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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for stressing the importance of the distinction between identifying and assessing expertise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I owe this case to an anonymous reviewer.
I discuss Kelly’s account at greather length in (Nguyen 2011).
I will offer an extended discussion of the relationship between Jamieson and Cappella’s views, the filter bubble view in a future paper.
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.
Baier, A. (1986). Trust and anti-trust. Ethics, 96(2), 231–260.
Baumgaertner, B. (2014). Yes, no, maybe so: A veritistic approach to echo chambers using a trichotomous belief model. Synthese, 191(11), 2549–2569.
Budd, M. (2003). The acquaintance principle. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 43(4), 386–392.
Cholbi, M. (2007). Moral expertise and the credentials problem. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 10(4), 323–334.
Coady, D. (2006). When experts disagree. Episteme: A Journal of. Social Epistemology, 3(1–2), 68–79.
Dretske, F. (2000). Entitlement: Epistemic rights without epistemic duties? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 60(3), 591–606.
Driver, J. (2006). Autonomy and the asymmetry problem for moral expertise. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 128(3), 619–644.
Goldberg, S. (2011). If that were true I would have heard about it by now. In Oxford Handbook of Social Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goldman, A. I. (2001). Experts: Which ones should you trust? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 63(1), 85–110.
Hardwig, J. (1985). Epistemic dependence. The Journal of Philosophy, 82(7), 335–349.
Hopkins, R. (2011). How to be a pessimist about aesthetic testimony. Journal of Philosophy, 108(3), 138–157.
Jamieson, K. H., & Cappella, J. N. (2008). Echo chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the conservative media establishment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jones, K. (1999). Second-hand moral knowledge. Journal of Philosophy, 96(2), 55–78.
Jones, K. (2012). Trustworthiness. Ethics, 123(1), 61–85.
Kelly, T. (2005). The epistemic significance of disagreement. Oxford Studies in Epistemology, 1, 167–196.
Kelly, T. (2008). Disagreement, dogmatism, and belief polarization. The Journal of Philosophy, 105(10), 611–633.
Kitcher, P. (1993). The advancement of science. New York: Oxford University Press.
LaBarge, S. (1997). Socrates and the recognition of experts. Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science, 30(4), 51–62.
Lackey, J. (2013). Disagreement and belief dependence: Why numbers matter. In J. Lackey & D. Christensen (Eds.), The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McGrath, S. (2008). Moral disagreement and moral expertise. Oxford Studies in Metaethics, 3, 87–108.
McGrath, S. (2011). Skepticism about moral expertise as a puzzle for moral realism. Journal of Philosophy, 108(3), 111–137.
Meskin, A. (2007). Solving the puzzle of aesthetic testimony. In M. Kieran & D. M. Lopes (Eds.), Knowing art. Dordrecht: Springer.
Miller, B., & Record, I. (2013). Justified belief in a digital age: On the epistemic implications of secret internet technologies. Episteme, 10(02), 117–134.
Millgram, E. (2015). The great endarkenment: Philosophy for an age of hyperspecialization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nguyen, C. T. (2010). Autonomy, understanding, and moral disagreement. Philosophical Topics, 38(2), 111–129.
Nguyen, C. T. (2011). An ethics of uncertainty: Moral disagreement and moral humility (PhD dissertation). University of California at Los Angeles. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No. 3532448).
Nguyen, C. T. (2017). The uses of aesthetic testimony. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 57(1), 19–36.
Nickel, P. (2001). Moral testimony and its authority. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 4(3), 253–266.
Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble: What the internet is hiding from you. London: Penguin.
Watson, J. C. (2015). Filter bubbles and the public use of reason: Applying epistemology to the newsfeed. In F. Scalambrino (Ed.), Social epistemology and technology: Toward public self-awareness regarding technological mediation. London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Nguyen, C.T. Cognitive islands and runaway echo chambers: problems for epistemic dependence on experts. Synthese 197, 2803–2821 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-1692-0
- Epistemic dependence
- Social epistemology
- Epistemology of testimony
- Echo chambers
- Moral testimony
- Aesthetic testimony