Trusting scientific experts in an online world

Synthese 200 (1):1-31 (2022)
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A perennial problem in social epistemology is the problem of expert testimony, specifically expert testimony regarding scientific issues: for example, while it is important for me to know information pertaining to anthropogenic climate change, vaccine safety, Covid-19, etc., I may lack the scientific background required to determine whether the information I come across is, in fact, true. Without being able to evaluate the science itself, then, I need to find trustworthy expert testifiers to listen to. A major project in social epistemology has thus become determining what the markers of trustworthiness are that laypersons can appeal to in order to identify and acquire information from expert testifiers. At the same time, the ways in which we acquire scientific information has changed significantly, with much of it nowadays being acquired in online environments. While much has been said about the potential pitfalls of seeking information online, little has been said about how the nature of seeking information online should make us think about the problem of expert testimony. Indeed, it seems to be an underlying assumption that good markers of trustworthiness apply equally well when seeking information from expert testifiers in online and offline environments alike, and that the new challenges and opportunities presented by online environments merely affects the methods by which we can acquire evidence of said trustworthiness. Here I argue that in making this assumption one risks failing to account for how unique features of the ways in which we acquire information online affect how we evaluate the trustworthiness of experts. Specifically, I argue for two main claims: first, that the nature of information-seeking online is such that the extent to which information is susceptible to manipulation is a dominant marker of trustworthiness; second, as a result, one will be more likely to seek out a particular kind of expert testifier in online environments, what I call a cooperative as opposed to preemptive expert. The result is that criteria for expert trustworthiness may look significantly different when acquiring information online as opposed to offline.

Author's Profile

Kenneth Boyd
University of Toronto, St. George Campus (PhD)


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