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Author Information: Fabien Medvecky, University of Otago, fabien.medvecky@otago.ac.nz.

Medvecky, Fabien. “Institutionalised Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 15-20.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46m

A graffiti mural that was, and may even still be, on Maybachufer Strasse in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
Image by Igal Malis via Flicker / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to Matheson, Jonathan, and Valerie Joly Chock. “Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 1-9.

In a recent paper, I argued that science communication, the “umbrella term for the research into and the practice of increasing public understanding of and public engagement with science”, is epistemically unjust (Medvecky, 2017). Matheson and Chock disagree. Or at least, they disagree with enough of the argument to conclude that “while thought provoking and bold, Medvecky’s argument should be resisted” (Matheson & Chock, 2019). This has provided me with an opportunity to revisit some of my claims, and more importantly, to make explicit those claims that I had failed to make clear and present in the original paper. That’s what this note will do.

Matheson and Chock’s concern with the original argument is two-fold. Firstly, they argue that the original argument sinned by overreaching, and secondly, that while there might be credibility excess, such excess should not be viewed as constituting injustice. I’ll begin by outlining my original argument before tackling each of their complaints.

The Original Argument For the Epistemic Injustice of Science Communication

Taking Matheson and Chock’s formal presentation of the original argument, it runs as follows:

1. Science is not a unique and privileged field (this isn’t quite right. See below for clarification)

2. If (1), then science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

3. Science communication creates a credibility excess for science.

4. If (3), then science communication is epistemically unjust.

5. Science communication is epistemically unjust.

The original argument claimed that science was privileged in the way that its communication is institutionalised through policy and practices in a way not granted to other fields, and that fundamentally,

While there are many well-argued reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging with science, these are not necessarily reasons for communicating, popularizing, and engaging only with science. Focusing and funding only the communication of science as reliable knowledge represents science as a unique and privileged field; as the only reliable field whose knowledge requires such specialized treatment. This uniqueness creates a credibility excess for science as a field. (italic added)

Two clarificatory points are important here. Firstly, while Matheson and Chock run with premise 1, they do express some reservation. And so would I if this were the way I’d spelled it out. But I never suggested that there is nothing unique about science. There undoubtedly is, usually expressed in terms of producing especially reliable knowledge (Nowotny, 2003; Rudolph, 2014).

My original argument was that this isn’t necessarily enough to warrant special treatment when it comes to communication. As I stated then, “What we need is a reason for why reliable knowledge ought to be communicated. Why would some highly reliable information about the reproductive habits of a squid be more important to communicate to the public than (possibly less reliable) information about the structure of interest rates or the cultural habits of Sufis?” (Italic added)

In the original paper, I explicitly claimed, “We might be able to show that science is unique, but that uniqueness does not relate to communicative needs. Conversely, we can provide reasons for communicating science, but these are not unique to science.” (Medvecky, 2017)

Secondly, as noted by Matheson and Chock, the concern in the original argument revolves around “institutionalized science communication; institutionalized in government policies on the public understanding of and public engagement with the sciences; in the growing numbers of academic journals and departments committed to further the enterprise through research and teaching; in requirements set by funding bodies; and in the growing numbers of associations clustering under the umbrella of science communication across the globe.”

What maybe wasn’t made explicit was the role and importance of this institutionalization which is directed by government strategies and associated funding policies. Such policies are designed specifically and uniquely to increase public communication of and public engagement with science (MBIE, 2014).

They may mention that science should be read broadly, such as the UK’s A vision for Science and Society (DIUS, 2008) which states “By science we mean all-encompassing knowledge based on scholarship and research undertaken in the physical, biological, engineering, medical, natural and social disciplines, including the arts and humanities”. Yet the policy also claims that “These activities will deliver a coherent approach to increasing STEM skills, with a focus on improved understanding of the link between labour market needs and business demands for STEM skills and the ability of the education system to deliver flexibly into the 21st century.”

STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is explicitly not a broad view of science; it’s specifically restricted to the bio-physical science and associated fields. If science was truly meant broadly, there’d be no need to specify STEM. These policies, including their funding and support, are uniquely aimed at science as found in STEM, and it is this form of institutionalized and institutionally sponsored science communication that is the target of my argument.

With these two points in mind, let me turn to Matheson and Chock’s objections.

The Problem of Overreaching and the Marketplace of Ideas

Matheson and Chock rightly spell out my view when stating that the “fundamental concern is that science communication represents scientific questions and knowledge as more valuable than questions and knowledge in other domains.” What they mistake is what I take issue with. Matheson and Chock claim, “When it comes to scientific matters, we should trust the scientists more. So, the claim cannot be that non-scientists should be afforded the same amount of credibility on scientific matters as scientists”. Of course, who wouldn’t agree with that!

For Matheson and Chock, given their assumption that science communication is equivalent to scientists communicating their science, it follows that it is only reasonable to give special attention to the subject or field one is involved in. As they say,

Suppose that a bakery only sells and distributes baked goods. If there is nothing unique and privileged about baked goods – if there are other equally important goods out there (the parallel of premise (1)) – then Medvecky’s reasoning would have it that the bakery is guilty of a kind of injustice by virtue of not being in the business of distributing those other (equally valuable) goods.

But they’re mistakenly equating science communication with communication by scientists about their science. This suggests both a misunderstanding of my argument and a skewed view of what science communication is.

To tackle the latter first, while some science communication efforts come from scientists, science communication is much broader. Science communication is equally carried out by (non-scientist) journalists, (non-scientist) PR and communication officers, (non-scientist) policy makers, etc. Indeed, some of the most popular science communicators aren’t scientists at all, such as Bill Bryson. So the concern is not with the bakery privileging baked goods, it’s with baked goods being privileged simpliciter.

As discussed in both my original argument and in Matheson and Chock’s reply, my concern revolves around science communication institutionalized through policies and such like. And that’s where the issue is; there is institutionalised science communication, including policy with significant funding such that there can be specific communication, and that such policies exist only for the sciences. Indeed, there are no “humanities communications” governmental policies or funding strategies, for example. Science communication, unlike Matheson and Chock’s idealised bakery, doesn’t operate in anything like a free market.

Let’s take the bakery analogy and its position it in a marketplace a little further (indeed, thinking of science communication and where it sits in the market place of knowledge fits well). My argument is not that a bakery is being unjust by selling only baked goods.

My argument is that if bakeries were the only stores to receive government subsidies and tax breaks, and were, through governments and institutional intervention, granted a significantly better position in the street, then yes, this is unfair. Other goods will fail to have the same level of traction as baked goods and would be unable to compete on a just footing. This is not to say that the bakeries need to sell other goods, but rather, by benefiting from the unique subsidies, baked goods gain a marketplace advantage over goods in other domains, in the same way that scientific knowledge benefits from a credibility excess (ie epistemic marketplace advantage) over knowledge in other domains.

Credibility Excess and Systemic Injustices

The second main objection raised by Matheson and Chock turns on whether any credibility excess science might acquire in this way should be considered an injustice. They rightly point out that “mere epistemic errors in credibility assessments, however, do not create epistemic injustice. While a credibility excess may result in an epistemic harm, whether this is a case of epistemic injustice depends upon the reason why that credibility excess is given.”

Specifically, Matheson and Chock argue that for credibility excess to lead to injustice, this must be systemic and carry across contexts. And according to them, science communication is guilty of no such trespass (or, at the very least, my original argument fails to make the case for such).

Again, I think this comes down to how science communication is viewed. Thinking of science communication in institutionalised ways, as I intended, is indeed systemic. What Matheson and Chock have made clear is that in my original argument, I didn’t articulate clearly enough just how deeply the institutionalisation of science communication is, and how fundamentally linked with assumptions of the epistemic dominance of science this institutionalisation is. I’ll take this opportunity to provide some example of this.

Most obviously, there are nationally funded policies that aim “to develop a culture where the sciences are recognised as relevant to everyday life and where the government, business, and academic and public institutions work together with the sciences to provide a coherent approach to communicating science and its benefits”; policies backed by multi-million dollar investments from governments (DIISRTE, 2009).

Importantly, there are no equivalent for other fields. Yes, there are funds for other fields (funds for research, funds for art, etc), but not funds specifically for communicating these or disseminating their findings. And, there are other markers of the systemic advantages science holds over other fields.

On a very practical, pecuniary level, funding for research is rarely on a playing field. In New Zealand, for example, the government’s Research Degree Completion Funding allocates funds to departments upon students’ successfully completing their thesis. This scheme grants twice as much to the sciences as it does to the social sciences, humanities, and law (Commission, 2016).

In practice, this means a biology department supervising a PhD thesis on citizen science in conservation would, on thesis completion, receive twice the fund that a sociology department supervising the very same thesis would receive. And this simply because one field delivers knowledge under the tag of science, while the other under the banner of the humanities.

At a political level the dominance of scientific knowledge is also evident. While most countries have a Science Advisor to the President or Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, there are no equivalent “Chief Humanities Advisor”. And the list of discrepancies goes on, with institutionalised science communication a key player. Of course, for each of these examples of where science and scientific knowledge benefits over other fields, some argument could be made for why this or that case does indeed require that science be treated differently.

But this is exactly why the credibility excess science benefits from is epistemically unjust; because it’s not simply ‘a case here to be explained’ and ‘a case there to be explained’. It’s systemic and carries across context. And science communication, by being the only institutionalised communication of a specific knowledge field, maintains, amplifies, and reinforces this epistemic injustice.

Conclusion

When I argued that science communication was epistemically unjust, my claim was directed at institutionalised science communication, with all its trimmings. I’m grateful to Matheson and Chock for inviting to re-read my original paper and see where I may have failed to be clear, and to think more deeply about what motivated my thinking.

I want to close on one last point Matheson and Chock brought up. They claimed that it would be unreasonable to expect science communicators to communicate other fields. This was partially in response to my original paper where I did suggest that we should move beyond science communication to something like ‘knowledge communication’ (though I’m not sure exactly what that term should be, and I’m not convince ‘knowledge communication’ is ideal either).

Here, I agree with Matheson and Chock that it would be silly to expect those with expertise in science to be obliged to communicate more broadly about fields beyond their expertise (though some of them do). The obvious answer might be to have multiple branches of communication institutionalised and equally supported by government funding, by advisors, etc: science communication; humanities communication; arts communication; etc. And I did consider this in the original paper.

But the stumbling block is scarce resources, both financially and epistemically. Financially, there is a limit to how much governments would be willing to fund for such activates, so having multiple branches of communication would become a deeply political ‘pot-splitting’ issue, and there, the level of injustice might be even more explicit. Epistemically, there is only so much knowledge that we, humans, can process. Simply multiplying the communication of knowledge for the sake of justice (or whatever it is that ‘science communication’ aims to communicate) may not, in the end, be particularly useful without some concerted and coordinate view as to what the purpose of all this communication was.

In light of this, there is an important question for us in social epistemology: as a society funding and participating in knowledge-distribution, which knowledge should we focus our ‘public-making’ and communication efforts on, and why? Institutionalised science communication initiatives assume that scientific knowledge should hold a special, privileged place in public communication. Perhaps this is right, but not simply on the grounds that “science is more reliable”. There needs to be a better reason. Without one, it’s simply unjust.

Contact details: fabien.medvecky@otago.ac.nz

References

Commission, T. T. E. (2016). Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) User Manual. Wellington, New Zealand: Tertiary Education Commission.

DIISRTE. (2009). Inspiring Australia: A national strategy for engagement with the sciences.  Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

DIUS. (2008). A vision for Science and Society: A consultation on developing a new strategy for the UK: Department for Innovation, Universities, and Skills London.

Matheson, J., & Chock, V. J. (2019). Science Communication and Epistemic Injustice. SERRC, 8(1).

MBIE. (2014). A Nation of Curious Minds: A national strategic plan for science in society.  Wellington: New Zealand Government.

Medvecky, F. (2017). Fairness in Knowing: Science Communication and Epistemic Justice. Science and engineering ethics. doi: 10.1007/s11948-017-9977-0

Nowotny, H. (2003). Democratising expertise and socially robust knowledge. Science and Public Policy, 30(3), 151-156. doi: 10.3152/147154303781780461

Rudolph, J. L. (2014). Why Understanding Science Matters:The IES Research Guidelines as a Case in Point. Educational Researcher, 43(1), 15-18. doi: 10.3102/0013189×13520292

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore, eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg.

Kerr, Eric. “On Thinking With Catastrophic Times.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 46-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45Q

Image by Jeff Krause via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Reprinted with permission from the Singapore Review of Books. The original review can be found here.

• • • •

On Thinking With – Scientists, Sciences, and Isabelle Stengers is the transcription of a talk read by Jeremy Fernando at the Centre for Science & Innovation Studies at UC Davis in 2015. The text certainly has the character of a reading: through closely attending to Stengers’ similarly transcribed talk (2012) Fernando traverses far-reaching themes – testimony, the gift, naming, listening – drawing them into a world made strange again through Stengers’ idea of “thinking with” – as opposed to analyzing or evaluating – notions of scientific progress, justice, and responsibility.

All this will make this review rather different from convention. I’ll attempt a response, using the text as an opportunity to pause, regroup, and divert, which, I hope, will allow us to see some of the connections between the two scholars and the value of this book. I read this text as a philosopher within Science and Technology Studies (STS) and through these lenses I’ll aim to draw out some of the ideas elaborated in Fernando’s essay and in Stengers’ In Catastrophic Times.

Elusive Knowledge

Towards the end of the essay, Fernando muses on the elusive nature of knowledge: “[T]he moment the community of scientists knows – or thinks it knows – what Science is, the community itself dissolves” (p.35). He consequently ties epistemological certainty to the stagnation, or even the collapse, of a scientific community.

In this sense, Fernando suggests that the scientific community should be thought of as a myth, but a necessary one. He implies that any scientific community is a “dream community… a dream in the sense of something unknown, something slightly beyond the boundaries, binds, of what is known.” (pp. 35-36) Further, he agrees with Stengers: “I vitally need such a dream, such a story which never happened.” So why? What is this dream that is needed?

Stengers suggests that we are now in a situation where there are “many manners of dying” (2015, p. 9). Any attempt on “our” part to resolve the growing crisis, seems to merely entrench and legislate the same processes that produced the very problems we were trying to overcome. International agreements are framed within the problematic capitalocene rather than challenging it. Problems arrive with the overwhelming sense that our current situation is permanent, political change is inertial or even immovable, and that the only available remedy is more of the poison. Crucially, for Stengers, this sense is deliberately manufactured – an induced ignorance (ibid. p. 118).

Stengers’ concern, which Fernando endorses, is to reframe the manner in which problems are presented. To remove us from the false binary choice presented to us: as precaution or pro-action, as self-denial of consumer products or geoengineering, as deforestation for profit or financialization of forests. For his part, Fernando does not offer more solutions. Instead, he encourages us to sit in the mire of the problem, to revisit it, to rethink it, to re-view it. Not as an act of idle pontification but for what Stengers calls “paying attention” (ibid. p. 100).

Paying Attention to Catastrophic Times

In order to pay attention, Fernando begins with a parental metaphor: Gaia as mother, scientific authority as father. For him, there is an important distinction between power and authority. Whereas power can be found in all relations, authority “is mystical, divine, outside the realm of human consciousness – it is the order of the sovereign. One either has authority or one doesn’t” (p.21).

Consequently, there is something unattainable about any claim to scientific expertise. The idea that authority depends on a mystical or theological grounding chimes with core epistemological commitments in STS, most forcefully advocated by David Bloor who argued that the absolutist about knowledge would require “epistemic grace”.

Alongside Fernando’s words, Burdock details gooey, veiny appendages emerging from pipes and valves, tumours and pustules evoking the diseased body. Science and engineering are productive of vulnerable bodies. Here we might want to return to Stengers’ treatment of the pharmakon, the remedy/poison duality.

For Stengers, following Nietzsche’s gay scientist (whom Fernando also evokes), skepticism and doubt are pharmakon (Nietzsche 1924, p. 159). She details how warnings as to the dangers of potential responses are presented as objections. STS scholars will note that this uncertainty can be activated by both your enemies and your friends, not least when it comes to the challenges of climate change. This is the realization that prompted Bruno Latour to issue what Steve Fuller has called a “mea culpa on behalf of STS” for embracing too much uncertainty (Latour 2004; Fuller 2018, p. 44).

Data and Gaia

Although there is little mention of any specific sciences, scientific instruments, theories or texts, Fernando instead focuses on what is perhaps the primary object of contemporary science – data – especially its relation to memory. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he repeatedly asks us to remember not to forget: e.g. “we should try not to forget that…” (p. 11 and similar on p. 17, 22, 21, and 37). He notes that testimony occurs through memory but that this is, generally speaking, unreliable and incomplete. His conclusion is Cartesian: perhaps the only thing we can know for sure is that we are testifying (p. 16).

Stengers picks up the question of memory in her dismissal of an interventionist Gaia (to paraphrase Nick Cave) denying that Gaia could remember, could be offended or could care who is responsible (2015 p.46 and fn. 2). She criticizes James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, for speaking of Gaia’s “revenge”. While he begins his text with Stengers’ controversial allusion to Gaia, Fernando’s discussion of data also has a curious connection to a living, self-regulating (and consequently also possibly a vulnerable) globe.

Riffing on Stewart Brand’s infamous phrase, “information wants to be free,” Fernando writes, “[D]ata and sharing have always been in relation with each other, data has always already been open source. Which also means that data – sharing, transference – always entail an openness to the possibility of another; along with the potentiality for disruption, infection, viruses, distortion” (p.22). Coincidentally, along with being an internet pioneer, founding one of the oldest virtual (and certainly mythological) communities, Brand is an old friend of Lovelock.

Considering these words in relation to impending ecological disaster, I’m inclined to think that perhaps the central myth that we should try to escape is that we don’t easily forget. Bernard Stiegler has suggested that we are in a period of realignment in our relationship to memory in which external memory supports are the primary means by which we understand our temporality (2011, 2013).

Similarly, we might think that it is no coincidence that when Andy Clark and David Chalmers proposed their hypothesis of extended cognition, the idea that our cognitive and memorial processes extend into artefacts, they reached for the Alzheimer’s sufferer as “Patient Zero” (1998). In truth, we do forget, often. And this is despite, and sometimes even because of, our best efforts to record and archive and remember.

Fernando’s writing is, at root, a call to re-call. It regenerates other texts and seems to live with them such that they both thrive. The “tales” he calls for spiral out into new mutations like Burdock’s tentacular images. But to reduce Fernando’s scope to simply a call for other perspectives would be to sell it short. Read alongside In Catastrophic Times, the call to embrace uncertainty and to reckon with it becomes more urgent.

Fernando reminds us of our own forgetfulness and the unreliability of our testimony about ourselves and our communities. For those of us wrestling with the post-truth world, Fernando’s essay is both a palliative and, potentially, charts a way out of no-alternative thinking.

Contact details: eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg

References

Bloor, D. 2007. Epistemic grace: Antirelativism as theology in disguise. Common knowledge 13: 250-280.

Clark, A. and D. Chalmers. 1998. The extended mind. Analysis 58: 7–19.

Fuller, S. 2018. Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game. Anthem Press.

Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?  From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern Critical Inquiry 2004 30(2).

Nietzsche, F. 1924. The Joyful Wisdom (trans. T. Common) New York: The MacMillan Company. Accessed 10 June 2018. https://ia600300.us.archive.org/9/items/completenietasch10nietuoft/completenietasch10nietuoft.pdf.

Stengers, I. 2012. “Cosmopolitics: Learning to Think with Sciences, Peoples and Natures.” Public lecture. Situating Science Knowledge Cluster. St. Marys, Halifax, Canada, 5 March 2012. Accessed 10 June 2018. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ASGwo02rh8.

Stengers, I. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press/Meson Press.

Stiegler, B. 2011. Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (trans. R. Beardsworth and G. Collins). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Stiegler, B. 2013. For a New Critique of Political Economy (trans. D. Ross). Cambridge: Polity.

Author Information: Jonathan Matheson & Valerie Joly Chock, University of North Florida, jonathan.matheson@gmail.com.

Matheson, Jonathan; Valerie Joly Chock. “Knowledge and Entailment: A Review of Jessica Brown’s Fallibilism: Evidence and Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 55-58.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42k

Photo by JBColorado via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Jessica Brown’s Fallibilism is an exemplary piece of analytic philosophy. In it, Brown engages a number of significant debates in contemporary epistemology with the aim of making a case for fallibilism about knowledge. The book is divided into two halves. In the first half (ch. 1-4), Brown raises a number of challenges to infallibilism. In the second half (ch. 5-8), Brown responds to challenges to fallibilism. Brown’s overall argument is that since fallibilism is more intuitively plausible than infallibilism, and since it fares no worse in terms of responding to the main objections, we should endorse fallibilism.

What Is Fallibilism?

In the introductory chapter, Brown distinguishes between fallibilism and infallibilism. According to her, infallibilism is the claim that one knows that p only if one’s evidence entails p, whereas fallibilism denies this. Brown settles on this definition after having examined some motivation and objections to other plausible definitions of infallibilism. With these definitions in hand, the chapter turns to examine some motivation for fallibilism and infallibilism.

Brown then argues that infallibilists face a trilemma: skepticism, shifty views of knowledge, or generous accounts of knowledge. Put differently, infallibilists must either reject that we know a great deal of what we think we know (since our evidence rarely seems to entail what we take ourselves to know), embrace a view about knowledge where the standards for knowledge, or knowledge ascriptions, vary with context, or include states of the world as part of our evidence. Brown notes that her focus is on non-skeptical infallibilist accounts, and explains why she restricts her attention in the remainder of the book to infallibilist views with generous conception of evidence.

In chapter 2, Brown lays the groundwork for her argument against infallibilism by demonstrating some commitments of non-skeptical infallibilists. In order to avoid skepticism, infallibilists must show that we have evidence that entails what we know. In order to do so, they must commit to certain claims regarding the nature of evidence and evidential support.

Brown argues that non-factive accounts of evidence are not suitable for defending infallibilism, and that infallibilists must embrace an externalist, factive account of evidence on which knowing that p is sufficient for p to be part of one’s evidence. That is, infallibilists need to endorse Factivity (p is evidence only if p is true) and the Sufficiency of knowledge for evidence (if one knows that p, then p is part of one’s evidence).

However, Brown argues, this is insufficient for infallibilists to avoid skepticism in cases of knowledge by testimony, inference to the best explanation, and enumerative induction. In addition, infallibilists are committed to the claim that if one knows p, then p is part of one’s evidence for p (the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support thesis).

Sufficiency of Knowledge to Support Itself

Chapter 3 examines the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support in more detail. Brown begins by examining how the infallibilist may motivate this thesis by appealing to a probabilistic account of evidential support. If probability raisers are evidence, then there is some reason to think that every proposition is evidence for itself.

The main problem for the thesis surrounds the infelicity of citing p as evidence for p. In the bulk of the chapter, Brown examines how the infallibilist may account for this infelicity by appealing to pragmatic explanations, conversational norms, or an error theory. Finding each of these explanations insufficient to explain the infelicity here, Brown concludes that the infallibilist’s commitment to the Sufficiency of knowledge for self-support thesis is indeed problematic.

Brown takes on the infallibilists’ conception of evidence in Chapter 4. As mentioned above, the infallibilist is committed to a factive account of evidence, where knowledge suffices for evidence. The central problem here is that such an account has it that intuitively equally justified agents (one in a good case and one in a bad case) are not in fact equally justified.

Brown then examines the ‘excuse maneuver’, which claims that the subject in the bad case is unjustified yet blameless in their belief, and the original intuition confuses these assessments. The excuse maneuver relies on the claim that knowledge is the norm of belief. Brown argues that the knowledge norm fails to provide comparative evaluations of epistemic positions where subjects are intuitively more or less justified, and fails to give an adequate account of propositional justification when the target proposition is not believed. In addition, Brown argues that extant accounts of what would provide the subject in the bad case with an excuse are all insufficient.

In Chapter 5 the book turns to defending fallibilism. The first challenge to fallibilism that Brown examines concerns closure. Fallibilism presents a threat to multi-premise closure since one could meet the threshold for knowledge regarding each individual premise, yet fail to meet it regarding the conclusion. Brown argues that giving up on closure is no cost to fallibilists since closure ought to be rejected on independent grounds having to do with defeat.

A subject can know the premises and deduce the conclusion from them, yet have a defeater (undercutting or rebutting) that prevents the subject from knowing the conclusion. Brown then defends such defeat counterexamples to closure from a number of recent objections to the very notion of defeat.

Chapter 6 focuses on undermining defeat and recent challenges that come to it from ‘level-splitting’ views. According to level-splitting views, rational akrasia is possible—i.e., it is possible to be rational in simultaneously believing both p and that your evidence does not support p. Brown argues that level-splitting views face problems when applied to theoretical and practical reasoning. She then examines and rejects attempts to respond to these objections to level-splitting views.

Brown considers objections to fallibilism from practical reasoning and the infelicity of concessive knowledge attributions in Chapter 7. She argues that these challenges are not limited to fallibilism but that they also present a problem for infallibilism. In particular, Brown examines how (fallibilist or infallibilist) non-skeptical views have difficulty accommodating the knowledge norm for practical reasoning (KNPR) in high-stakes cases.

She considers two possible responses: to reject KNPR or to maintain KNPR by means of explain-away maneuvers. Brown claims that one’s response is related to the notion of probability one takes as relevant to practical reasoning. According to her, fallibilists and infallibilists tend to respond differently to the challenge from practical reasoning because they adopt different views of probability.

However, Brown argues, both responses to the challenge are in principle available to each because it is compatible with their positions to adopt the alternative view of probability. Thus, Brown concludes that practical reasoning and concessive knowledge attributions do not provide reasons to prefer infallibilism over fallibilism, or vice versa.

Keen Focus, Insightful Eyes

Fallibilism is an exemplary piece of analytic philosophy. Brown is characteristically clear and accessible throughout. This book will be very much enjoyed by anyone interested in epistemology. Brown makes significant contributions to contemporary debates, making this a must read for anyone engaged in these epistemological issues. It is difficult to find much to resist in this book.

The arguments do not overstep and the central thesis is both narrow and modest. It’s worth emphasizing here that Brown does not argue that fallibilism is preferable to infallibilism tout court, but only that it is preferable to a very particular kind of infallibilism: non-skeptical, non-shifty infallibilism.  So, while the arguments are quite strong, the target is more narrow.

One of the central arguments against fallibilism that Brown considers concerns closure. While she distinguishes multi-premise closure from single-premise closure, the problems for fallibilism concern only the former, which she formulates as follows:

Necessarily, if S knows p1-n, competently deduces, and thereby comes to believe q, while retaining her knowledge of p1-n throughout, then S knows q. (101)

The fallibilist threshold condition is that knowledge that p requires that the probability of p on one’s evidence be greater than some threshold less than 1. This threshold condition generates counterexamples to multiple-premise closure in which S fails to know a proposition entailed by other propositions she knows. Where S’s evidence for each premise gives them a probability that meets the threshold, S knows each of the premises.

If together these premises entail q, then S knows premises p1-n that jointly entail conclusion q. The problem is that S knowing the premises in this way is compatible with the probability of the conclusion on S’s evidence not meeting the threshold. Thus, this presents possibility for counterexamples to closure and a problem for fallibilism.

As the argument goes, fallibilists must deny closure and this is a significant cost. Brown’s reply is to soften the consequence of denying closure by arguing that it is implausible due to alternative (and independent) reasons concerning defeat. Brown’s idea is that closure gives no reason to reject fallibilism, or favor infallibilism, given that defeat rules out closure in a way that is independent of the fallibilism-infallibilism debate.

After laying out her response, Brown moves on to consider and reply to objections concerning the legitimacy of defeat itself. She ultimately focuses on defending defeat against such objections and ignores other responses that may be available to fallibilists when dealing with this problem. Brown, though, is perhaps a little too quick to give up on closure.

Consider the following alternative framing of closure:

If S knows [p and p entails q] and believes q as the result of a competent deduction from that knowledge, then S knows q.

So understood, when there are multiple premises, closure only applies when the subject knows the conjunction of the premises and that the premises entail the conclusion. Framing closure in this way avoids the threshold problem (since the conjunction must be known). If S knows the conjunction and believes q (as the result of competent deduction), then S’s belief that q cannot be false. This is the case because the truth of p entailing q, coupled with the truth of p itself, guarantees that q is true. This framing of closure, then, eliminates the considered counterexamples.

Framing closure in this way not only avoids the threshold problem, but plausibly avoids the defeat problem as well. Regarding undercutting defeat, it is at least much harder to see how S can know that p entails q while possessing such a defeater. Regarding rebutting defeat, it is implausible that S would retain knowledge of the conjunction if S possesses a rebutting defeater.

However, none of this is a real problem for Brown’s argument. It simply seems that she has ignored some possible lines of response open to the fallibilist that allows the fallibilist to keep some principle in the neighborhood of closure, which is an intuitive advantage.

Contact details: jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

References

Brown, Jessica. Fallibilism: Evidence and Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Author Information: Richard Combes, University of South Carolina Upstate, rcombes@uscupstate.edu

Combes, Richard. “McCraw on the Nature of Epistemic Trust—Part II.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 7-10.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-30A

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Image credit: Arne Halvorsen, via flickr

In my original response to “The Nature of Epistemic Trust,” by Benjamin McCraw (2015), I defended the view that epistemic trust reduces to one’s belief that another’s allegedly successful ability to track the truth in the past underwrites confidence in the latter’s present and future testimony (2015). On the basis of the introspective data, I deny that any irreducibly distinct, non-propositional attitude of epistemic trust supervenes on such a belief. Epistemic trust is not presented to consciousness as an episodic quale. There is nothing that it is like to trust someone other than being convinced that the trustee’s history validates the truster’s continued support in him or her as a beacon of knowledge.  Continue Reading…