Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 343–355 | Cite as

The entanglement of trust and knowledge on the Web

  • Judith Simon


In this paper I use philosophical accounts on the relationship between trust and knowledge in science to apprehend this relationship on the Web. I argue that trust and knowledge are fundamentally entangled in our epistemic practices. Yet despite this fundamental entanglement, we do not trust blindly. Instead we make use of knowledge to rationally place or withdraw trust. We use knowledge about the sources of epistemic content as well as general background knowledge to assess epistemic claims. Hence, although we may have a default to trust, we remain and should remain epistemically vigilant; we look out and need to look out for signs of insincerity and dishonesty in our attempts to know. A fundamental requirement for such vigilance is transparency: in order to critically assess epistemic agents, content and processes, we need to be able to access and address them. On the Web, this request for transparency becomes particularly pressing if (a) trust is placed in unknown human epistemic agents and (b) if it is placed in non-human agents, such as algorithms. I give examples of the entanglement between knowledge and trust on the Web and draw conclusions about the forms of transparency needed in such systems to support epistemically vigilant behaviour, which empowers users to become responsible and accountable knowers.


Knowledge Recommender systems Trust Wikipedia Web Algorithmic authority Epistemic practices Socio-technical epistemic systems 



I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers as well as Noah Holtwiesche, Gloria Origgi and Roberto Casati for their feedback on earlier versions of this paper. The research for this paper was enabled by several grants: the ANR2008 grant (Agence Nationale de la Recherche, France) CSOSG- CAHORS for a Project on a “Information Evaluation, Analysis, Organization and Ontologies for Intelligence and Security”, the project LiquidPub, funded by the Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Programme within the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Commission (FET-Open grant number: 213360), as well as a research scholarship from the University of Vienna, Austria for a project on notions of knowledge, sociality and trust in social epistemology and social software (Project number: F-405).


  1. Adler, J. (2006). Epistemological problems of testimony. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Accessed 28 May 2010.
  2. Baier, A. C. (1986). Trust and antitrust. Ethics, 96(2), 231–260.CrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  3. Borland, J. (2007). See who’s editing Wikipedia: Diebold, the CIA, a Campaign. Wired, Accessed 28 May 2010.
  4. Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Chi, E. H., Suh, B., et al. (2008). Providing social transparency through visualizations in Wikipedia. Florence, Italy: Social Data Analysis Workshop at CHI 2008.Google Scholar
  6. Coady, D. (2006). When experts disagree. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, 3(1), 68–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Fricker, E. (1995). Critical notice: Telling and trusting: reductionism and anti-reductionism in the epistemology of testimony. Mind, 104(414), 393–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fricker, E. (2006). Testimony and epistemic autonomy. In J. Lackey & E. Sosa (Eds.), The epistemology of testimony. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Goldman, A. I. (2001). Experts: Which ones should you trust? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 63(1), 85–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hardwig, J. (1985). Epistemic dependence. The Journal of Philosophy, 82(7), 335–349.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hardwig, J. (1991). The role of trust in knowledge. The Journal of Philosophy, 88(12), 693–708.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hawking, S. W. (1998). A brief history of time: From the big bang to black holes. New York: Bantam Book.Google Scholar
  13. Holton, R. (1994). Deciding to trust, coming to believe. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 72(1), 63–76.CrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  14. Hume, D. (1748/1957). An enquiry concerning human understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  15. Jones, K. (1996). Trust as an affective attitude. Ethics, 107(1), 4–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Keen, A. (2008). The cult of the amateur. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar
  17. Kitcher, P. (1993). The advancement of science. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Longino, H. E. (2002). The fate of knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Magnus, P. D. (2009). On trusting Wikipedia. Episteme, 6(1), 74–90.CrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  20. Massa, P., & Avesani, P. (2006). Trust-aware bootstrapping of recommender systems. Riva del Garda, Italy: ECAI.Google Scholar
  21. Massa, P., & Avesani, P. (2007). Trust metrics on controversial users: Balancing between tyranny of the majority and echo chambers. International Journal on Semantic Web and Information Systems (IJSWIS), 3(1), 39–64.Google Scholar
  22. Massa, P. & Bhattacharjee, B. (2004). Using trust in recommender systems: An experimental analysis. iTrust2004.Google Scholar
  23. McLeod, C. (2006). Trust. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Accessed 20 October 2009.
  24. Origgi, G. (2008). Trust, authority and epistemic responsibility. Theoria, 23(1), 35–44.Google Scholar
  25. Reid, T. (1983). Inquiry and essays. Indiannapolis: Hackett.Google Scholar
  26. Shapin, S. (1994). A social history of truth: Civility and science in seventeenth-century England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  27. Shirky, C. (2009). A speculative post on the idea of algorithmic authority. Accessed 26 May 2010.
  28. Sperber, D. & Clément, F. et al. (to appear). Epistemic vigilance. Mind and Language.Google Scholar
  29. Strawson, P. F. (1974). Freedom and resentment. Freedom and resentment and other essays (pp. 1–25). London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  30. Suh, B., Chi, E. H., et al. (2008). Lifting the Veil: Improving accountability and social transparency in Wikipedia with WikiDashboard. 26th annual ACM conference on human factors in computing systems. Florence, Italy, NY: ACM.Google Scholar
  31. Tollefsen, D. P. (2009). Wikipedia and the epistemology of testimony. Episteme, 6(1), 8–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Waters, N. L. (2007). Why you can’t cite Wikipedia in my class. Communications of the ACM, 50(9), 15–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Wray, K. B. (2009). The epistemic cultures of science and Wikipedia: A comparison. Episteme, 6(1), 38–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut Jean Nicod, Ecole Normale SupérieureParisFrance

Personalised recommendations