I’ve been taking a course titled ‘Evidence and Policy’ where each week we have a discussion about the relation between science and public policy – both what that relation is and what it should be. We’ve been talking a lot about the idea of ‘epistemic autonomy’, and question of whether or not citizens in a democracy truly make decisions for themselves. This gets into the concept of epistemic dependence, or believing an idea because an ‘expert’ believes it. In wake of this week’s election it seems prudent to think about the validity of epistemic dependence.
In lecture we first discussed the difference between freedom and autonomy. One could say that freedom is a stronger form of the idea: to be free is to act unconstrained by control or influence. In contrast, to be autonomous is to act according to one’s principles – someone who is autonomous is not being controlled, or told what to believe, but may be influenced. At the point where influences over a person become strong enough that they diminish or change a person’s principles rather than adding context to them, that person is no longer autonomous.
For example, a man who eats carrots for the vitamin A is acting autonomously, but a boy who dislikes carrots but who eats them because his mom tells him to is not acting autonomously. The line becomes blurred when one asks at what point in his life does the boy eat carrots of his own volition? To some extent, even as a man, he might believe that carrots are healthy because this was instilled in him as a child, and he may continue to dislike the taste. But as his mom is presumably no longer watching him eat his dinner, he must now be acting on his own principle, one that he adopted from his mother. In addition, is his knowledge that carrots contain vitamin A an autonomous belief if it was taught to him and he did not come to the conclusion independently? Must he instead teach himself about medicine and conduct the studies himself to be free of all controlling influence? This is an impossibility when the entirety of knowledge is considered.
John Hardwig challenges the assertion that epistemic autonomy is requisite for a true democracy. Consider again the case of a mechanic. To be autonomous, a person with car troubles would have to investigate his problems independently by teaching himself how cars work, and could then go to the mechanic and pay to have the problems fixed. Hardwig claims that this person is rational to instead defer to the mechanic’s judgment. The man must rationally determine that the mechanic is to be trusted by choosing which mechanic to go to (say he chooses mechanic A because mechanic B is notorious for cheating customers), but he must not be personally knowledgeable of cars to do so. He in this case took his knowledge of the mechanic ‘s expertise as evidence that the mechanic’s diagnosis of his car troubles would be correct.
Farther-reaching examples of epistemic dependence include citizen assumptions that smoking causes lung cancer and that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Especially in examples of healthcare, it would be impossible in practice for all people to be able to diagnose their own illnesses. In the context of voting, a person may rationally support a war because of his trust in a respected politician (he is rational so long as he put thought into trusting the politician – and note that ‘rationality’ does not imply rightness or ethical superiority). Another person can be equally rational in opposing that war if she has greater respect for a politician on the other side of the issue. However, a third person who supports the war because she blindly follows a politician is not acting rationally. This third case begs the question, what is and what is not rational justification for depending on someone? Can I support a politician because he is a good speaker? Because my mom supports him? Because I know he and I agree on four issues (even though I may not know his opinion on thirty other issues)? If someone supports a politician for his economic policies but not his stance on climate change, is that person partly to blame if after he’s elected he removes limits on coal mining, which the person may oppose (and in this instance, has the person lost autonomy when it comes to coal mining, as the person is no longer in control and the politician will surely contradict the person’s principles)?
Support, Hardwig claims, is a response to evidence of a person’s expertise. Hardwig claims that person A’s epistemic dependence on person B is not support which lacks evidence, but rather that person A’s belief in person B’s credentials is itself evidence for person A that person B’s belief is true. To argue against this is to claim that most of our beliefs are irrational. After all, most people believe that there is no breathable air in space, but have never been there. A problem with Hardwig’s claim is that calling non-expert support in experts ‘evidential’ is to label all subjective trust evidential, effectively placing the non-expert’s opinion on par with the expert’s
A response to Hardwig’s argument, by Elizabeth Fricker, claims that the above is not evidence. She claims that person A cannot count belief in person B as evidence of person B’s beliefs. As person B is the expert in the matter, only person B’s thoughts on the matter are hard evidence. However, person A can take person B’s opinion on the matter as a form of testimony: person B’s word is evidence to person A, and person A’s opinion of that evidence (such as person A’s belief in person B) is merely an interpretation of that testimonial evidence. I think this is a cleaner way of defining evidence because it removes the problem introduced by Hardwig’s theory where a layman’s opinion of an expert is evidence equal to that expert’s opinion. According to Fricker, a layman’s interpretation of an expert’s evidence may lead them to a conclusion, but that conclusion is not as founded as the expert’s is. So a man supporting a war because his favorite politician does is not evidence of equal weight to a politician supporting a war because he has researched the pros and cons of the endeavor. Fricker reintroduces the idea that one must do the work for one’s opinion to be valid – it’s not enough to regurgitate ideas without deeper reflection.
John Hardwig Epistemic Dependence (1985)
Elizabeth Fricker Testimony and Epistemic Autonomy (2006)
P.S. The picture above is the ‘Enlightenment Room’ in the British Museum. It seemed appropriate to the topic.