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Epistemic Asymmetries

With Hardwig, we understand that epistemic dependence among collaborating scientists arises from asymmetries in intellectual authority which are rooted in the uneven distribution of knowledge-related resources and the division of epistemic labor. As I have observed in previous chapters, collaborating scientists differ from one another with respect to the resources they possess, such as expertise, access to experimental infrastructure as well as the sheer labor that it takes to perform an experiment and the time that it takes to witness an experimental procedure first hand. Taking into account how these resources are distributed across individual group members, research groups divide the labor among themselves.

The division of epistemic labor, in turn, creates new epistemic asymmetries—allowing some group members (but not others) to specialize in an experimental task or, for example, to allow some group members (but not others) to witness an experiment first hand. While, thus, some group members are able to form justified beliefs based on their “own" perceptual experience and/or inference, others are not able to do so and are forced to rely upon the measurements taken and the interpretations made by their colleagues. It is convenient to use “first hand" and “second-hand knowing" to describe constellations such as these (Fricker, 2006). A caveat, however, is due here. To speak of firsthand knowing in the case of scientific practice should not mislead us into thinking that scientific knowledge can be had by any individual in completely self-reliant ways. Even knowledge which is related seemingly immediately to observation is likely to be mediated by theory and theory- based instrumentation. But it would be wrong to infer from this that there are no epistemically significant differences between a scientist observing an experiment and a fellow colleague relying upon his or her observation.

Both the planetary science group and the molecular biology laboratory show an uneven distribution in expertise that is partly reinforced, partly mended, by the patterns of division of labor that both research groups adopt. As elaborated in Chap. 5, all lab members of the molecular biology laboratory have, or intend to acquire, roughly the same kind of disciplinary expertise; and in many instances labor is divided so as to create learning opportunities for junior members. There is a difference in specialization, however, between the lab leader and all the other researchers in the group. As the lab leader has not been working physically in the lab a lot for the past few years, he is not expected to master manually recently developed experimental routines. He instead focuses on strategic management, and I have described this form of specialization as “vertical" (cf. Laudel, 2001). “Horizontal" specialization, in contrast, is characteristic of the planetary science group, an interdisciplinary research group in which members generally do not aspire to acquire the expertise which their colleagues possess. In relation to one another, group members are experts on issues within the realm of their expertise and relative laypeople for issues outside this realm. To collaborate with one another across disciplinary boundaries, group members develop “interactional expertise" (Collins & Evans 2007; cf. Gorman 2002), a form of expertise I elaborate upon in Sect. 7.3 below.

What the comparative case study of a mono- and an interdisciplinary research group vividly illustrates is that some epistemic asymmetries are more fundamental than others. Differences in expertise that have been accumulated throughout a scientific career can hardly be cleared out. Some epistemic asymmetries, however, can be mitigated. Data measurements that were taken in the absence of a collaborator can be repeated in his or her presence. If there is time for it, the interpretation of the results from an experiment already concluded can be discussed again with the help of a team member who was occupied in other duties. Yet, time is precious, materials expensive and sometimes attempts to cross-check each others’ work within the team can be perceived as inappropriate skepticism.

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