Saturday, August 14, 2010

Epistemic egalitarianism vs epistemic hierarchy

During the last few months Brian Leiter has agitated against what he usefully calls "epistemic egalitarianism." See here:

I always think of philosophy as an epistemic egalitarian enterprise--you are as good as your last argument.

It's not only because I am a huge fan of wikipedia that I am reserved about Leiter's trust in the experts and their authority. Let me explain, but, first, epistemic egalitarianism (EE) should not be confused with Bush-ite science-bashing. EE is not anti-science, it is just very skeptical of claims from authority.
What *in the context of public policy* could be said in favor of EE's stance? (Within a scientific community EE rules in some limited sense.)
1. Scientific authority can get willfully abused (Nazi medicine, eugenics, etc). But let's leave this aside.
2. A. Scientific expertise is fairly narrow and it can easily be misapplied in public policy domains. B. Few scientific experts are trained in neighboring fields as to judge the interactions among their expertise and other experts.
3. scientific expertise gets selected for by interested parties, including (alas) self-selection.
4. scientific experts are normal rent-seeking agents.
5. When scientific experts get it wrong in matters of policy they do not tend to run the costs of their errors.
Note that none of these (2-4) points mean we should not seek expert advice or base policy on scientific knowledge. (The fifth one may incline us to be very cautious about scientific experts.) But points 2-4 do encourage transparency of the sort that EE insist on in order to let (skeptical) non-experts weigh in on and scrutinize expert authority in decision-making processes. (Incidentally, there are good feminist, stand-point theorist's arguments for this position.)


  1. Hate to piss on your pickles, but what you are talking about is not EE. It is experts in one field (or let us say near experts) criticizing experts in a related field.

    The experts are just experts in argument.

    You are right about positions being as good as one's last argument, you are wrong that non-experts can evaluate arguments.

    Something philosophers don't realize, because they do not spend a lot of time around other academics, is that argumentation in most fields is limited. Facts are presented, and the methods for developing these facts are often quite sophisticated, what often gets missed are those things philosophers take for granted, especially conceptual clarity.

    Often these things are not too important. But when they are whole subfields can be found to have been built on a house of cards.

    I know of certain social science fields where direct confrontation (of big names) is viewed as uncouth, where you just can't write, Bloggins is wrong about X because he confuses it with Y, for reasons W, R, and S. You have to talk about all the contributions of Bloggins, and how s/he redefined the field, and how your new model is a refinement to his/er theory of X for Y .

    As a philosopher I cry bullshit! but our colleagues in other disciplines care less about argument and truth preservation. They care about facts and methods.

  2. I don’t think it’s true that in philosophy “you are as good as your last argument”. Or rather this is not well put as an expression of egalitarianism as it applies to philosophy. An established reputation can withstand a bad paper or two. If there is an egalitarianism in philosophy, it is one of arguments, not arguers. One ought, as a philosopher, to give a hearing to all arguments regardless of source.

  3. Anon, i spend some regular time with economists (of à reflective sort). What you describe (about "certain social science fields") sounds like philosophy in Europe!
    Anyway, aren't you offering support for EE and just showing that it is hard for it to get à hearing? Note that above i am not basing my claims on 6. The true kuhnian observation that experts protect their paradigm from inconvenient facts.

    goclenius, i stand corrected. (Nice point about Feynman & Roehmer in your blog!)

  4. You are right about positions being as good as one's last argument, you are wrong that non-experts can evaluate arguments. \m/

    Passages Malibujewelry club