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

Synthese 197 (7):2803-2821 (2020)
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Abstract

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. 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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C. Thi Nguyen
University of Utah

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