Reconsidering Authority: Scientific Expertise, Bounded Rationality, and Epistemic Backtracking

Oxford Studies in Epistemology, volume 3, 2010.

Abstract: How to regard the weight we give to a proposition on the grounds of its being endorsed by an authority? I examine this question as it is raised within the epistemology of science, and I argue that authority-based weight should receive special handling, for the following reason. Our assessments of other scientists’ competence or authority are nearly always provisional, in the sense that to save time and money, they are not made nearly as carefully as they could be – indeed, they are typically made on the basis of only a small portion of the available evidence. Consequently, we need to represent the authority-based elements of our epistemic attitudes in such a way as to allow the later revision of those elements, in case we decide in the light of new priorities that a more conscientious assessment is warranted. I look to the literature in confirmation theory, statistics, and economics for a semiformal model of this revision process, and make a particular proposal of my own. The discussion also casts some light on the question of why certain aspects of science’s epistemic state are not made public.

This paper contains an approach to thinking about the problem of old evidence in Bayesian confirmation theory.

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