Epistemic Dependence

When scientific, knowledge-creating labor is divided among the members of a research group, these members come to depend upon one another. Evidence has to be gathered, arguments have to be formulated and collaborating scientists have to rely on one another for the bits and pieces of experimental evidence, interpretation and argument that are eventually to be integrated into a well-corroborated, publishable, scientific knowledge claim. As scientists form beliefs about the quality of the evidence and arguments, they crucially depend on the beliefs of their collaborators who have carried out experiments and gathered experimental data or who possess, for example, the necessary expertise to interpret the data and formulate an argument. In this chapter, I analyze dependence of this kind in terms of epistemic dependence.

Broadly conceived, epistemic dependence can be defined as a relation between two beliefs, a relation where one belief draws its justification from a second belief. This chapter, however, addresses epistemic dependence more specifically as an inter-individual problem. I deal with the relationship between beliefs that are held by different individuals, and that is characterized by an asymmetry in intellectual authority—the dependent

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 S. Wagenknecht, A Social Epistemology of Research Groups, New Directions in the Philosophy of Science,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52410-2_7

individual relies upon somebody else because he or she has good reason to believe this other person to be in an epistemically superior position. Such a relation between individuals’ beliefs has to be mediated, either through verbal communication or the exchange of material objects such as data charts, written reports and material probes. When a belief is verbally communicated from one individual to another by way of assertion, and when, thus, epistemic dependence is a matter of reliance upon others’ say-so, then epistemic dependence is akin to reliance upon testimony. Therefore, in this chapter I draw not only on epistemology’s accounts of epistemic dependence but also, in parts, on accounts of testimony as a source of justified belief and knowledge.

Examining inter-individual epistemic dependence as an issue of collaborative scientific practice, I analyze epistemic dependence as a relation between one scientist’s believing and another scientist’s beliefs and/or, as I will elaborate, the product of his or her labor. Three remarks are in order here. First, when I speak of individual believing or individually held beliefs, I imply that beliefs can qualify as knowledge if they are “well- founded," that is, justified, in terms of the standards that apply in the context of scientific practice. What, hence, underlies my understanding is a contextualist notion of knowledge as justified (true) belief.[1] Second, when I understand knowing as believing, I leave issues of tacit knowledge largely aside. This is not to say that tacit knowledge would be peripheral to scientific practice. Rather, knowledge that cannot be easily explicated and communicated does not sit well with the epistemological approaches discussed here. Third, when I focus on epistemic dependence in collaborative scientific practice, I also sideline all those instances in which scientists depend upon one another for other than epistemic purposes.[2]

Drawing on the empirical data I have gathered, I ground my analysis of epistemic dependence on observations of actual scientific practice in research groups. From a practice-minded point of view, philosophical accounts of epistemic dependence need to take into consideration that the relations ofepistemic dependence between collaborating scientists can vastly vary. No one size fits all. In order to get a grip on the configurations of epistemic dependence in scientific practice, a subtle and differentiated terminology is needed. As I will argue, crucial to configurations of epis- temic dependence in collaborative scientific practice is whether, to what extent and in which way the dependent person has the possibility to make use of relevant scientific expertise. For this reason, I propose to distinguish between translucent dependence (which is supported by the dependent person’s experimental expertise) and opaque dependence (which is not). As I will point out, this distinction does not exhaust the phenomenon of epistemic dependence. Nevertheless, it provides two cornerstones in relation to which a variety of instances of epistemic dependence can be understood.

To unfold this distinction, the chapter proceeds as follows. Sect. 7.1 reviews some of the work on epistemic dependence that has been undertaken by epistemologists so far. Section 7.2, then, harkens back to my comparative case study and the division of labor in research groups, which, as I argue, reinforces or creates the epistemic asymmetries in which epistemic dependence is rooted. Thereafter, Sect. 7.3 elaborates on my distinction between opaque and translucent epistemic dependence.

  • [1] It lies beyond the scope of this book to defend epistemic contextualism (Rysiew, 2016), but as willbecome apparent in this chapter and in Chap. 9, a contextualist understanding of what it means tojustify a belief as knowledge allows us to accommodate the fact that second-order reasons mayjustifya collaborating scientist’s individual knowing—but does not constitute the kind ofjustification thatit takes to formulate a scientific knowledge claim. Without such a contextualist understanding, onewould either have to deny individual scientists the possibility to know qua trust or to allow forscientific knowledge to be justified upon the basis of testimony. Both options are unattractive. Todeny scientists to know qua trust overly limits their epistemic agency and casts collaborative scientificpractice as inferior guesswork. To allow for scientific knowledge to be justified in terms of testimonydoes not resonate with the conventions of scientific method and scientific authorship.
  • [2] For a broader, social-scientific account of dependence in science see Whitley (1984, p. 87ff.).
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