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By Comparison: The Molecular Biology Lab

Members of the molecular biology laboratory address issues of epistemic trust in ways similar to members of the planetary science group. In the lab, too, trust is inevitable for group collaboration and lab members fine-tune it through eliciting explanations and probing understanding, as well as complementing personal with impersonal trust and relying on hierarchical structures to reduce the trust relations that are necessary. Yet, given the laboratory’s mono-disciplinary character and the high ratio of junior scientists among its members, lab members view issues of epistemic trust differently in some respects.

Most notably, the molecular biology laboratory leverages its hierarchical structure to address trust issues, making the group leader and subgroup leaders crucial knots in the group’s trust relations. Their trustworthiness, and their ability to assess the trustworthiness of others, is crucial for the group’s inner functioning and its recognition in the field. Usually, the laboratory leader “is guaranteeing the level of the group" (Martin, PhD student, group2), but since the laboratory has grown so big, it is de facto the subgroup leaders who are overseeing group members’ research activities. As elaborated in Chap. 7, subgroup leaders’ oversight features elements of translucent epistemic dependence. Working side-by-side with subgroup members at the lab bench, they are in a good position to fine- tune their trust expectations to a person’s abilities and commitment. In overseeing experimental practice, subgroup leaders and lab leaders enforce procedures and quality standards that help to establish impersonal trust in the laboratory, a resource that scientists outside the group draw upon when hiring lab members they not personally acquainted with.

Because the molecular biology laboratory is a mono-disciplinary research group, the realm of expertise of senior scientists, that is, what exactly one can trust them for, is not in question. In contrast to interdisciplinary collaboration, epistemic vigilance, here, focuses rather on the incomplete expertise of junior scientists and the moral facets of trustworthiness, such as honesty and the commitment to avoid errors of negligence. Alex, an advanced PhD student, elaborates when I ask him about trust:

Alex: I think [trustworthiness] is very important, I think that’s the most important thing in the whole field. Because I mean at the end of the day you have to convince other people that what you have done in your experiments is right, it’s, you know, that the experiments have been done correctly and so on, and there is no sloppiness in there and so on. I think this is really, really important to me. And in general in the scientific field as well. The trust issue is one of the things you work everyday on by trying to convince people of your you know ideas, of your logic, of how you do things, to really, that they understand how you work and how you see things, so.

Q: But on the other hand, on the other hand, you said like some minutes ago that you have this sort of paranoia, that you want to repeat things all the time.

Alex: Yes, that’s true, it goes hand in hand a little bit, I mean the paranoia comes from the point that you wanna make sure that maybe other people are on the same page as you are as well and that you, that the science itself is like trustful in itself right, you wanna ask this question and have this kind of, build up this trust, also with a certain I would say good sense of paranoia. You shouldn’t be you know too paranoid but you should, you should always try to have a balance like between believing everything and follow it blindly and, and having this kind of paranoia there, of also, sometimes just to see: can I actually trust all the people? (Alex, PhD student, group2)

Not all members of the molecular biology laboratory have developed such a pronounced skepticism. Martin, a less advanced PhD student, told me that he generally trusts “unless I have a particular reason not to" (Martin, PhD student, group2). Still, he holds, it is necessary to have a vigilant attitude towards others—and particularly to oneself:

Even though of course it’s always, there is always some level of uncertainty [...], and that’s both other people’s results and also a little bit on your results, you always have to double-check yourself. But generally it is believed that the person easiest to fool is yourself. So, as I see it, you should also doubt your results. (Martin, PhD student, group2)

The uncertainty mentioned here has its source in the fact that experimental routines are complex and laborious. Mistakes are easily made. In fact, Martin mentions that he “burnt" himself twice when he was relying on experimental compounds that other group members had prepared, as it turned out, wrongly. In both cases, he had to repeat the laboratory work of several weeks.

In comparison to the planetary science group, epistemic trust in the molecular biology laboratory reaches more pervasively into the fabric of group relations. Because basic experimental procedures are often carried out collaboratively, trust is needed early on in collaborative research processes—not first when individually made contributions are combined in collaborative authorship. Yet, because the molecular biology laboratory carries out mono-disciplinary research, epistemic trust mostly addresses dependence that is “merely" translucent. This enables lab members to mobilize their disciplinary expertise for epistemic vigilance.

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