Epistemic Trust: Clarification

Cross-posted to my blog.


A while ago, I wrote about epistemic trust. The thrust of my ar­gu­ment was that ra­tio­nal ar­gu­ment is of­ten more a func­tion of the group dy­namic, as op­posed to how ra­tio­nal the in­di­vi­d­u­als in the group are. I as­signed mean­ing to sev­eral terms, in or­der to ex­plain this:

In­tel­lec­tual hon­esty: be­ing up-front not just about what you be­lieve, but also why you be­lieve it, what your mo­ti­va­tions are in say­ing it, and the de­gree to which you have ev­i­dence for it.

In­tel­lec­tual-Hon­esty Cul­ture: The norm of in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty. Cal­ling out mis­takes and im­me­di­ately ad­mit­ting them; feel­ing com­fortable with giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing crit­i­cism.

Face Cul­ture: Norms as­so­ci­ated with lack of in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty. In par­tic­u­lar, a need to save face when one’s state­ments turn out to be in­cor­rect or ir­rele­vant; the need to make ev­ery­one feel in­cluded by prais­ing con­tri­bu­tions and ex­cus­ing mis­takes.

In­tel­lec­tual trust: the ex­pec­ta­tion that oth­ers in the dis­cus­sion have com­mon in­tel­lec­tual goals; that crit­i­cism is an at­tempt to help, rather than an at­tack. The kind of trust re­quired to take other peo­ple’s com­ments at face value rather than be­ing overly con­cerned with ul­te­rior mo­tives, es­pe­cially ide­olog­i­cal mo­tives. I hy­poth­e­sized that this is caused largely by ide­olog­i­cal com­mon ground, and that this is the main way of achiev­ing in­tel­lec­tual-hon­esty cul­ture.

There are sev­eral sub­tleties which I did not em­pha­size last time.

  • Some­times it’s nec­es­sary to play at face cul­ture. The skills which go along with face-cul­ture are im­por­tant. It is gen­er­ally a good idea to try to make ev­ery­one feel in­cluded and to praise con­tri­bu­tions even if they turn out to be in­cor­rect. It’s im­por­tant to make sure that you do not offend peo­ple with crit­i­cism. Many peo­ple feel that they are un­der at­tack when en­gaged in crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion. Want­ing to work against this is not an ex­cuse for ig­nor­ing it.

  • Face cul­ture is not the er­ror. Be­ing un­able to play the right cul­ture at the right time is the er­ror. In my per­sonal ex­pe­rience, I’ve seen that some peo­ple are un­able to give up face-cul­ture habits in more aca­demic set­tings where in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty is the norm. This causes great strife and heated ar­gu­ments! There is no gain in play­ing for face when you’re in the midst of an hon­esty cul­ture, un­less you can do it very well and sub­tly. You gain a lot more face by ad­mit­ting your mis­takes! On the other hand, there’s no honor in play­ing for hon­esty when face-cul­ture is dom­i­nant. This also tends to cause more trou­ble than it’s worth.

  • It’s a cul­tural thing, but it’s not just a cul­tural thing. Some peo­ple have per­son­al­ities much bet­ter suited to one cul­ture or the other, while other peo­ple are able to switch freely be­tween them. I ex­pect that groups can switch fur­ther to­ward in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty as a re­sult of es­tab­lish­ing in­tel­lec­tual trust, but that is not the only fac­tor. Try to es­ti­mate the prefer­ences of the in­di­vi­d­u­als you’re deal­ing with (while keep­ing in mind that peo­ple may sur­prise you later on).