Translucent Dependence

Different configurations of epistemic dependence are possible. Many instances of the latter in scientific practice are not opaque, and some of these are what I refer to as “translucent," which I characterize as instances in which the dependent scientist does possess enough expertise to be able to work independently, but he or she does not do so for pragmatic reasons.

My terminological choice may seem curious at first glance. It would be obvious to choose the attribute “transparent" for forms of epistemic dependence that are not opaque. However, there is no such thing as “transparent epistemic dependence." If all epistemic issues were completely transparent to a dependent scientist, then he or she would not be epistemically dependent. To be more precise, let me return to Hardwig’s terms. What is not transparent in cases of epistemic dependence (but should be transparent in cases of epistemic independence) are the first- order reasons for why the statement thatp should be regarded as reliable. However, as I will elaborate in the following, the intransparency of first- order reasons can have different sources.

In the measuring example from Sect. 7.1, having sufficient evidence for p means to fulfill two conditions. It means to possess the necessary expertise to perform and understand the measuring procedure and actually to perform the measurement or eye-witness them scrupulously. The first condition posits an expertise requirement, and the second condition posits both an expertise and information requirement. When these requirements are not fulfilled, then we have a case of epistemic dependence.

While the expertise requirement may go without saying, the information requirement might seem superfluous. Clearly, when A does not meet the expertise requirement, then we have a case of opaque dependence. But as I have argued above, without having performed the measurement herself (or having overseen it closely), A cannot be entirely sure that the measurement has been conducted skilfully and reported truthfully by her colleague B. In experimental science, evidential contributions can be entirely transparent only to those who have created or eye-witnessed them because the creation of evidential contributions typically rests upon complex experimental procedures, many of which may require tacit knowledge (cf. Leonelli, 2010; Soler, 2011).

When A does possess the necessary expertise, but doesn’t have sufficient information about how the contribution thatp has actually been created, then we have a case of translucent epistemic dependence. Translucent dependence is a form of genuine epistemic dependence because the evidence for the claim that p, which A is interested in endorsing, is not entirely transparent to A. Translucent dependence is a form of epistemic dependence in which the dependent scientist A engages for reasons not related to her expertise in a relation of dependence with scientist B. Instead, A relies on B for pragmatic reasons, often related to considerations of time. But because A possesses expertise pertaining to the claim that p, A can at least partially assess B’s claiming thatp—and, if available, A can assess the experimental evidence that B provides for this claim. Also, A is in a position to question B about the details of his claim that p, so that B is forced to argue for his claim that p. Moreover, A has more possibilities to assess B’s qualities as an experimenter in general. Therefore, A’s dependence runs not as deep as in instances of opaque dependence. Still, I want to emphasize the fact that translucent dependence is a relevant and epistemically significant form of epistemic dependence in scientific practice.

De Ridder has suggested a distinction between “cognitively necessary epistemic dependence" and “practically necessary epistemic dependence" (de Ridder, 2014, p. 46). This distinction is similar, albeit not identical, to mine, and I will refrain from endorsing it for two reasons. First, laboratory skills are a fundamental component of scientific expertise so that it is fair to say that expertise clearly involves more than cognition. Thus, an opaque epistemic dependence relation, rooted in an asymmetry in expertise, may concern more than just cognitive asymmetries. Second, the circumstances of “practically necessary" dependence have significant cognitive consequences: if you cannot run an experiment yourself due to a lack of time, infrastructure or labor, you cannot acquire first-hand reasons concerning the experimental evidence produced. Therefore, I believe a distinction between “cognitively necessary" and “practically necessary" dependence to be potentially misleading.

What is more, I also believe it inadequate to rephrase the conceptual distinction that I draw between opaque and translucent as “insurmountable" and “surmountable" epistemic dependence. Opaque dependence is not insurmountable; it simply needs considerable time and effort to do so. In addition, to label translucent dependence as surmountable may imply that translucent epistemic dependence should be overcome. It is not my intention, however, to make such a claim. Translucent epistemic dependence is a valuable instrument in the efficient organization of research collaboration—and as such it is not surmountable. It has to be acknowledged that the creation of knowledge in scientific practice is shaped, and rightly so, by the uneven distribution of various resources, which are not restricted to scientific expertise. Clearly, experimental expertise is important, but the experience required to, for example, set up, maintain, and fund an experimental infrastructure is important, too, though not every scientific expert does possess it.

A case in point for translucent epistemic dependence are the relations that subgroup leaders entertain to PhD students. When Martin describes this relation, he explains:

I don’t think there is a thing that Magnus [a subgroup leader] would do worse than me, in the lab, nowadays. Just that he cannot do everything. [...]

[...] Now Magnus is starting his own group and he will be moving out until the end of the year. And he probably spent half or a year getting money, writing applications, going to funding interviews. Of course, he was doing a lot of different stuff as well. But the more kind of, the higher you go— track record—and the more it’s about just getting financing. Because it’s so costly. And then you have hands, you can think about this as your hands that do your experiments, in a way. ...

[...] so a lot of problems that we have, and we kind of solve them by ourselves, is something [Magnus] would solve also or even quicker. It’s just impossible for him to do everything. So, [.] there are collaborations which are because of the expertise and those are usually outside the group. But within the group [...] I think it’s mainly the work load. (Martin, PhD student in molecular biology, group2)

Magnus depends on Martin and other doctoral students to establish certain intermediate experimental results, but his dependence is translucent, because he possesses the necessary expertise to understand fully all experimental steps and, if need be, perform them himself. If he did not possess the experimental expertise, his dependence would be opaque.

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