Resorting to Impersonal Trust

Up to this point, I have focused on personal epistemic trust, that is, on trust relations between two individuals. However, a lack in personal trust can be compensated with impersonal trust, which concerns relations between a trusting person on the one hand and an “impersonal" entity, that is, a social structure, on the other (Shapiro, 1987). Impersonal epistemic trust, hence, enables an epistemically dependent person A to justify her belief thatp with reference to the trustworthiness of a social structure.

What makes a social structure trustworthy are, for example, “a supporting social-control framework or procedural norms, organizational forms, and social-control specialists, which institutionalize distrust" (Shapiro, 1987, p. 635). An example of institutionalized distrust in scientific knowledge creation is the formalized peer-reviewing of scientific publications, which constitute a scientist’s track record and are a measure of reputation. Peer review has been discussed in the context of epistemic trust and dependence before. Goldman (2001), for example, describes reliance upon peer-reviewing as a deference of judgment from a layperson, who is in no position to judge the quality of the publication in question, to an expert, who is in a better position to do so. (Yet, note that the peer-reviewing expert still faces what I have described in Chap. 7 as translucent epistemic dependence.) Despite social epistemology’s concern for peer-reviewing, the distinction between personal and impersonal forms of epistemic trust has so far received only peripheral attention, a notable exception being Rolin (2002) who points out that Hardwig’s account of trust is oblivious to the role communities play in establishing trustworthiness (see also Goldberg, 2010).

Impersonal trust in the peer-reviewing process can compensate for a lack of personal trust in the authors of a publication. Victor, senior biologist in the planetary science group, elaborates upon this possibility when talking about this reliance on Rasmus, one of the group’s physicists:

Q: [...] Why do you think you can accept Rasmus’s expertise? What is your,

I mean you must have some criteria for ...

Victor: I consider him an expert in that field.

Q: Umm. What makes him an expert?

Victor: Yeah, the fact that he has published in the field, that he has, well, he is recognized among colleagues. That’s my validation criteria.

Q: That’s the reputation part. Does it play also a role that you, you work together with Rasmus in this group? Is this .

Victor: Yeah, of course I have confidence that he is a good person to .that I can rely on.

Q: So, it would make a difference for you if it’s someone from within the group or someone you barely know that has also a good reputation?

Victor: No, not necessarily.

Q: Ok, ok.

Victor: And then the other thing is, you know when you, one thing is the work that you do here, but as soon as you submit a paper for publication, you get a review on that and if—people are usually quite picky. In particular, when it comes to multidisciplinary studies. So, ah if, if, you will get criticized if things don’t stand. (Victor, senior scientist, groupl)

In this interview fragment, Victor refers to impersonal trust in peerreviewing mechanisms twice, regarding Rasmus's past track record (which establishes him as an expert) and regarding future feedback that Victor will receive about the quality of Rasmus's work (after having submitted a co-authored paper to a peer-reviewing publication venue).

Reliance upon peer-reviewing is one example of impersonal trust; trust in organizational membership is another. When I asked Laura, a physics post-doc in the planetary science group, about the choice of coauthors for a paper reporting on experiments conducted during a larger interdisciplinary project, she replied, not without a whiff of irony:

If they have been associated with such a thing as a [prestigious international project], then—I could say that that actually gives you some sort of stamp saying OK, these people are not stupid, they know what they are talking about. ’Cause otherwise you don’t get to do [project with renowned research organization]. That’s only the best of the best. Or at least some of the good people. So you know the people associated with the [project] will be people who know what they are talking about. (Laura, post-doc, groupl)

What underlies Laura’s answer is the understanding that prestigious organizations function as gatekeepers and that organizational membership can be taken to indicate professional skill. Here again, (relative) laypeople, for example, junior scientists such as Laura, defer judgment to experts within the organization who are assumed to be in a better position to judge the trustworthiness of potential collaborators when admitting them into the organization.

 
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