Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Epistemic Non-Peers

Suppose I am interacting on a particular point with someone who is technically my epistemic 'inferior' -- e.g., a student, who, however clever, is unlikely to have the same familiarity with the evidence that I do. And suppose he begins advocating a position on the topic I haven't come across or considered before. How much should the fact that he is my epistemic inferior contribute to my rejection of (or my inclination to disagree with) that position?

I would suggest none. Whether or not he is my epistemic inferior is entirely irrelevant to questions of rejection or inclination to disagree, precisely because these things should be governed by the evidence, not by my assessment (however accurate) of our respective abilities. For all I know, he may have been lucky and stumbled across something good. The only way it would be relevant is if I didn't know the relevant evidence and were trying to determine who had the greater expertise.

If this is so, however, then it suggests that the currently popular equal weight view (which I've argued against here and here) is wrong, since the most plausible rationales for it also require giving less weight to those of less ability.

UPDATE: Re-reading this, it occurs to me that I could make part of it more clear. Of course, when I am determining positions I hold my assessment of my expertise is not relevant to my assessment of the evidence, except where I already have reason to think that someone with less than a certain level of expertise is likely to go astray in such-and-such way; and even there, it does not affect the assessment of the evidence itself. It can affect practical matters pertaining to what I do with that assessment; but the assessment itself is not affected. How, then, could the assessment of another's expertise affect my assessment of the evidence I have? Surely it can't. And I think we see this more clearly and obviously in the case of an epistemic 'inferior'. If I'm deciding how much credit I should give to that person's new proposal, it would be utterly absurd for me to weigh my expertise against his. All that's relevant is how the new proposal fits with the evidence with which I'm familiar. The same thing goes if the proposal is not new, but is something that has been proposed many times before. In such a case, how expert the proposer is, is irrelevant to my assessment of the proposal itself; the same proposal, for instance, could be put forward by many different people, of many different levels of expertise, for many different reasons. So if I'm evaluating the proposal, it would be silly for me to bother about the competence of the person putting it forward, unless there are purely practical reasons for doing so (e.g., if there's inadequate time to consider the evidence when competing proposals are put forward, I may go with the proposal of the more expert, because as a general rule it's prudent to trust the more expert, even though in particular cases this may lead me astray; but this is, again, a matter of pragmatic need due to the fact that I don't have the leisure to investigate thoroughly). That it comes to me from a student, or someone who has only passing familiarity with the subject, or what have you, is not relevant to this evaluation.

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