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Cognitive islands and runaway echo chambers: problems for epistemic dependence on experts


I propose to study one problem for epistemic dependence on experts: how to locate experts on what I will call cognitive islands. Cognitive islands are those domains for knowledge in which expertise is required to evaluate other experts. They exist under two conditions: first, that there is no test for expertise available to the inexpert; and second, that the domain is not linked to another domain with such a test. Plausible candidates for cognitive islands include the moral and aesthetic domains. Cognitive islands are the places where we have the fewest resources for evaluating experts, which makes our expert dependences particularly risky. Some have argued that cognitive islands lead to the complete unusability of expert testimony: that anybody who needs expert advice on a cognitive island will be entirely unable to find it. I argue against this radical form of pessimism, but propose a more moderate alternative. I demonstrate that we have some resources for finding experts on cognitive islands, but that cognitive islands leave us vulnerable to an epistemic trap which I will call runaway echo chambers. In a runaway echo chamber, our inexpertise may lead us to pick out bad experts, which will simply reinforce our mistaken beliefs and sensibilities.

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  1. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for stressing the importance of the distinction between identifying and assessing expertise.

  2. I leave aside Goldman’s discussion about whether we can look to the weight of numbers and trust the expert who has the most other experts on their side. First, Goldman’s argument against using the weight of numbers has been challenged (Coady 2006; Lackey 2013). Second, the approach presumes that we have already successfully identified all the genuine experts, and are only trying to ascertain which expert to trust more in a case of expert disagreement. The weight of numbers will not help us with the dilemma I’ve proposed, which involves first identifying the genuine experts from the fake, before we can go about assessing their relative merits.

  3. My discussion of inexpert-available tests here is similar in spirit to Goldman’s discussion of track records, though it differs in some details. Goldman’s solution to the track record problem is to focus on statements that begin as esoteric (firmly within the expert’s domain) and then later become exoteric (accessible to the novice). His example is the diagnosis of a repairman (“Your whombulator is causing your figgle to spile”) which is esoteric when initially offered but becomes exoteric after a successful repair. But I do not think these esoteric/exoteric transitions capture all the relevant cases. Simple prediction cases (“It’s going to rain tomorrow”) are not esoteric when made; they are simply not yet verifiable. Furthermore, Goldman’s solution focuses on statements, which reflects his focus on cognitive experts whose abilities involve relationships to true statements; he excludes from his discussion experts of skill, such as the axe-thrower. But many useful tests involve no propositions, just successful practical demonstrations of skill: hitting a target, building a machine. I am trying to offer a more general account of expert and expert finding—partially because there are some convincing arguments that moral expertise is significantly more of a skill than a strictly cognitive domain. In any case, my discussion of inexpert-available tests is intended to include Goldman’s esoteric/exoteric transitions along with some other important cases.

  4. Cholbi adds a further criterion to moral expertise—that the expert must also be motivated by their own prescriptions—but this criteria plays no part in the discussion of the credentialing problem.

  5. Cholbi’s argument here can be buttressed with Driver’s observation that general features of rationality—like an aura of intelligence—are not well-correlated with moral expertise.

  6. There seems to be a subtle slippage here. Cholbi claims as the target of his analysis the “non-expert”, which is a fairly broad category that would include all the intermediate categories between novice and expert. Thus, he can be assured that his analysis is complete, because the categories of “expert” and “non-expert” are exhaustive. But his argument only works if we interpret “non-expert” to mean a complete novice, and this renders his analysis of experts and non-experts non-exhaustive.

  7. I owe this case to an anonymous reviewer.

  8. I discuss Kelly’s account at greather length in (Nguyen 2011).

  9. I will offer an extended discussion of the relationship between Jamieson and Cappella’s views, the filter bubble view in a future paper.

  10. I’d like to thank Shannon Mussett, Eric Stencil, Mary Beth Willard, Laura Guerrero, Anthony Cross, Kelli Potter, Thomas Hurka, Elijah Millgram, and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful commentary on this paper.


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Correspondence to C. Thi Nguyen.

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Nguyen, C.T. Cognitive islands and runaway echo chambers: problems for epistemic dependence on experts. Synthese 197, 2803–2821 (2020).

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  • Epistemic dependence
  • Expertise
  • Social epistemology
  • Testimony
  • Trust
  • Epistemology of testimony
  • Echo chambers
  • Moral testimony
  • Aesthetic testimony