Desktop version

Home arrow Philosophy

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

The Gray Zone

The distinction between opaque and translucent epistemic dependence hinges upon this difference: having or not having expertise pertaining to the piece of epistemic labor at stake. It should be noted, however, that this is a gradual difference and that there is such a thing as “partial" expertise. We hence have to speak of a large grey zone that lies between opaque and translucent epistemic dependence. In the following, I elaborate on the question of what partial expertise can be and how it may play out in relations of epistemic dependence.

At least two aspects, I believe, need to be added to the distinction between opaque and translucent epistemic dependence. The first aspect concerns the role of time and learning in the acquisition of expertise which might result in it being partial. The second aspect concerns forms of scientific expertise which have not been discussed so far and which may be described as “partially enabling" and not fully fledged forms of expertise.

Regarding the first aspect, scientists gain expertise over time. This is a capacity that is acquired gradually through immersion in specialist communities and the learning processes that this immersion entails. Being in the midst of this gradual learning process, students may come to possess partial expertise. Through learning, the relationship of collaborating scientists may change over time. This is particularly obvious for student- post-doc relations in the molecular biology laboratory. The more expertise the student acquires, the less he or she depends upon others for their expertise. This requires us to consider the gray zone between opaque and translucent epistemic dependence in which the dependent scientist A possesses partial expertise relating to the piece of epistemic labor for which she is depending on B. On the trajectory from novice to expert, students pass through this gray zone, imagining their status as “half-baked" experts to be only temporary.

While the gray zone may be a transient phenomenon from the perspective of an individual student, it should not be considered as passing or unimportant. Not just students, but mature scientists as well will find themselves in the gray zone of partial expertise. While having full- fledged scientific expertise in one domain, they may have acquired some experience in other fields. To be an expert in one field does not mean one is an expert in a second field; nor does it mean one is a complete layperson either. This leads me to the second aspect that I would like to add to my discussion of the gray zone between opaque and translucent epistemic dependence.

Until now I have solely considered one form of scientific expertise. I have limited myself to the kind of expertise that distinguishes a fully competent scientist in a given research field from someone who may be considered knowledgeable, but not an expert. Following Collins and Evans’ (2007), I call this form of expertise “contributory," by which I designate the kind of specialized scientific expertise that enables scientists to engage themselves fully in the scientific practice of a given scientific field—for example, to perform experiments, formulate arguments, write articles, exchange views with colleagues, etc. Collins and Evans distinguish this form of expertise from other forms which may be described as “partially enabling," such as “interactional" expertise. With the latter, Collins and Evans describe the skill needed to master the language of a scientific community, a proficiency clearly important for exchanging views with colleagues but not sufficient for making substantial contributions to the field (Collins & Evans, 2007, p. 28ff.; see also Goddiksen 2014; Gorman 2002). Contributory expertise entails interactional expertise but not vice versa.

For my purpose, the concept of interactional expertise is useful insofar as it sheds more light on the gray zone between opaque and translucent dependence. One way for a mature scientist to have partial expertise is to have interactional expertise on the question at stake (while having contributory expertise in a field that is not of immediate concern). For interdisciplinary research, some interactional expertise seems to be indispensable. As Laura, post-doc in the planetary science group, describes the issue:

Astrobiology is a really, really good example [of interdisciplinary research] because it combines physics, geology, biology, chemistry, astronomy and you need to know a little bit about everything. And of course you have your little niche in this field, but even though you’re a chemist, you still need to know something about everything else in order to be able to take what you’re doing and put it into the broader perspective of astrobiology. (Laura, post-doc in physics, groupl)

Furthermore, interactional expertise can enable the scientist to transfer parts of his or her contributory expertise to a different field, a field to which his or her expertise does not originally apply. Collins and Evans conceive of such transfers as “referred expertise" (Collins & Evans, 2007, p. 64). The authors’ examples of the kind of judgments that referred expertise allows have a rather “managerial" character (Collins & Evans, 2007, p. 66). I will, however, give you an example of referred expertise as it is mobilized for genuinely scientific judgment. In my interview with Adam, I asked him how he judges the competence of potential collaborators from different fields:

Q: OK, so what would be an example for a signal that tells you this person is maybe not competent? Not competent enough?

Adam: Ah, if they are missing, if they are missing fundamental ahm lines of argument, if they are confusing cause and effect for example, that would be bad. And if they are vague on something which is really quite important— and if and if I explain something, something that is quite basic, and they still don’t, still don’t get it.

Q: But I can imagine that this works out nicely with another physicist, but if you are talking to another let’s say biologist, can you then be so sure?... Adam: Yeah, I think mainly the arguments are the same in that in that they should be able to explain their thing to me in a way that I understand it. And in the way they explain it, you can tell, normally, whether they understand it themselves. (Adam, senior physicist, groupl)

Despite the fact that Adam does not possess the same expertise as his interlocutors, he can make an informed scientific judgment about them and the things they have to say by means of referred expertise, mobilizing professional experience gathered in the field he has been trained in. If he was to rely on the things they have to say for his personal knowing, he would thus not be dependent upon them in a completely opaque way.

What this discussion shows is that, as concepts, opaque and translucent epistemic dependence provide useful handles on the diversity of dependence relations in collaborative scientific practice. But as a dichotomous distinction, they tell us only one half of the story. In practice, there is a large gray zone between opacity and translucency. Within this gray zone, there are clearly instances of more and less expertise. A third-year student is not yet an expert, but will usually possess more expertise than a first-year student. I will refrain, however, from speaking of a continuum between epistemic opacity on the one hand and translucency, or even epistemic transparency, on the other. A rationale for computing the

“opacity coefficient” of a given epistemic dependence relation is not to be had. The issues of expertise that are entangled with epistemic dependence are too intricate. With interactional and referred expertise I have pointed out how dependence relations in the gray zone can be understood.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics