ‘certain relevant aspects’ leaving it to be inferred that it is not superior in others and that the ‘superiority’ that science demonstrates in one context, like particle physics, may vanish in another, like film criticism. If that is what ‘scientism’ amounts to then we are all proponents of it and it is hard to escape the impression that a mountain of argument has given birth to a mouse.

What is more, he informs us: “Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation. To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable.” (17) I suppose then it remains open to say that, after all, Joyce scholars ‘test’ their assertions about Ulysses against the text of Ulysses and are to that extent scientists. Perhaps, craftsmen, music theorists, historians and (gasp!) even philosophers, all in their various ways, do likewise: testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines. Perhaps, then, all these endeavors are just iterations of science in which case Mirhazi’s mouse has shrunk to something the size of a pygmy shrew.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristotle, Metaphysics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Augustine, The City of God. Trans. H. Bettenson. (Penguin Classics, London, 1984)

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no 4 (2018) 7-25.   

Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987) 595-597

[1] Does Mirhazi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.

[2] The qualitative superiority of science must be based on the value of its goals firstly (like curing disease or discovering alien life) and, secondly, its superiority in achieving those goals over all other methods. The discussion surely assumes that the things done by science must be worth doing more than their opposites. The question has of necessity an axiological component in spite of Mizrahi’s claim to the contrary (9). This means the values of science must be commensurable with the values of non-science if we are to say one is better overall than the other. Not only must science be instrumentally superior at answering scientific questions it must answer the questions of other disciplines better than those disciplines. Otherwise one is simply making the innocuous claim that science answers scientific questions better than geometry or rhetoric can. Mizrahi marshals only one example here: he tells us that the social sciences produce more knowledge about friendship than philosophy does. (19) Of course this assumes that philosophers and social scientists are asking the same or at least commensurable questions about friendship but even if I grant this there are still a vast multitude of instances where this is manifestly not the case, where non-scientists can produce better explanations on non-trivial questions than scientists can. I shall note some of these below.

[3] Mr. Mizrahi might consider, though, whether ideological self-critique might, after all, be a useful way of acquiring self-knowledge (which may not be so contemptible an attainment after all).

[4] This is the ‘Schrodinger’ phenomenon where an antagonist makes two contradictory accusations at once. (https://davewebster.org/2018/02/28/schrodingers-snowflake/) For what seems to be the fons et origo of this narrative see Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987).

[5] The underlying question here is one of Platonism vs. Aristotelianism. Strong Scientism argues that there is one paradigmatic form of ‘knowledge in itself’. I argue the Aristotelian position that just as ‘being’ is said in many senses (Metaphysics;9, 992b 15) so there are many analogical forms of knowledge. What all the things I have listed have in common is that each in its own peculiar way supports beliefs by appeals to evidence or other forms of justification. Everyday discourse may be wrong to use the word knowledge for these other forms of justified belief but I think the onus is on the ‘strong scientist’ to show this. Another thing I should point out is that I do not confine the word knowledge to beliefs that are indefeasible: a knower might say “to the best of knowledge” and still be a knower. I say this to head off the problem of skepticism which asks whether the criterion of indefeasible knowledge (whatever it is said to be) is ever actually fulfilled. There are valid responses to this problem but consideration of them would take us far afield.

[6] It is silly to imagine me hypothesizing the various numbers of Surahs the Quran could contain before testing my hypothesis by opening the book. Of course, if Mizrahi wishes, I can always put ordinary factual knowledge in the form of a testable proposition. Open War and Peace and you will find it contains an account of the battle of Borodino. Why is a true prediction of this kind any different than a true prediction in science?

[7] Here in fact we get to the nub of the problem. The ultimate problem with scientism weak or strong is that in the real world different knowledge forms interact with each other constantly. Science advances with the help of craftsmen as with the invention of the telescope. Craftsmen make use of science as when a running coach consults a physician. Archeologists and paleontologists employ abduction or hermeneutic reasoning. Art historians call on chemists while biologists call on the local knowledge of indigenous peoples. In a sense there is no such thing as ‘science’ pure and simple as other knowledge forms are inherent to its own structure (even deductive reasoning, the proper province of logicians, is essential to standard accounts of scientific method). This is one reason why, in fact, there is no one superior knowledge form but rather systematic interdependence of ALL knowledge forms.

[8] This is not the only instance of Mizrahi, apparently, trying to use a persuasive definition to win what looks like a mere verbal victory. Of course you can define knowledge as “what the sciences do”, assign another word to “what the humanities do” and go home waving the flag of triumph. But why should any of the rest of take note of such an arbitrary procedure?

[9] Again the problem is that the instrumental success of science rests on the instrumental success of a multitude of other things like the knowledge of bus schedules that gets us to the lab or the social knowledge that allows us to navigate modern institutions. No science tells us how to write a winning grant proposal or informs us that for as longs as Dr. Smith is chief editor of Widgetology the truth about widgets is whatever he says it is. Thus even if we confined the question to the last 50 years it is clear that science cannot claim instrumental superiority over the myriad other anonymous, unmarked processes that make science possible in the first place.

[10] My son, when he was a toddler, ran about the playground proclaiming himself ‘the greatest’. When he failed at any task or challenge he would casually turn to his mother and say “well, the greatest doesn’t do that”! This seems to be the position of many proponents of scientism. If scientists cannot produce good explanations in a field like literature or classics, then it must be that those fields are not really knowledge.

[11] Aristotle made this point ages ago. No inquiry into ethics he tells can have the rigour of geometry any more than the geometer need employ the art of rhetoric. (Nichomachean Ethics; 3, 20,25) Ethics employs phronesis or prudential judgment not logical deduction. Each discipline is answerable to its own internal standards which do not apply outside that discipline. There is, then, no overall ‘super-science’ (like the Platonic dialectic) that embodies a universal method for dealing with all subjects. Aristotle’s world is pluralist, discontinuous and analogical. For this reason, scientists have tended to be Platonists and modern science might be viewed as the revenge of the Platonic/Pythagorean tradition against its wayward pupil. Contemporary philosophy of science, if this author understands it correctly, seems to have restored Aristotelian praxis to the centre of the scientific enterprise. Students of Wittgenstein will no doubt appreciate the point that knowledge comes in as many varieties as games do and there is no more a single account of the first than there is of the second.

Author Information: Paul R. Smart, University of Southampton, ps02v@ecs.soton.ac.uk

Smart, Paul R. “(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 45-55.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Uq

Please refer to:

Image by BTC Keychain via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Richard Heersmink’s (2018) article, A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education, provides an important and timely analysis of the Internet from the standpoint of virtue epistemology.[1] According to Richard, the Internet is an important epistemic resource, but it is one that comes with a range of epistemic hazards. Such hazards, he suggests, motivate a consideration of the ways in which individuals should interact with the Internet.

In particular, Richard appeals to a specific branch of virtue epistemology, known as virtue responsibilism, arguing that certain kinds of cognitive trait (e.g., curiosity and open-mindedness) are useful in helping us press maximal epistemic benefit from the Internet. Given the utility of such traits, coupled with the epistemic importance of the Internet, Richard suggests that educational policy should be adapted so as to equip would-be knowers with the cognitive wherewithal to cope with the epistemic challenges thrown up by the online environment.

There is, no doubt, something right about all this. Few would disagree with the claim that a certain level of discernment and discrimination is important when it comes to the evaluation of online content. Whether such ‘virtues’ are best understood from the perspective of virtue responsibilism or virtue reliabilism is, I think, a moot point, for I suspect that in the case of both virtue responsibilism and virtue reliabilism what matters is the way in which belief-forming informational circuits are subject to active configuration by processes that may be broadly construed as metacognitive in nature (Smart, in pressa). That, however, is a minor quibble, and it is one that is of little consequence to the issues raised in Richard’s paper.

For the most part, then, I find myself in agreement with many of the assumptions that motivate the target article. I agree that the Internet is an important epistemic resource that is unprecedented in terms of its scale, scope, and accessibility. I also agree that, at the present time, the Internet is far from an epistemically safe environment, and this raises issues regarding the epistemic standing of individual Internet users. In particular, it looks unlikely that the indiscriminate selection and endorsement of online information will do much to bolster one’s epistemic credentials.

We thus encounter something of a dilemma: As an epistemic resource, the Internet stands poised to elevate our epistemic standing, but as an open and public space the Internet provides ample opportunities for our doxastic systems to be led astray. The result is that we are obliged to divide the online informational cornucopia into a treasure trove of genuine facts and a ragbag collection of ‘false facts’ and ‘fake news.’ The information superhighway, it seems, promises to expand our epistemic power and potential, but the road ahead is one that is fraught with a dizzying array of epistemic perils, problems, and pitfalls. What ought we to do in response to such a situation?

It is at this point that I suspect my own views start to diverge with those of the target article. Richard’s response to the dilemma is to focus attention on the individual agent and consider the ways in which an agent’s cognitive character can be adapted to meet the challenges of the Internet. My own approach is somewhat different. It is borne out of three kinds of doubt: doubts about the feasibility (although not the value) of virtue-oriented educational policies, doubts about the basic validity of virtue theoretic conceptions of knowledge, and doubts about whether the aforementioned dilemma is best resolved by attempting to change the agent as opposed to the environment in which the agent is embedded. As always, space is limited and life is short, so I will restrict my discussion to issues that I deem to be of greatest interest to the epistemological community.

Reliable Technology

Inasmuch as intellectual virtues are required for online knowledge—i.e., knowledge that we possess as a result of our interactions and engagements with the Internet—they are surely only part of a much  broader (and richer) story that includes details about the environment in which our cognitive systems operate. In judging the role of intellectual virtue in shielding us from the epistemic hazards of the online environment, it therefore seems important to have some understanding of the actual technologies we interact with.

This is important because it helps us understand the kinds of intellectual virtue that might be required, as well as the efficacy of specific intellectual virtues in helping us believe the truth (and thus working as virtues in the first place). Internet technologies are, of course, many and varied, and it will not be possible to assess their general relevance to epistemological debates in the present commentary. For the sake of brevity, I will therefore restrict my attention to one particular technology: blockchain.

Blockchain is perhaps best known for its role in supporting the digital cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. It provides us with a means of storing data in a secure fashion, using a combination of data encryption and data linking techniques. For present purposes, we can think of a blockchain as a connected set of data records (or data blocks), each of which contains some body of encrypted data. In the case of Bitcoin, of course, the data blocks contain data of a particular kind, namely, data pertaining to financial transactions. But this is not the only kind of data that can be stored in a blockchain. In fact, blockchains can be used to store information about pretty much anything. This includes online voting records, news reports, sensor readings, personal health records, and so on.

Once data is recorded inside a blockchain, it is very difficult to modify. In essence, the data stored within a blockchain is immutable, in the sense that it cannot be changed without ‘breaking the chain’ of data blocks, and thereby invalidating the data contained within the blockchain. This property makes blockchains of considerable epistemic significance, because it speaks to some of the issues (e.g., concerns about data tampering and malign forms of information manipulation) that are likely to animate epistemological debates in this area.

This does not mean, of course, that the information stored within a blockchain is guaranteed to be factually correct, in the sense of being true and thus yielding improvements in epistemic standing. Nevertheless, there are, I think, reasons to regard blockchain as an important technology relative to efforts to make the online environment a somewhat safer place for would-be knowers. Consider, for example, the title of the present article. Suppose that we wanted to record the fact that a person known as Paul Smart—that’s me—wrote an article with the title:

(Fake?) News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

We can incorporate this particular piece of information into a blockchain using something called a cryptographic hash function, which yields a unique identifier for the block and all of its contents. In the case of the aforementioned title, the cryptographic hash (as returned by the SHA256 algorithm[2]) is:

7147bd321e79a63041d9b00a937954976236289ee4de6f8c97533fb6083a8532

Now suppose that someone wants to alter the title, perhaps to garner support for an alternative argumentative position. In particular, let’s suppose they want to claim that the title of the article is:

Fake News Alert: Intellectual Virtues Required for Online Knowledge!

From an orthographic perspective, of course, not much has changed. But the subtlety of the alteration is not something that can be used to cause confusion about the actual wording of the original title—the title that I intended for the present article. (Neither can it be used to cast doubt about the provenance of the paper—the fact that the author of the paper was a person called Paul Smart.) To see this, note that the hash generated for the ‘fake’ title looks nothing like the original:

cc05baf2fa7a439674916fe56611eaacc55d31f25aa6458b255f8290a831ddc4

It is this property that, at least in part, makes blockchains useful for recording information that might otherwise be prone to epistemically malign forms of information manipulation. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that climatological data, as recorded by globally distributed sensors, was stored in a blockchain. The immutability of such data makes it extremely difficult for anyone to manipulate the data in such a way as to confirm or deny the reality of year-on-year changes in global temperature. Neither is it easy to alter information pertaining to the provenance of existing data records, i.e., information about when, where, and how such data was generated.

None of this should delude us into thinking that blockchain technology is a panacea for Internet-related epistemic problems—it isn’t! Neither does blockchain obviate the need for agents to exercise at least some degree of intellectual virtue when it comes to the selection and evaluation of competing data streams. Nevertheless, there is, I think, something that is of crucial epistemological interest and relevance here—something that makes blockchain and other cybersecurity technologies deserving of further epistemological attention. In particular, such technologies may be seen as enhancing the epistemic safety of the online environment, and thus perhaps reducing the need for intellectual virtue.

In this sense, the epistemological analysis of Internet technologies may be best approached from some variant of modal epistemology—e.g., epistemological approaches that emphasize the modal stability of true beliefs across close possible worlds (Pritchard, 2009, chap. 2). But even if we choose to countenance an approach that appeals to issues of intellectual virtue, there is still, I suggest, a need to broaden the analytic net to include technologies that (for the time being at least) lie beyond the bounds of the individual cognitive agent.

Safety in Numbers

“From an epistemic perspective,” Richard writes, “the most salient dimension of the Internet is that it is an information space” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 5). Somewhat surprisingly, I disagree. Although it is obviously true that the Internet is an information space, it is not clear that this is its most salient feature, at least from an epistemological standpoint. In particular, there is, I suggest, a sense in which the Internet is more than just an information space. As is clear from the explosive growth in all things social—social media, social networks, social bots, and so on—the Internet functions as a social technology, yielding all manner of opportunities for people to create, share and process information in a collaborative fashion. The result, I suggest, is that we should not simply think of the Internet as an information space (although it is surely that), we should also view it as a social space.

Viewing the Internet as a social space is important because it changes the way we think about the epistemic impact of the Internet, relative to the discovery, production, representation, acquisition, processing and utilization of knowledge. Smart (in pressb), for example, suggests that some online systems function as knowledge machines, which are systems in which some form of knowledge-relevant processing is realized by a socio-technical mechanism, i.e., a mechanism whose component elements are drawn from either the social (human) or the technological realm.

An interesting feature of many of these systems is the way in which the reliability (or truth-conducive) nature of the realized process is rooted in the socio-technical nature of the underlying (realizing) mechanism. When it comes to human computation or citizen science systems, for example, user contributions are typically solicited from multiple independent users as a means of improving the reliability of specific epistemic outputs (Smart, in pressb; Smart and Shadbolt, in press; Watson and Floridi, 2018). Such insights highlight the socially-distributed character of at least some forms of online knowledge production, thereby moving us beyond the realms of individual, agent-centric analyses.

On a not altogether unrelated note, it is important to appreciate the way in which social participation can itself be used to safeguard online systems from various forms of malign intervention. One example is provided by the Google PageRank algorithm. In this case, any attempt to ‘artificially’ elevate the ranking assigned to specific contributions (e.g., a user’s website) is offset by the globally-distributed nature of the linking effort, coupled with the fact that links to a specific resource are themselves weighted by the ranking of the resource from which the link originates. This makes it difficult for any single agent to subvert the operation of the PageRank algorithm.

Even ostensibly non-social technologies can be seen to rely on the distributed and decentralized nature of the Internet. In the case of blockchain, for example, multiple elements of a peer-to-peer network participate in the computational processes that make blockchain work. In this way, the integrity of the larger system is founded on the collaborative efforts of an array of otherwise independent computational elements. And it is this that (perhaps) allows us to think of blockchain’s epistemically-desirable features as being rooted in something of a ‘social’ substrate.

All of this, I suggest, speaks in favor of an approach that moves beyond a preoccupation with the properties of individual Internet users. In particular, there seems to be considerable merit in approaching the Internet from a more socially-oriented epistemological perspective. It is easy to see the social aspects of the Internet as lying at the root of a panoply of epistemic concerns, especially when it comes to the opportunities for misinformation, deception, and manipulation. But in light of the above discussion, perhaps an alternative, more positive, take on the Internet (qua social space) starts to come into sharper focus. This is a view that highlights the way in which certain kinds of online system can work to transform a ‘vice’ into a ‘virtue,’ exploiting the social properties of the Internet for the purposes of dealing with reliability-related concerns.

Image by Dariorug via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Filter Bubblicious

Search engines form one of the focal points of Richard’s analysis, and, as with previous work in this area, Richard finds at least some aspects of their operation to be highly problematic. A particular issue surfaces in respect of personalized search. Here, Richard’s analysis echoes the sentiments expressed by other epistemologists who regard personalized search algorithms as of dubious epistemic value.

In fact, I suspect the consensus that has emerged in this area fails to tell the whole story about the epistemic consequences of personalized search. Indeed, from a virtue epistemological position, I worry that epistemologists are in danger of failing to heed their own advice—prematurely converging on a particular view without proper consideration of competing positions. In my new-found role as the virtue epistemologist’s guardian angel (or should that be devil’s advocate?), I will attempt to highlight a couple of reasons why I think more empirical research is required before we can say anything useful about the epistemological impact of personalized search algorithms.

My first worry is that our understanding about the extent to which search results and subsequent user behavior is affected by personalization is surprisingly poor. Consider, for example, the results of one study, which attempted to quantify the effect of personalization on search results (Hannak et al., 2013). Using an empirical approach, Hannak et al. (2013) report a demonstrable personalization effect, with 11.7% of search results exhibiting differences due to personalization. Interestingly, however, the effect of personalization appeared to be greater for search results with lower rankings; highly ranked results (i.e., those appearing at the top of a list of search results) appeared to be much less affected by personalization.

This result is interesting given the observation that college students “prefer to click on links in higher positions even when the abstracts are less relevant to the task at hand” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 6). From one perspective, of course, this tendency looks like a vice that jeopardizes the epistemic standing of the individual user. And yet, from another perspective, it looks like the preference for higher ranked search results is poised to negate (or at least reduce) the negative epistemological effects of personalized search. What we seem to have here, in essence, is a situation in which one kind of ‘intellectual vice’ (i.e., a tendency to select highly-ranked search results) is playing something of a more positive (virtuous?) role in mitigating the negative epistemological sequelae of a seemingly vicious technology (i.e., personalized search).

None of this means that the epistemic effects of personalized search are to the overall benefit of individual users; nevertheless, the aforementioned results do call for a more nuanced and empirically informed approach when considering the veritistic value of search engines, as well as other kinds of Internet-related technology.

A second worry relates to the scope of the epistemological analysis upon which judgements about the veritistic value of search engines are based. In this case, it is unclear whether analyses that focus their attention on individual agents are best placed to reveal the full gamut of epistemic costs and benefits associated with a particular technology, especially one that operates in the socio-technical ecology of the Internet. To help us understand this worry in a little more detail, it will be useful to introduce the notion of mandevillian intelligence (Smart, in pressc; Smart, in pressd).

Mandevillian intelligence is a specific form of collective intelligence in which the cognitive shortcomings and epistemic vices of the individual agent are seen to yield cognitive benefits and epistemic virtues at the collective or social level of analysis, e.g., at the level of collective doxastic agents (see Palermos, 2015) or socio-epistemic systems (see Goldman, 2011). According to this idea, personalized search systems may play a productive role in serving the collective cognitive good, providing a means by which individual vices (e.g., a tendency for confirmation bias) are translated into something that more closely resembles an epistemic virtue (e.g., greater cognitive coverage of a complex space of thoughts, ideas, opinions, and so on). Consider, for example, the way in which personalized search may help to focus individual attention on particular bodies of information, thereby restricting access to a larger space of ideas, opinions, and other information.

While such forms of ‘restricted access’ or ‘selective information exposure’ are unlikely to yield much in the way of an epistemic benefit for the individual agent, it is possible that by exploiting (and, indeed, accentuating!) an existing cognitive bias (e.g., confirmation bias), personalized search may work to promote cognitive diversity, helping to prevent precipitant forms of cognitive convergence (see Zollman, 2010) and assisting with the epistemically optimal division of cognitive labor (see Muldoon, 2013). This possibility reveals something of a tension in how we interpret or evaluate the veritistic value of a particular technology or epistemic practice. In particular, it seems that assessments of veritistic value may vary according to whether our epistemological gaze is directed towards individual epistemic agents or the collective ensembles in which those agents are situated.

The Necessity of Virtue

As Richard notes, virtue epistemology is characterized by a shift in emphasis, away from the traditional targets of epistemological analysis (e.g., truth, justification and belief) and towards the cognitive properties of would-be knowers. “Virtue epistemology,” Richard writes, “is less concerned with the nature of truth and more concerned with the cognitive character of agents” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 2). This is, no doubt, a refreshing change, relative to the intellectual orientation of traditional philosophical debates.

Nevertheless, I assume that virtue epistemologists still recognize the value and priority of truth when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation. Someone who holds false beliefs is not the possessor of knowledge, and this remains the case irrespective of whatever vices and virtues the agent has. In other words, it does not matter how careful, attentive and assiduous an agent is in selecting and evaluating information, if what the agent believes is false, they simply do not know.

What seems to be important in the case of virtue epistemology is the role that intellectual virtue plays in securing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. In particular, the central feature of virtue epistemology (at least to my mind) is that the truth of an agent’s beliefs stem from the exercise of intellectual virtue. It is thus not the case that truth is unimportant (or less important) when it comes to issues of positive epistemic standing; rather, it is the role that intellectual virtue plays in establishing the truth of an agent’s beliefs. An agent is thus a bona fide knower when they believe the truth and the truth in question is attributable to some aspect of their cognitive character, specifically, a cognitive trait (virtue responsibilism) or cognitive faculty (virtue reliabilism).

What then makes something a vice or virtue seems to be tied to the reliability of token instantiations of processes that are consistent with an agent’s cognitive character. Intellectual virtues are thus “cognitive character traits that are truth-conducive and minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3), while intellectual vices are characterized as “cognitive character traits that are not truth-conducive and do not minimalise error” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 3). It is this feature of the intellectual virtues—the fact that they are, in general, reliable (or give rise to reliable belief-relevant processes)—that looks to be important when it comes to issues of epistemic evaluation.

So this is what I find problematic about virtue theoretic approaches to knowledge. (Note that I am not an epistemologist by training, so this will require a generous—and hopefully virtue-inspiring swig—of the ole intellectual courage.) Imagine a state-of-affairs in which the Internet was (contrary to the present state-of-affairs) a perfectly safe environment—one where the factive status of online information was guaranteed as a result of advances in cyber-security techniques and intelligent fact-checking services. Next, let us imagine that we have two individuals, Paul and Sophia, who differ with respect to their cognitive character. Paul is the least virtuous of the two, unreflectively and automatically accepting whatever the Internet tells him. Sophia is more circumspect, wary of being led astray by (the now non-existent) fake news.

Inasmuch as we see the exercise of intellectual virtue as necessary for online knowledge, it looks unlikely that poor old Paul can be said to know very much. This is because the truth of Paul’s beliefs are not the result of anything that warrants the label ‘intellectual virtue.’ Paul, of course, does have a lot of true beliefs, but the truth of these beliefs does not stem from the exercise of his intellectual virtues—if, indeed, he has any. In fact, inasmuch as there is any evidence of virtue in play here, it is probably best attributed to the technologies that work to ensure the safety of the online environment. The factive status of Paul’s beliefs thus has more to do with the reliability of the Internet than it does with the elements of his cognitive character.

But is it correct to say that Paul has no online knowledge in this situation? Personally, I do not have this intuition. In other words, in a perfectly safe environment, I can see no reason why we should restrict knowledge attributions to agents whose beliefs are true specifically as the result of intellectual virtue. My sense is that even the most unreflective of agents could be credited with knowledge in a situation where there was no possibility of them being wrong. And if that is indeed the case, then why insist that it is only the exercise of intellectual virtue that underwrites positive epistemic standing?

After all, it seems perfectly possible, to my mind, that Sophia’s epistemic caution contributes no more to the minimization of error in an epistemically benign (i.e., safe) environment than does Paul’s uncritical acceptance. (In fact, given the relative efficiency of their doxastic systems, it may very well be the case that Sophia ends up with fewer true beliefs than Paul.) It might be claimed that this case is invalidated by a failure to consider the modal stability of an agent’s beliefs relative to close possible worlds, as well as perhaps their sensitivity to counterfactual error possibilities. But given the way in which the case is characterized, I suggest that there are no close possible worlds that should worry us—the cybersecurity and fact checking technologies are, let us assume, sufficiently robust as to ensure the modal distance of those worrisome worlds.

One implication of all this is to raise doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue, relative to our conceptual understanding of knowledge. If there are cases where intellectual virtue is not required for positive epistemic standing, then intellectual virtue cannot be a necessary condition for knowledge attribution. And if that is the case, then why should intellectual virtue form the basis of an approach that is intended to deal with the epistemic shortcomings of the (contemporary) Internet?

Part of the attraction of virtue epistemology, I suspect, is the way in which a suite of generally reliable processes are inextricably linked to the agent who is the ultimate target of epistemic evaluation. This linkage, which is established via the appeal to cognitive character, helps to ensure the portability of an agent’s truth-tracking capabilities—it helps to ensure, in other words, that wherever the agent goes their reliable truth-tracking capabilities are sure to follow.

However, in an era where our doxastic systems are more-or-less constantly plugged into a reliable and epistemically safe environment, it is not so clear that agential capabilities are relevant to epistemic standing. This, I suggest, raises doubts about the necessity of intellectual virtue in securing positive epistemic status, and it also (although this is perhaps less clear) encourages us to focus our attention on some of the engineering efforts (as opposed to agent-oriented educational programs) that might be required to make the online world an epistemically safer place.

Conclusion

What, then, should we make of the appeal to virtue epistemology in our attempt to deal with the  epistemic hazards of the Internet. My main concern is that the appeal to virtue epistemology (and the emphasis placed on intellectual virtue) risks an unproductive focus on individual human agents at the expense of both the technological and social features of the online world. This certainly does not rule out the relevance of virtue theoretic approaches as part of our attempt to understand the epistemic significance of the Internet, but other approaches (e.g., modal reliabilism, process reliabilism, distributed reliabilism, and systems-oriented social epistemology) also look to be important.

Personally, I remain agnostic with regard to the relevance of different epistemological approaches, although I worry about the extent to which virtue epistemology is best placed to inform policy-related decisions (e.g., those relating to education). In particular, I fear that by focusing our attention on individual agents and issues of intellectual virtue, we risk overlooking some of the socio-epistemic benefits of the Internet, denigrating a particular technology (e.g., personalized search) on account of its failure to enhance individual knowledge, while ignoring the way a technology contributes to more collective forms of epistemic success.

In concluding his thought-provoking paper on virtue epistemology and the Internet, Richard suggests that “there is an important role for educators to teach and assess [intellectual] virtues as part of formal school and university curricula, perhaps as part of critical thinking courses” (Heersmink, 2018, p. 10). I have said relatively little about this particular issue in the present paper. For what it’s worth, however, I can see no reason to object to the general idea of Internet-oriented educational policies. The only caveat, perhaps, concerns the relative emphasis that might be placed on the instillation of intellectual virtue as opposed to the inculcation of technical skills, especially those that enable future generations to make the online world a safer place.

No doubt there is room for both kinds of pedagogical program (assuming they can even be dissociated). At the very least, it seems to me that the effort to resolve a problem (i.e., engineer a safer Internet) is just as important as the effort to merely cope with it (i.e., acquire a virtuous cognitive character). But, in any case, when it comes to education and learning, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Internet is itself something that is used for educational purposes. Perhaps, then, the more important point about education and the Internet is not so much the precise details of what gets taught, so much as the issue of whether the Internet (with all its epistemic foibles) is really the best place to learn.

Contact details: ps02v@ecs.soton.ac.uk

References

Goldman, A. I. (2011). A guide to social epistemology. In A. I. Goldman and D. Whitcomb (Eds.), Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, pp. 11–37. New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Hannak, A., P. Sapiezynski, A. Molavi Kakhki, B. Krishnamurthy, D. Lazer, A. Mislove, and C. Wilson (2013). Measuring personalization of Web search. In D. Schwabe, V. Almeida, H. Glaser, R. Baeza-Yates, and S. Moon (Eds.), Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference  on World Wide Web, Rio  de Janeiro, Brazil, pp. 527–538. ACM.

Heersmink, R. (2018). A virtue epistemology of the Internet: Search engines, intellectual virtues, and education. Social Epistemology 32 (1), 1–12.

Muldoon, R. (2013). Diversity and the division of cognitive labor. Philosophy Compass 8 (2), 117–125.

Palermos, S. O. (2015). Active externalism, virtue reliabilism and scientific knowledge. Synthese 192 (9), 2955–2986.

Pritchard, D. (2009). Knowledge. Basingstoke, England, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smart, P. R. (in pressa). Emerging digital technologies: Implications for extended conceptions of cognition and knowledge. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. (in pressb). Knowledge machines. The Knowledge Engineering Review.

Smart, P. R. (in pressc). Mandevillian intelligence. Synthese.

Smart, P. R. (in pressd). Mandevillian intelligence: From individual vice to collective virtue. In A. J. Carter, A. Clark, J. Kallestrup, O. S. Palermos, and D. Pritchard (Eds.), Socially Extended Epistemology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Smart, P. R. and N. R. Shadbolt (in press). The World Wide Web. In J. Chase and D. Coady (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Applied Epistemology. New York, New York, USA: Routledge.

Watson, D. and L. Floridi (2018). Crowdsourced science: Sociotechnical epistemology in the e-research paradigm. Synthese 195 (2), 741–764.

Zollman, K. J. S. (2010). The epistemic benefit of transient diversity. Erkenntnis 72 (1), 17–35.

[1] This work is supported under SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines. The SOCIAM Project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) under grant number EP/J017728/1 and comprises the Universities of Southampton, Oxford and Edinburgh.

[2] See http://www.xorbin.com/tools/sha256-hash-calculator [accessed: 30th  January 2018].

Author Information: Stephen Norrie, UK, sjenorrie@gmail.com

Norrie, Stephen. “So, What Is a Research University? A Review of Chad Wellmon’s Organizing Enlightenment.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 1 (2016): 31-38.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2yJ

wellmon_org_enlightenment

Image credit: Johns Hopkins University Press

Organizing Enlightenment
Chad Wellmon
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015
368 pp.

Whatever the future holds for the university, we are not going to master it unless we understand its past. In particular, calls to split research and teaching, and to replace the traditional professor with MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and other forms of pre-packaged content delivery presuppose that the university has been primarily a content-delivery service, which might then be superseded by more efficient information-delivery technologies. In this important, illuminating and well-written book, Chad Wellmon argues that the research university evolved primarily to fulfil the function of information control rather than delivery.  Continue Reading…