Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Epistemic Egalitarianism

A posting today over at Leiter Reports raises this topic in one way and some reflections I have been having lately on the last US presidential election raise it in another way. Leiter's posting concerns a claim made by Larry Sanger, one of the co-founders of Wikipedia who subsequently left the site. Sanger is quoted by Leiter as claiming that there was a problem in trying to run the site, a problem he tags by the label of "epistemic egalitarianism". What this amounted to, on Sanger's view, was an implicit and often explicit disdain for experts, that is, for anyone who had actually written on a topic or spent any serious time thinking about it as expressed in sustained writings over a period of time. The reason for this disdain for experts is summarised by Sanger as follows: "They feel that for everything to be as fair as possible and as equal as possible, the only thing that ought to matter is the content [of a claim] itself, not its source".

I'll come back to that assertion later, as it is interesting, regardless of whether or not Sanger is correct in attributing it to the culture that grew up in Wikipedia. It expresses a particular kind of "epistemic egalitarianism". A second sort, which I will distinguish more carefully later, found expression around the last US presidential election as can be seen in the figures of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin. The appeal to Joe the Plumber was meant as a riposte to the pretensions of the "liberal elite" with this guy shown as voicing a view that such an elite found uncomfortable. A similar role, in fact, arose for Gillian Duffy, in the so-called "bigot-gate" scandal during the last UK election. In both cases an "ordinary" person was held to voice truths that the political and intellectual elites didn't wish to recognise with the point being that in voicing this truth they laid claim to a knowledge that transcended expertise. In British culture, this kind of knowledge is what is often referred to as "common sense".

The example of Sarah Palin further fits in to the kind of Joe the Plumber/Gillian Duffy case. Palin presented herself as an ordinary woman and some of her supporters endorsed her precisely because they felt she spoke like themselves. In this case we have a kind of cross-over figure, someone meant, as it were, to be Duffy/Joe who nonetheless attains an exalted position.

I want to now distinguish the case of the claim said by Sanger to be at work in the Wikipedia case from that in the Joe/Duffy example. The claim Sanger argues was detrimental in Wikipedia involves an elevation in the status of claims over and above any authority accorded to the one making the claims. So this kind of "epistemic egalitarianism" is egalitarian in taking most seriously what is said, with a concomitant downgrading in the status of who says it. This is like a counter to the traditional argument from authority in Sanger's rendition of it since the greater the alleged authority of the one making the claim the less attention could well be paid since their authority detracts from simple examination of the claim itself. This is the way this kind of "egalitarianism" has the effect of deflating expertise.

This first kind of epistemic egalitarianism seems to me to differ, however, from the kind at work in the cases of Joe/Gillian/Sarah. In these latter cases we have a distinct kind of claim in the sense that there is, in this case, set against the knowledge of the expert a distinct and separate kind of knowledge that is effectively preferable to expert knowledge and a reason is given for taking it to be so. In this case, unlike in the first, there is not emphasis on the claim at the expense of the one making it. Rather, in this case, there is a new kind of appeal to authority, albeit authority is now found in places where it was previously scorned. This is the heart of populist epistemic egalitarianism since it finds "common sense" to be a greater source of insight than any alleged expertise and believes there are privileged sites of common sense, i.e., certain persons who possess greater quantities of it and by virtue of this have greater authority despite the pretensions of some to deny this.

So the first kind of epistemic egalitarian could, most charitably, be taken to be performing a kind of reduction on claims that enables them to be taken seriously in their own right regardless of source with the point however being that no specific authority builds up in any given source over time. All sources are putatively equal, the claim alone should convince.

The second kind of epistemic egalitarian is quite different from the first since this kind of egalitarian defers to a knowledge that is distinct from that of expertise and preferable to it. Since this is so a specific reason now arises for preferring the expressions of those who have no apparent special insight since it is precisely this lack of learned insight which enables their "common sense" to be more purely expressed.

Having distinguished these kinds of epistemic egalitarianism I now want to reflect on some of the roots of the spread of these beliefs. On one level the first kind of epistemic egalitarian has a point since the claim that we should take claims more seriously than putative authorities has some epistemic grounding. It is always possible, after all, for anyone to be wrong, no one is infallible and simply assuming that anyone who has worked on something all their life is therefore best placed to know all about it has some problems. In some areas there are specific difficulties even in assessing what expertise consists in. Certainly the knowledge possessed by, for example, a moral philosopher or a politician is of quite a different kind to that possessed by a particle physicist or surgeon. We wouldn't want just anyone to perform operations on us nor would we trust someone who wandered in off the street to know how to fly a plane. So, when it comes to scientific and technical situations we often grant an epistemic privilege since that seems much the most prudent course.

When it comes to matters that are moral and political there is less admission of the notion of expertise since what it is to be an expert here is less evident. Aristotle was one of the first but certainly not the last to remark that we could not expect the same type of precision and clarity in ethics as we would in accounts of nature. And moral philosophers, for example, aren't, just by virtue of their study, necessarily better at making ethical choices than others. Similarly, politicians can make spectacular errors in running things. So in one sense it makes some obvious sense to give more credit to particular claims made in this error than necessarily to base our response on a presumed authority accruing to the one making the claims.

Having said this, however, there is still something rather odd about this first kind of epistemic egalitarianism. After all, if who makes a claim really makes no difference to the status of the claim itself than why ever bother engaging in sustained and serious study of anything belong to the wide area of "human sciences" at all? We would be better off not ever having "expert" status in such fields since it appears to lead nowhere. At this point we can see how, despite the distinction that does exist between the two kinds of epistemic egalitarian that one posture does easily lead to the other.

This also helps to pin-point the error that is made by epistemic egalitarians. The second version of the doctrine follows through the implications of the first and then purports to reverse the status of who is to be taken as understanding correctly the situation. In this version it is no longer really a form of egalitarianism at all since now there is a special source of insight after all claimed but what makes it appear egalitarian is that this insight is claimed to be found in the "common people". Again, there are senses in which this claim can make a case. For example, it is true that an economist, for example, might make an argument for a view that will affect the livelihoods of many people and that such people, who do not possess the expertise of the economist will have other means of arguing against his claims and other kinds of evidence to mount against his.

So there can be kinds of battles in which the nature of what is taken to count as relevant evidence can be legitimately waged. Those kinds of battles concern the application of a doctrine. In one sense such a battle can also be fought concerning whether the application is, in any event, the right way of understanding the implications of the doctrine in question. After all, few doctrines have only one way of being applied and so the argument can legitimately concern whether the application being urged follows from the doctrine itself. This question of application is, in fact, one of the key difficulties in grasping political theories in general as is witnessed by the general claim that certain kinds of doctrines have never really been tried.

When looked at in this way it becomes clearer that the question of expertise at issue in the cases of Gillian/Sarah and Joe can have more sides to it than their particular cases might suggest. However the rise of the generic suggestion that types can be erected around given figures who can speak a truth that is not being articulated by power have, like the first kind of claim, much about them that is paradoxical. In these cases the figures in question are taken to have something representative about them even though no mechanisms have been demonstrated to exist to legitimate them in this role. Further, in claiming that a truth is spoken here that power has been unwilling to recognise they attach to these figures a status that arises, not, in fact, from some specific placing of these figures after all, but rather from what it is that they are claiming.

The precise claims made by Joe, Gillian and Sarah are alleged to be valuable because of the recognisable nature of who says them but, in truth, this is not so. After all, if Joe had asserted that the accumulated expertise of Republican leaders for the last 30 years seemed only to have produced systemic crisis and aversion from economic realities would he really have been accorded the status he received? Or if Gillian had argued with the Prime Minister that deregulation of the economy was the source of New Labour's troubles is it as likely that she would have been taken to be so emblematic? These questions are posed in a rhetorical form but surely it is right to show that it is the combination of a claim that attaches to particular agendas with the connection to someone "ordinary" that is the source of the "common sense" appeal?

What this suggests is that the two kinds of epistemic egalitarianism have a tendency to merge. Whilst the first kind tends to promote the view that there is no real basis for taking seriously accumulated insight and hence move to the second view, the second view itself tends to promote particular positions and only incidentally to value their expression by certain types of people.

Both kinds of epistemic egalitarianism also have a consequence that is not often recognised. This is the consequence I would label as the promotion of credulous disbelief, the attitude at work in conspiracy theories in particular. This consequence is one of general disbelief in the statements of "experts" qua "experts". Once this has been taken to be a default position then one might wonder what basis there is for belief in something? Well, if the "experts" are not to be trusted then it is not much of a step to assume that they are hiding something from us. Since no one of any authority can be taken too seriously in social matters it follows that we should listen to someone scorned by those in authority and since those scorned have been belittled and demoted we can turn then to listen to the theories of those taken to be "cranks". We are then open to belief in anything, having scorned the pretensions of insight. 

The general result of this diagnosis is that epistemic egalitarianism is a generic view that is dangerous in its implications. These implications turn out to include special claims of insight that point us away from possibilities of enlightenment towards belief in the most dubious views. The claims of such egalitarians are classic examples of "enthusiasm" and as such, the siren appeal of these views is one that needs to be resisted.


gwern said...

What's funny to me about all this is that Sanger is working off false premises, an image of Wikipedia that stopped being true back in 2003 or so.

(I can't be any more specific since I only joined in 2004 or so, and the devaluation of respect of experienced editors and experts has been continuous during my tenure, so it presumably started before I arrived.)

These days, authority *is* everything - but authority stems from the barrel of an ISBN, not a PHD. If you have a book which says what you want to say, you are basically invincible in editing conflicts

This is why my articles on Japanese literature (such as on Fujiwara no Teika) go unmolested by any other users, even the most deletionist, because they are absolutely stuffed with page citations and quotes.

But manga articles by a bona fide expert, like User:Timothy Perper, are frequently edited down and deleted, because it's rare to find a book source that is useful to an article.

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for this comment which is certainly interesting if correct. Your account is encouraging if right. I don't have empirical information on the topic so I was careful in the posting not to endorse Sanger's view of Wikipedia but to assess the basis of "epistemic egalitarianism" regardless of whether it applied to Wikipedia or not. If you are right, however, then more publicity on this should be undertaken since many, like Brian Leiter, assume the correctness of Sanger's claims.