Halstead comments on In defence of epistemic modesty - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Halstead 01 November 2017 05:19:39PM 1 point [-]

Hi Greg, So, your view is that it's ok to demote people from my peer group when I not only disagree with them about p but also when I have an explanation of why they would be biased that doesn't apply to me. And on your view their verdict on p could never be evidence of their bias. This last seems wrong in many cases.

Consider some obvious truth P (e.g. if a, then a; if a or b, then a and b can't both not be true; it's wrong to torture people for fun etc.). Myself and some other equally intelligent person have been thinking about P for an equal amount of time. I learn that she believes that not-P. It seems entirely appropriate for me to demote them in this case. If you deny this, suppose now we are deciding on some proposition Q and I knew only that they had got P wrong. As you would agree, their past performance (on P) is pro tanto reason to demote with respect to Q. How can it then not also be pro tanto reason to demote with respect to P? [aside: the second example of an obvious truth I gave is denied by supervaluationists]. In short, how could epistemic peerhood not be in part determined by performance on the object level reasons?

In some of these cases, it also seems that in order to justifiably demote, one doesn't need to offer an account of why the other party is biased that is independent of the object-level reasons.

A separate point, it seems like today and historically there are and have been pockets of severe epistemic error. e.g. in the 19th century, almost all of the world's most intelligent philosophers thought that idealism is true; a large chunk of political philosophers believe that public reason is true; I'm sure there are lots of examples outside philosophy.

In this context, selective epistemic exceptionalism seems appropriate for a community that has taken lots of steps to debias. There's still very good reason to be aware of what the rest of the epistemic community thinks and why they think it, and this is a (weaker) form of modesty.

Comment author: Gregory_Lewis 03 November 2017 12:19:01AM *  1 point [-]

Minor point: epistemic peer judgements are independent of whether you disagree with them or not. I'm happy to indict people who are epistemically unvirtuous even if they happen to agree with me.

I generally think one should not use object level disagreement to judge peerhood, given the risk of entrenchment (i.e. everyone else thinks I'm wrong, so I conclude everyone else is wrong and an idiot).

For 'obvious truths' like P, there's usually a lot of tacit peer agreement in background knowledge. So the disagreement with you and these other people provides some evidence for demotion, rather than disagreeing with you alone. I find it hard to disentangle intuitions where one removes this rider, and in these cases I'm not so sure about whether steadfastness + demotion is the appropriate response. Demoting supervaluationaists as peers re. supervaluationism because they disagree with you about it, for example, seems a bad idea.

In any case, almost by definition it would be extraordinarily rare people we think prima facie are epistemic peers disagree on something sufficiently obvious. In real world cases where its some contentious topic where reasonable people disagree, one should not demote people based on their disagreement with you (or, perhaps, in these cases the evidence for demotion is sufficiently trivial that it is heuristically better ignored).

Modest accounts shouldn't be surprised by expert error. Yet being able to determine these instances ex post gives little steer as to what to do ex ante. Random renegade schools of thought assuredly have an even poorer track record. If it was the case the EA/rationalist community had a good track record of out performing expert classes in their field, that would be a good reason for epistemic exceptionalism. Yet I don't see it.