Epistomological Authority

Epistomological Authority

Two recent discussions have prompted me to return to question of epistemological authority. In the case of the online collaborative Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, a founding participant, lamented the inability of the community to accept and retain contributions from “experts.” Also, creationists have re-factored their doctrine into a pseudoscientific “theory” of intelligent design and advocate that it be taught alongside, or instead, of evolution. I believe both of these cases share the conditions that there is such a thing as expertise, but that all views are potentially ideologically biased. (And intelligent design on the Wikipedia is an example as well.) Can the community at large distinguish authoritative arguments, or must we be cynical and believe that all arguments are biased but some are only more eruditely presented? (In fact, I’ve realized that the bulk of continental social “theory” is about identifying such biases: Boudieu’s doxa and symbolic violence, Hall’s naturalization, Gramsci’s hegemony, Marcuse’s and Adorno’s technological veil, Weber’s symbolic violence, Foucault’s episteme, Barthes’ exnomination (‘unnaming’) etc.).

In An Introduction to Reflexive Sociology Pierre Bourdieu (1992) discusses a couple of his conceptual contributions which may be of use in understanding these debates. A field is a cultural domain in which participants have a stake in and compete with each other for the accumulation of some sort of capital (i.e., social capital).

Like any social universe, the academic world is the site of a struggle over the truth of the academic world and of the social world in general. Very rapidly, we may say that the social world is the site of continual struggles to define what the social world is; but the academic world is a peculiarity today that its verdicts and pronouncements are among the most powerful socially. In academia, people fight constantly over the question of who, in this universe, is socially mandated, authorized, to tell the truth of the social world (1992:70).

One of Bourdieu’s preferences is that fields be true to themselves and operate autonomously and in a “scientific” manner.

A scientific field is a universe in which researchers are autonomous and where, to confront one another, they have to drop all nonscientific weapons – beginning with the weapons of academic authority. In a genuine scientific field, one can freely enter free discussions and violently oppose any contradictor with the arms of science because your position does not depend on him or because you can get another position elsewhere. (1992:177)

My own understanding is that scientific does not equal academic: academic authority is based on a hierarchical application of judgment to those who allegedly know less; while closely associated with the academic, scientific assessments should be discernible to those who know the same or even less. Above, Bourdieu introduces the notion of “scientific arms”: legitimate means of dispute. In Jonathan Sarfati’s response to the creationist book Teaching About Evolution, he notes that the creationists claim that the National Academy of Sciences “resorts to arbitrary, self-serving ‘rules’ to determine what qualifies as ‘science’ and what doesn’t.” Of course, and presently in America we have the confounding situation that a great majority of the members of the National Academy of Sciences accept evolution, but a frightening proportion of Americans don’t.

A field is all the more scientific the more it is capable of channeling, of converting unavowable motives into scientifically proper behavior. In a loosely structured field characterized by a low level of autonomy, illegitmate motives produce illegitimate strategies and, furthermore, strategies that are scientifically worthless. In an autonomous field such as the mathematical field today, by contrast, a top mathematician who once to triumph over his opponents is compelled by the force of the field to produce mathematics to do so, on pain of excluding himself from the field. Being aware of this, we must work to constitute a Scientific City in which the most unavowable intentions have to sublimate themselves into scientific expression. This vision is not utopian at all, and I could propose a number of very concrete measures designed to make it come true. For instance, where we have won a national referee or evaluator, we can institute an international panel of three foreign judges (of course, we must then control for the effects of international networks of mutual knowledge and alliances). When a research center or a journal enjoys a situation of monopoly, worked to create a rival one. We can raise the level of scientific censorship by a series of actions designed to upgrade the level of training, the minimal amount of specific competency required to enter the field, etc.

In short, they must create conditions such that the worst, the meanest, and the most mediocre participant is compelled to behave in accordance with the norms of scientificity in currency at the time (1992:177).

Interestingly, Bourdieu is advocating censoring “nonscientific” claims. Which, while not very democratic, can be meritocratic — though I think his proposals for committees implausible. Yet, while Bourdieu is sympathetic to the autonomous operation of a field he does not want to focus on a particular methodology or bureaucracy, but the almost anarchistic competition under an already agreed to metaphysical system.

There is in history what we may call, after Elias, a process of scientific civilization, whose historical conditions are given with the constitution of relatively autonomous fields within which all moves are not allowed, in which there are immanent regularities, implicit principles and explicit rules of inclusion and exclusion, and admission rights which are being continually raised. Scientific reason realizes itself when it becomes inscribed not in the ethical norms of a practical reason or in the technical rules of scientific methodology, but in the apparently anarchical social mechanisms of competition between strategies armed with instruments of action and of thought capable of regulating their own uses, and in the durable dispositions that the functioning of this field produces and presupposes. (1992:180)

But, in the case of the creation/evolution debates, what is at stake is the metaphysical system of judging what is and is not science; in Wikipedia, what is and is not good, neutral, and authoritative content? Creationists object to natural science as a baised metaphysical system, or even a religion, like their own supernatural literalism. It is at this point, that I find their position simply incoherent and can no longer sympathetically engage in the debate. The divine, supernatural, and the ineffable may exist and be revealed to some, but these are not legitimate discourses in a public sphere in which others do not have access to the inspired source. The alternative that I can understand is as Robert Pennock (2001:84) wrote in Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, “The methodological naturalist does not make a commitment directly to a picture of what exists in the world, but rather to a set of methods as a reliable way to find out about the world — typically the methods of the natural sciences, and perhaps extensions that are continuous with them — and indirectly to what those methods discover.”

As I discussed in Scandal and The Politics of Science and Vice Versa, “We can never know everything. We haven’t the capacity nor time to give informed consideration to every important issue. So we rely upon labels and personalities to set the default values of our opinion.” A claim of authority is a claim of being worthy of being deferred to. In the case of Wikipedia, if people are to accept it as an Encyclopedia, it seemingly must prove itself as an authority being worthy of being deferred to. Such proxies are often determined by the judgments of peers, judgement of superiors, method, majorities, personal experience, and results. And the difficulty with both the Wikipedia and debate on evolution is that the best method, results, is not immediately apparent. If we stop teaching evolution now, the effects would be long-term and confounded with many other social variables. And how does one “objectively” judge the quality of Wikipedia?

Two of the key differences between Wikipedia and open source software development are that with questions of protocol and code one can easily make authoritative claims based on the results, and consequently such communities tend to be meritocratic. As I wrote in Why the Internet is Good, “With the cacophony of ideas, proposals, and debates, and a lack of a central authority to cleave the good from the bad, how does one sort it all out? It sorts itself out. … The success of any policy is based simply on its adoption by the community.” Encyclopedia making is not so fortunate, and Wikipedia strives to be more open, accepting anonymous contributions even, than most all open source projects. Nor can we simply rely upon the naked authority of expertise and academia: expertise should be supported, but to be accepted the results of expertise must also be widely perceptible to the larger public.

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