An Epistemology of Research Groups

In this book I study research groups, a thematic focus that is plain and novel at the same time. A philosophy of research groups is only now emerging, although both philosophy of science and social epistemology have long been interested in the “social" character of science. But although most philosophers would agree that scientific knowledge creation involves “social" aspects, precisely in what sense science should be understood as “social" remains the subject of debate. So far, philosophy of science has focused on the role of peer communities, a focus for which research groups have been, at best, of peripheral interest. Social epistemology, in turn, is only beginning to develop pronounced interest in the domain of science.1

But while research groups are a relatively novel object of inquiry for social epistemologists and philosophers of science, they have been the undisputed norm in natural science for many decades. To find practicing scientists discussing research groups passionately and remarking upon their novelty, one has to go back to the mid-twentieth century when the prospect of large-scale technocratic research coalitions, later to be christened “Big Science,"[1] [2] sparked debate. Against those who were concerned by this prospect, David Green published a letter in the journal Science

in 1954. In this letter, Green, at the time a leading biochemist, defends research groups as “one of the most powerful instruments yet devised for conducting experimental research" (Green, 1954, p. 445). As he argues, research groups bundle the increasingly specialized expertise ofindividual scientists and focus it on a selected set of research questions, questions that are too laborious and too daunting for any individual scientist to pursue without the support ofcommitted group members. In sharing success and failure among group members, Green points out, research groups act as an “insurance" against the epistemic risks of experimental science. Yet, Green admits, so little is known about the ways in which research groups work and adapt to the contingencies of scientific practice that such group themselves remain “an experiment in human relationships" (Green, 1954,

p. 445).

Over recent years, philosophy has slowly become more and more interested in research groups, triggered largely by the widespread reception of John Hardwig’s (1985, 1991) work on research groups and the application of Margaret Gilbert’s (1989, 2004) notion of collective belief to research collaboration (as, e.g., in Cheon, 2014; de Ridder, 2014; Wray, 2001). I will consider Gilbert’s notion of collective belief, but particularly Hardwig’s work which has been a major source of inspiration for me. Hardwig argues that contemporary natural science fundamentally relies upon trust and that “[...] the alternative to trust is, often, ignorance"

(Hardwig, 1991, p. 707):

In most disciplines, those who do not trust cannot know; those who do not trust cannot have the best evidence for their beliefs. In an important sense, then, trust is often epistemologically even more basic than empirical data or logical arguments: the data and the argument are available only through trust. (Hardwig, 1991, p. 693f.)

Trust becomes an obligatory element of experimental progress, Hard- wig explains, when experiments are too labor-intensive to be carried out by one scientist, too costly to be repeated without serious doubts, or too complex to require just one field ofexpertise. Importantly, Hardwig points out that the relevance of trust does not concern merely the formulation of scientific knowledge claims, but plays out in their justification as well, since the logical and evidential justification for those claims is too comprehensive to be understood in deep detail by a single scientist (Hardwig, 1991, p. 696). When he first formulated these claims, Hardwig was bluntly challenging the ideal of the autonomous, individual knower that was (and in many respects, still is) underlying epistemology (cf. Fricker, 2006b). Against this ideal, Hardwig’s work calls for a new way of thinking about knowledge and scientific knowledge, a philosophical angle that is broader than an individualist focus:

[...] we need an epistemological analysis of research teams, for knowledge of many things is possible only through teamwork. Knowing, then, is often not a privileged psychological state. If it is a privileged state at all, it is a privileged social state. So, we need an epistemological analysis of the social structure that makes the members of some teams knowers while the members of other teams are not. (Hardwig, 1991, p. 697)

In which sense knowing could be exactly understood as such a ‘social state’ and features a genuinely collective character needs to be discussed. In any case, philosophical analysis of social structures and their role in scientific knowledge creation cannot be an armchair undertaking only—the experiences, intuitions, norms and limitations that shape the ways in which professional scientists create knowledge are too domain- specific.

  • [1] As a field of philosophical inquiry, social epistemology is, as much of the philosophy of scienceis, rooted in the tradition of analytic philosophy. To inquire about the “social epistemology" ofscience means to inquire about the possibilities of well-founded belief and the (scientific) knowledgethat scientists, individually and collectively, possess. Social epistemology, as a branch of generalepistemology, is a relatively young field of philosophical inquiry. The programmatic beginningsof social epistemology as a field can be traced to the work of Fuller (1988), Longino (1990),Goldman (1999) and, for example, (Schmitt, 1994). Some social epistemologists have begun toengage with comprehensive, empirically detailed case studies (see, e.g., Bergin, 2002; Rehg & Staley,2008; Staley, 2007). Despite the field’s interest in the social dimensions of knowledge, however,philosophers in the field of social epistemology typically do not refer to social-scientific studies ofscience or social-scientific empirical methods.
  • [2] The expression “Big Science" was coined by Weinberg (1961).
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