March 06, 2004

More On This Later, Maybe

I feel as though I should be posting on the Neil Levy paper referenced here, since it's plumb spang in my field (epistemology of testimony). But I haven't been able to organize my thoughts yet.

Levy argues for the counterintutive view that it's often unwise to gather evidence on a controversy. If you're not an expert in a certain field, you can be better off not exposing yourself to arguments against the position that you already hold.

I suppose I'll start with this: Few people are complete experts or complete incompetents in any field. Inosfar as you are completely incompetent, it won't matter if you expose yourself to arguments against your position, since you won't understand them. You should form a reasoned judgment as to which experts are most trustworthy, and conform your views to theirs.

Insofar as you have some competence, you probably hold your views for some reasons other than simple acceptance of what others say. Then exposing yourself to opposing views may at least tell you where the battle lines are drawn--that even the people who oppose the policy accept X, for instance. And it may tell you whether the reasons that led you to accept your view are contestable. In which case, weakening your position may be epistemically responsible.

The trick will be not overestimating your expertise--not taking the opposing expert's view as refuting your own when you haven't even understood it completely. But this doesn't preclude being aware of the opposing arguments, or that they exist.

One of the tricky things here is that Levy talks about moral and political controversies, which are not as obviously conducive to testimony as empirical controversies. It's at least tempting to think that an adult knows everything she needs to know to make moral judgments, and so should only take others' views as suggestions. (OTOH, Levy talks about global warming, which has a large empirical/scientific aspect.)

This is very rough, and I'd need to read Levy's paper again to see if I'm making contact with his arguments. Hence the title of this post.

Posted by Matt Weiner at March 6, 2004 02:12 PM