Epistemology omnibus

February 22, 2008

This omnibus post collects draft fragments that are associated with the economy of attention and the sociology of science and expertise.

The arms race of academia: Commented here.

Academia is the industry of self promotion. Like competitive sports, but unlike most occupations, academia is based on the idea that you are better at something than most people around you. You have to keep proving that your ideas and work deserve attention and funding. You have to show that you are better than the other contenders for the postdoc, for the tenure-track position and for tenure.

The rewards (mainly in terms of ego, prestige and political power, but also material rewards) are such that many people will be willing to under-invest in most other aspects of life in order to win those rewards. That puts anyone who is not fully committed to this race at a significant disadvantage.

If you do not participate fully in this arms race, then, with some luck and skill you may still survive, but the odds are against you.

This is a nasty situation, but would you have things be any different? Would you rather have a non-self-promoting academia? Would you support science that is not based on “my work is better than yours”?

Skepticism, denialism: Applied scientists occasionally try find ways to differentiate between skepticism (good, themselves) and denialism (bad, others). The denialists are people who refuse to believe (doubt, deny) some things that the scientists consider well established (anthropogenic global warming and evolution seem to be the main bones of contention at present; the holocaust of the European Jews makes appearances mainly for ad absurdum arguments). The denialists claim that they are being good skeptics – they just don’t find the evidence to be convincing. The scientists feel that the denialists are not being legitimately skeptical but are rather doing something completely different under the guise of skepticism.

There must be a long and sophisticated analysis of such issues that is well known in the philosophical circles. Epistemology – the theory of knowledge – is an ancient and still active field. The applied scientists, armed with the belief that they can intuitively tell what skepticism is, choose to forge ahead with their own theories without going through the potential minefield and certain effort of getting up to speed on the existing state of the theory.

This can certainly be justified to some extent: one should not be forced to relate to a large body of work unless the the effort is justified by the depth of the question. The applied scientists do not consider the problem to be a deep one – developing a theory of their own seems a relatively easy matter of formalizing their functional intuition. It is also likely that they believe that their own experience with science puts them in a better position to develop such a theory than a philosopher has.

It seems to me, however, that the attempts at theory that are being made are extremely unconvincing, and especially so in the context of defining skepticism, which is antithetical to the sense of self-assurance in which the attempts are under taken. A study of existing theory is in order, probably starting with Plato:

O men, he is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. Apology,

and being mindful of the first paragraph in Bertrand Russell’s The problems of philosophy:

Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy — for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.

[My italics.]

Do I know if [so-and-so] was right? Of course not: The article “Moral Courage serves as an interesting testimony as to how perceptions of expertise are created and how they affect perceptions of the truth.

Coherence of authority, or the PageRank model of establishing quality: PageRank is a mathematical formula for calculating the importance of a web page based on the calculated importance of the pages that link to it. It is purportedly used by the Google search engine to rank search results. There is an interesting analogy between the PageRank model and the way authority, and specifically authority of expertise, is determined – both descriptively and normatively.

Authority in practice, and this may be seen by many as being justified theoretically, is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. When many people or organizations accept a certain person or a certain organization as an authority on a certain matter, then many others would accept that as strong indication that that person or organization is indeed an authority. The weight of the endorsement of an authority by a person or organization is proportional to the authority of endorser.

Examples abound: academics, authors, business officers, artists, chefs, etc.

To a certain extent, this phenomenon is unavoidable, due to the scarcity of intellectual resources. However, as many examples show, this method is far from a foolproof system for establishing quality of ideas. The structure of claims and acceptance of authority can cohere due to many factors that have nothing to do with the actual quality of the expertise attained. Belonging to a coherent authority structure can be beneficial for those high up in the hierarchy – these are the same elements that wield the most power to maintain the coherence. Those elements therefore have an incentive to support each other even when the basis for the coherence is shaky.

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