Tag: Testimony

First Draft

Oh, and it’s not the prettiest thing in the world, either. I call it Draft #3 but it’s #1 for those of you outside my arcane traveling filing system.–Have You Heard? Rumours and Conspiracy Theories (v1.3 – 08-11-07)IntroductionWe’ve all heard the stories. Rumours about government-sanctioned attacks on its own people. Hidden military bases in Nevada. Terrorist training camps in the Ureweras. Sometimes these Rumours are borne out, sometimes they become Conspiracy Theories. Drawing on recent work by CAJ Coady and David Coady I will develop a theory which distinguishes between those propositions we call Rumours and Rumourmongering, the act of creating and spreading those propositions. Whilst Rumourmongering seems to present a pathology of the testimonial process Rumours themselves can be examples of reliable testimony. Yet Conspiracy Theories, which arguably share many characteristics with Rumours, are not usually treated as being reliable. I will argue that this is because Conspiracy Theories exist in contrast to Official Theories and that Official Theories are more reliable, thus justifying our suspicion of Conspiracy Theories but leaving the reliability of Rumours alone.Section 1 – Rumours as Pathological TestimonyRecent work in Epistemology has paid very little attention to Rumour as a species of Testimony with the exception of two articles, one by CAJ Coady and another by David Coady. CAJ Coady’s paper, ‘Pathologies of Testimony’ (Coady, ‘Pathologies of Testimony’ (The Epistemology of Testimony – 2006)), argues that Rumours are a distortion of the normal way of telling and relying on what is being told. Rumour is a pathological form of Testimony; it represents a misfiring of the testimonial process.Reliable testimony consists of both a plausible proposition and the trustworthy transmission of said proposition between a speaker and a hearer. By plausible proposition I mean something like ‘merely seems true to the hearer.’ Think of plausibility here in terms of coherence; the proposition of a speaker will seem plausible to a hearer if it coheres whatever else she knows. Plausibility is not enough, however; a proposition can be plausible but if the speaker is not trustworthy, so not the kind of person you trust to pass on what they have heard without perverting or embellishing the proposition then you should not judge what they are testifying as being reliable. If we take into account these two notions, propositional plausibility and trustworthy transmission then it seems clear that Rumours pervert the normally reliable process of Testimony because speakers can be insincere.Amanda and Ewan are discussing office politics; Amanda knows that Cindy, their boss, has been secretly going out with Morris, who was recently ‘let go’ and she is trying to work out when they started dating. Amanda is gossiping; she knows firsthand that Cindy and Morris are an item and is passing this on to Ewan. Now Ewan knows a Rumour about Cindy and Morris and he tells Amanda that he has heard that Morris and Cindy got together at an office party five months ago. Ewan is rumourmongering.Gossip is an example of reliable testimonial process because the piece of Gossip, the proposition that Cindy and Morris are going out is plausible, because Amanda knows it firsthand and the transmission of the proposition is trustworthy because Amanda knows Cindy and has seen both her and Morris together. Now, assuming that Ewan trusts Amanda then when Ewan hears the proposition ‘Cindy and Morris are going out’ then he too knows that they are dating; trusting Amanda to be a reliable testifier in matters such as these means that if Amanda believes that Cindy and Morris are going out then Ewan should also believe it too. Thus if Ewan is pressured by Josh, his cubicle-mate, to provide justification for the belief that Cindy and Morris are going out he can cite Amanda as his source. If Josh trusts Ewan as a testifier and Josh knows Ewan trusts Amanda as a testifier then Josh will also likely believe that Cindy and Morris are going out as well. This all seems like a good, reliable testimonial process.Ewan’s Rumour, that Cindy and Morris have been going out for five months, is not so clearly a case of reliable testimony. Amanda knows that Cindy and Morris are going out because Amanda was told this by Cindy; Ewan has heard that they have been going out for five months but has no actual source for this piece of information. Ewan heard it from someone who heard it from someone else. There is no authority to the Rumour; it could just be mere speculation or, at best, an inference to the best explanation based upon other salient facts people have heard. In addition, the transmission of Ewan’s Rumour is not clearly based on trust because Ewan does not necessarily believe the Rumour. When Amanda tells Ewan that Cindy and Morris are going Amanda believes this to be true; Gossip is an example of reliable testimony because we expect the speaker to believe the proposition they are presenting. Ewan, however, is simply passing on something he has heard and does not have to vouch for its ‘truth.’. Gossip, then, is standardly sincere, which is to say that it is ‘truth-preserving’ whilst Rumours are often insincere. As a corollary, it also seems to be the case that since the person who is spreading a Rumour does not need to believe it they can also quite happily ‘modify’ it, possibly to make it a better story, possibly to add in some salient detail the speaker has just hit upon or simply because they can. Indeed, for CAJ Coady the possibility that someone might embellish a Rumour by adding in new details makes it all the less likely that Rumours can be truth-preserving (Coady 263).CAJ Coady’s thesis in ‘Pathologies of Testimony’ is that Rumours often represent a misfire of the testimonial process. Because Rumours are not presented by speakers as being true and because their transmission is suspect, due to the possibility of embellishment or because people spread Rumours for reasons other than their plausibility they are an example of a pathology of Testimony.Section 1.1 – A Misdiagnosis?In his article ‘Rumour Has It’ David Coady (Coady, David, ‘Rumour Has It,’ International Journal of Applied Philosophy, Volume 20, Number 1, Spring 2006) takes a different view. For David Coady Rumour is not a pathology of Testimony but is rather just another example of the testimonial transmission of propositions. Rumours exist in a community of speakers and hearers, all of whom are able to check and analyse such propositions. This counts in favour of them being truth-preserving because unwarranted embellishments and fabrications will not survive long in the community as they will be found and winnowed out. These checks and balances on the status of a Rumour are the same as those on a piece of reliable testimony (Coady II 47).Yet surely the fact that Rumours have an unclear chain of transmission counts against their reliability? Yet we often do not know who the source of a piece of testimony is. Whilst we could find out it is not clear that learning who the source was would increase our belief in the proposition. This is a strong claim; surely in many cases if we were to find out that the source was a known liar we would be inclined to change our belief. Yet, in the same respect, we might not. Presumably the same thoughts or considerations would have applied to other people in the chain of transmission. Other people in the chain might well be in a better position to ascertain whether the speaker was trustworthy on this occasion; if the proposition has successfully got this far then its plausibility and the trustworthiness of the speakers must be good for something.Even if the chain of transmission is not a worry, surely the fact that people embellish Rumours is? Maybe Ewan has heard Cindy and Amanda are going out but has simply added in the detail about the office party. Or, possibly, he is fishing for information to see what else Amanda knows. If Amanda trusts Ewan and Ewan’s story seems plausible then she might pass on the Rumour, and should subsequent hearers trust Amanda’s retelling then the Rumour could continue to spread. So Ewan’s Rumour cannot be truth-preserving.But if Ewan is fishing for information, then he is not engaging in Rumour at all. Should it be mistaken for a Rumour, well, that is just an unfortunate side-effect. If David Coady is correct then the Ewan’s proposition, if mistaken for testimony will eventually be checked by the community in which it exists and its spread will be limited. If it does manage to spread then that is simply part of the price we have to pay in regards to testimony in general. Testimony is a generally reliable process; it does not give us the warrant to say that all Testimony is true. This may be the price we have to pay; sometimes a speaker will get away with embellishing Rumours. We can hope that in such situations the embellishments will not cohere with what others in the community of speakers and hearers know, but that may not happen.Section 1.2 – Rumours vs. RumourmongeringCAJ Coady and David Coady’s differing views on the reliability of Rumour is, I think, best explained by distinguishing between Rumours and Rumourmongering. Sometimes Rumourmongering is garden-variety testifying but sometimes Rumourmongering also implies embellishing and this seems like it could be the pathology of Testimony that CAJ Coady is so concerned with and probably explains why many people treat the term ‘Rumourmongering’ as pejorative.Whilst I think that Rumours are a generally reliable form of testimony I think that Rumourmongering is suspicious. The problem with Rumourmongering is that it can be perverted. As speakers do not need to express whether they believe a given Rumour or not it is easy for such propositions to be modified; there seems little harm in changing such a Rumour to make it a better story, add in additional information or even create something new. The extent of this problem is really a topic for sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists who are better placed to tell us just how often people do pervert their testimony.I think Rumours do represent a reliable testimonial process. To show this I want to take a leaf from David Coady’s ‘Rumour Has It’ and compare and contrast Rumours to Conspiracy Theories, because the salient differences between these similar kinds of ‘suspect’ testimony will show why Rumours turn out to be reliable and why Conspiracy Theories do not.Section 2 – Rumours and Conspiracy TheoriesA Conspiracy Theory is a putative explanation of some event that cites a Conspiracy Conspiracies happen. Those theories that claim that there are Conspiracies occurring now, Conspiracy Theories, do seem suspect, however. Even if we admit that people might well be conspiring right now there is, I think, a good claim to be made that there are more Conspiracy Theories than there are Conspiracies. Some Conspiracy Theories might be true and then again, if conspirators are doing their jobs properly, maybe none of them are.In ‘Rumour Has It’ David Coady argues that an important similarity between Rumours and Conspiracy Theories is that they both lack Official Status. A Rumour which is confirmed by an official source will lose the status of being a Rumour. A Conspiracy Theory that is confirmed by an official source will be considered to be an example of a Conspiracy.Now, one of the reasons why we are suspicious of Conspiracy Theories is precisely because they lack a certain authority, to whit, Official Status. In the same respect one of the reasons we might find Rumours suspicious is that they, too, lack that authority. David Coady argues that this suspicion is misplaced and that a proper understanding of this suspicion of Conspiracy Theories will also shed light on why it is inappropriate to be have a prima facie suspicion of Rumours. (Coady II p. 48-9)I want to develop David Coady’s thesis. I will argue that the intuition that Conspiracy Theories are prima facie irrational is not as clear cut as some would have it, which should inform our related suspicion of Rumours but that there is an important dissimilarity between Conspiracy Theories and Rumours, to whit that whilst Rumours merely lack official status Conspiracy Theories are in direct opposition to an Official Theory.Section 2.1 – Public Trust SkepticismThe first part of David Coady’s thesis is that we are mistaken in thinking there is a good a priori reason for adopting a sceptical attitude toward Conspiracy Theories (Coady II p. 48). Before we can claim that Official Theories trump Conspiracy Theories we need to be able to say that Official Theories represent a more trustworthy source of propositions than Conspiracy Theories do. This is in line with work by Brian L. Keeley and Lee Basham.Keeley, in his article ‘Of Conspiracy Theories’ (Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Mar., 1999)) argued that we should find belief in Conspiracy Theories suspect because such a belief entails a pervading scepticism of social data. It is not irrational to believe that conspirators would work to hide the evidence of their activities, making the claims of Conspiracy Theories unfalsifiable. The conspiracy theorist, then, should be a sceptic in regard to all social data because any or all of it might be disinformation, out out there by the conspirators. Keeley calls this scepticism ‘Public Trust Skepticism.’ However, Keeley argues that we can avoid the move to extreme scepticism because the mechanisms of open societies, like the one we live in, provide the necessary checks and balances. The Free Press, concerned individuals and the like help us generate some trust of social data, thus avoiding the kind of wholesale Public Trust Skepticism characterised by belief in Conspiracy Theories, giving us a case to be sceptical of Conspiracy Theories themselves (Keeley, p. 121-2).Section 2.2 – The Open SocietyLee Basham, in his article ‘Malevolent Global Conspiracy’ (Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 34 No. 1, Spring 2003) argues that as we have good reason to believe that public institutions have conspired against us that we should admit the possibility that such institutions could still be conspiring. Belief in Conspiracy Theories may well engender scepticism about our sources of social data but this is a trade-off we should be willing to make.Basham is arguing that some degree of ‘Public Trust Skepticism’ is justified. He agrees with Keeley that our society is ‘open’ but questions whether we are ‘open’ enough (Basham, Malevolent, p. 99). Because our society is still largely hierarchical it is possible for conspirators to be operating at the highest level of our public institutions, effectively controlling or altering social data before the Free Press and concerned individuals can analyse it. The actions of concerned individuals and the Free Press might well look as if they provide the necessary checks and balances against possible conspiracies but this may well be just an illusion foisted upon us by our ‘invisible masters.’It is this point that David Coady is echoing; we need to be able to appraise the trustworthiness of official information in our society before we can claim that Official Theories trump Conspiracy Theories. Indeed, this very point was made by David Coady in the introduction to ‘Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate’ (Ashgate, 2006). Conspiracy theorising does seem to be more warranted in less open societies and that even in supposedly open societies the degree of scepticism we should express towards Conspiracy Theories will depend on a variety of factors to do with freedom and our ability to access information about our society. (Coady, Intro, p. 10)Section 2.3 – Rumours and Conspiracy TheoriesI agree with both Lee Basham and David Coady that it is not clear that our society is open enough to justify a prima facie suspicion of Conspiracy Theories. We know Conspiracies have occurred and, knowing human nature, it seems unlikely that we could claim that people are not now conspiring. Even so, we might still be suspicious of Conspiracy Theories because society is open enough to discount a large number of ‘paranoid theories’ about our ‘invisible masters.’ But even if it turns out that we have good reason to be sceptical attitude about Conspiracy Theories, this does not mean that we automatically have a good reason for adopting a similar attitude towards Rumours. Conspiracy Theories exist as rivals to Official Theories and thus your scepticism of Conspiracy Theories may well be borne out by your trust of some Official Theory. Rumours also lack Official Status but not because they are denied by an appropriate authority, or official source, but simply because they are not confirmed by them.This, I think, points towards an important dissimilarity between Rumours and Conspiracy Theories. Conspiracy Theories lack official status because they have what is usually considered to be a more plausible rival; they contradict some Official Theory. Rumours are unofficial because they are merely unconfirmed. They can even exist in parallel with Official Theories and add further details to them as long as they do not contradict the Official Theory.Section 2.4 – Why Rumours are Reliable and Conspiracy Theories are notTake Amelia and Steffi. Both of them are concerned about the reasons behind the invasion of Iraq by the United States of America. Amelia is a conspiracy theorist. She firmly believes that the Official Story about the invasion, that the American Government had intelligence to indicate that the Saddam Hussein led regime in Iraq was developing Weapons of Mass Destruction is not only a lie but that the real reason was that America wanted a controlling interest in the region’s petroleum supply. Steffi, on the otherhand, is a rumourmongerer. She believes that the Executive Branch of the Government of the United States of America did mistakenly believe that the then-Iraqi Government was developing Weapons of Mass Destruction and that this is one reason for the invasion, but she also has heard that another motivating factor was that in bringing down a Government thought to be supplying weapons to terrorist groups would also give America a controlling interest in the region’s oil reserves.Amelia’s story is a rival to the Official Theory and she has been labelled a conspiracy theorist. Steffi is simply spreading a Rumour that the Official Theory is incomplete.I think this shows an important difference between Rumourmongering and Conspiracy Theorising. Rumourmongering does not require a speaker to commit to the truth of their proposition but I think that we do expect someone who is engaging in Conspiracy Theorising to express whether they believe in what they are saying. Indeed, I think this is borne out by the way we present Conspiracy Theories versus Rumours. If I present the Rumour that next years AAP will not distinguish between Graduate and Staff papers, then I should be surprised if you immediately took it that I believed it to be true. It is, after all, just something I heard. However, if I wax lyrical on the Conspiracy Theory that said JFK was assassinated by members of his own Government then I do not think that you would be unjustified in assuming that I believed that was the case. We do not expect people to necessarily believe the Rumours they spread but I do think we expect people to believe the Conspiracy Theories they present.So what does this say about the reliability of Rumours in comparison to Conspiracy Theories? I think that Conspiracy Theories are less reliable than Rumours because Rumours are not rivals to Official Theories.Conspiracy Theories are up against Official Theories that, for the most part, look more plausible. Because conspiracy theorists present their Conspiracy Theories as being better the Conspiracy Theory has to do a lot more ‘work’ to be considered ‘good.’ To persuade a hearer that your Conspiracy Theory trumps the Official Theory the proposition must be both plausible and have been transmitted in a trustworthy manner. The plausibility of the Conspiracy Theory is, however, a problem as it is up against a rival, more credible theory.Conspiracy Theories, I claim, aim to be persuasive; they are rival explanations to Official Theories. Rumours, however, are not meant to persuade. They do not have to be believed and they may have uncertain or even non-trustworthy transmission.What do I mean by ‘persuade’ you should be asking? I am going to take ‘persuade’ to be part of the coherence notion I mentioned back at the beginning of this paper when I talked about the plausibility of a proposition presented as Testimony. Whilst I think that it is true that people tell you Conspiracy Theories to try to persuade you of their truth I also think that people tell you Rumours in such a way to persuade you to pass them on, and that these are two different activities. In the case of a Conspiracy Theory the proponent passionately believes that the Official Theory is not just wrong but a fabrication. In the case of a Rumour the proponent simply is presenting you with a story that may or may not be true. That the story could be tailored to suit your ears is simply commonsense and has nothing to do with whether it is good ala a justified belief. A Rumour ‘persuades’ in that it even if it does not cohere with your other beliefs you can still transmit the Rumour on to others because, lacking an opinion as to whether it is ‘true’ or ‘false’ it need only be persuasive in the sense that it ‘sounds good.’ A Conspiracy Theory, however, needs to be persuasive in the sense that it needs to cohere with other beliefs, and Conspiracy Theories will be, for most people, fairly non-persuasive because they are in competition with Official Theories.This is, of course, a rough approximation; the persuasiveness or plausibility of Rumours and Conspiracy Theories will be on a spectrum, with Conspiracy Theories needing to be found to be more plausible to hearers whilst Rumours not needing to be so plausible. What is important here is that when Rumours are contrasted with Conspiracy Theories the need for Conspiracy Theory to be plausible limits its reliability compared to that of a Rumour.I suspect, based upon what I have just said, that this suggests than it is plausibility rather than transmission which is important in the acceptability of certain kinds of Testimony, where Rumours and Conspiracy Theories are the clearest examples. Perhaps what this really suggests is that we are easily fooled into believing some transmission of a proposition is reliable based upon the plausibility, or coherence with the hearer’s beliefs, of the proposition itself. Certainly, within certain communities Conspiracy Theories spread rapidly and widely and I would hazard that this is because the proposition coheres so well with the pre-existing beliefs of that group that the chain of transmission is discounted in favour of the Conspiracy Theory’s plausibility. Rumours also spread wildly, although they probably do not spread so much because they cohere with a hearer’s beliefs but rather because they do not conflict with whatever the hearer knows.Section 2.5 – The Reliable RumourWhat I have said might suggest that Rumours are more reliable than Conspiracy Theories but that they are not a reliable source of justified beliefs. I do not believe this to be the case. Rumours, like Conspiracy Theories, exist in a community of speakers and hearers. The more hearers the Rumour encounters the more likely it is to stop spreading if it turns out to be implausible. The wider the spreader of the Rumour the more likely it is to come into contact with hearers who know some detail that either goes towards confirming or denying the proposition and thus, over time, the Rumour should begin to resemble garden-variety Testimony. Indeed, David Coady’s argument in favour of Rumour being an example of reliable testimony is strikingly-like the story we now tell about the veridical nature of Oral Histories. I think it is safe to claim that we once thought of Oral Histories as being inferior to that of Written Histories but work in Anthropology and Archaeology in the Twentieth Century has shown that Oral Histories preserve the ‘truth’ of the past as well as their counterpart written accounts. The transmission of plausible testimony by reliable speakers, which seems to be the case in both Rumours and in Oral Histories, should show us that Rumour is just another kind of testimony. The fact that we have to put up with some elaboration and embellishment of Rumours by Rumourmongerers, just as we put up with the embellishments of historians, both written and oral, is the price we pay for a generally reliable process.

Have you heard? Rumours and Conspiracy Theories

We’ve all heard the stories. Rumours about government sanctioned attacks on its own people. Hidden military bases in Nevada. Terrorist training camps in the Ureweras. Sometimes these rumours are borne out, sometimes they become conspiracy theories. Drawing on recent work by CAJ Coady and David Coady I will develop a theory which foregrounds the distinction between the activity of Rumourmongering and the propositions (or collections of them) which qualify as Rumours. Whilst Rumourmongering seems to present a pathology of the testimonial process Rumours themselves can be examples of reliable testimony. Yet Conspiracy Theories, which arguably share many characteristics with Rumours, are not usually treated as being reliable. I will argue that this is because Conspiracy Theories exist in contrast to Official Theories and that Official Theories are more reliable, thus justifying our suspicion of Conspiracy Theories but leaving the reliability of Rumours alone.

The Flimflam 2k Turbo

Classically, Epistemology was all about individuals. Social Epistemology expands the notion of ‘a knower’ to groups; in the same way that individuals can have beliefs about the world so can groups, or so the Social Epistemologist will claim. There is some intutive merit to the proposal that groups know things; the Abraxcus Motor Corporation knows that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is a dangerously unsafe vehicle attributes to the group entity ‘the Abraxcus Motor Corporation’ the belief that ‘the Flimflam 2k Turbo is a dangerously unsafe vehicle.’ Whilst we might well claim that all this means is that individual engineers at the Abraxcus Motor Corporation hold the belief that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is dangerous it could also mean that, as a set, the engineers know that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is dangerous, which is to say that no one individual engineer has a justified belief that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is dangerous but, as a group, the set of engineers know this. This is because the knowledge that the vehicle is unsafe may not belong to anyone individual; I may know that the tires on the vehicle are not as good as the Woowoo 1T when driving on a wet surface but, due to my specialisation, I’m not aware just how bad the driving lock is, or that the brakes have a tangible delay. As an individual my knowledge about the Flimflam 2k Turbo indicates that it could be safer; as a member of the group of engineers at the Abraxcus Motor Corporation we know that it is unsafe.

The belief(s) of my hypothetical set of engineers could be construed as being summative or joint. A summative approach to group beliefs claims that the sum of the beliefs of the individuals within the group gives rise to the beliefs of the group as a whole. This, however, is problematic. Aside from trivial beliefs (the engineers, as individuals, at Abraxcus all believe that the sky is blue but we don’t think that this is a particular belief of the engineers as a group) we get into trouble with contrasting beliefs by individuals within the group. The person responsible for building the facia of the Flimflam 2k Turbo thinks that the vehicle is safe, as well as the person who designed the interior fittings. Indeed, it may turn out that a majority of the engineers think, individually, that the vehicle is safe but that, when their beliefs are taken together, believe as a group that the Flimflam 2k Turbo is danerously unsafe. This suggests that the account of group belief needs to be joint, not summative; what counts as a group belief is indicated by how the group as a whole, not individually, would act.

Of course, we tend to interact with individuals; when the class action suit against the Abraxcus Motor Corporation comes to trial it is not the group ‘engineers’ that takes the stand but rather individuals from that group. Individuals within the group can express beliefs of the group because individuals within the group will believe that the beliefs of the group they belong to are justified in the right way. Individuals can pass the (epistemic) buck to the group because the joint practices of the individuals within the group are sufficient to make the group beliefs justified. For example, I have not reviewed every piece of evidence for and against the Conspiracy Theory that claims that the September 11th attacks of 2001 were orchestrated by the Government of the United States of America. However, I know[1] that the conspiracy theory is false because I trust the other individuals in my group of skeptics; I believe that our group has a justified belief that 9/11 was not an inside job and so I pass the (epistemic) buck on to my fellow members.

Social beliefs or group beliefs are more common and more important than they have, traditionally, been thought to be. Conspiracy Theories, I contend, exist primarily as group beliefs about the world (and I contend this, I think, somewhat contentiously) and our belief for or against them relies to a large extend on the acceptance of testimony of others within our respective group. Such a reliance on testimony is an example of passing the (epistemic) buck; I believe the beliefs of my group are justified. This doesn’t make such beliefs knowledge necessarily; I (and the group to which I belong) might well hold a belief for all the right epistemic reasons without it actually being true. That is a kettle of fish for another time, however[2].

1. I’m wary of terms such as ‘know;’ what I mean here is that I have a justified belief which might well be true, but it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to be justified. However, this is contentious and I shan’t push it at this current time.

2. I wonder how many promises of ‘I’ll deal with this another time’ I have made and never delivered on in re this blog. A great many, I suspect. 

A Case Study in Critical Thinking: The North Head Conspiracy Theory

On Thursday I enter the wide world of corporate speaking gigs with a talk to a group of underwriters at Vero. Yay, verily, I am involved with professional development and yay, verily, I’m somewhat conflicted by the notion.I’m not a friend of Capitalism.I got the gig because one of my Continuing Education students works for Vero and thought my style would work; some challenging intellectual footwrok, a little light humour and a whole lot of love (well, no love; that would break certain ethical boundaries). I’m basing the talk on two other pieces I wrote; a critical thinking primer I gave to the librarians at the University of Auckland a few years back (when we were trying to dissuade the Library from trying to teach their own critical thinking skills programme; that’s a long story in itself) and a paper I presented at a conference a few years back, although the rewrites have almost made it into a new work.All of which is meant to explain the lack of real updates on this site; the testimony work is getting bigger and more involving in re the actual thesis and what started out as a mere paper will likely become a very important chapter in the final product. I think I may have a kind of solution to a tricky philosophical problem in re internal notions of justified belief and external notions of knowledge. A large part of my thesis will revolve around explicating the ‘Inference to Any Old Explanation’ fallacy, which is, I believe, the reason why we are so (rightfully) dismissive of claims of Conspiracy. People often make faulty inferences because they are inadequately informed or they trust unreliable sources, and testimony is a case where trusting an unreliable source can lead to having what appears to be a justified belief. The coherence of your existing beliefs affects what new beliefs you are likely to take on board and this is going to also make you more or less likely to trust particular testifiers. If you believe that the government is conspiring against you, then someone who agrees with your assessment and tells a story about how the government is conspiring is likely to be someone you are going to trust, moreso than me.

Safe, Safe Baby

So, testimony. My last proper (read: contentive or content-present) post was all about whether testimony could be considered properly generative (on its own account). My thesis was just a tad hazy, as can be discerned by the questions raised by two of my earnest commentators. As this particular angle on testimony isn’t likely to come up in the paper I am writing I’m going to justify this blog’s existence by bleating on a little longer. As is my manner (and as is my right) I’ll do it in a fairly circuitous manner.

I want to talk unsafe transmission.

Yes, verily, ‘All-Embracing…’ is all about the sex, baby.

[Normally I’d put a (more) tag here, but I’ve currently given up on hiding the length of my posts, mostly because my list of ‘Pages’ is now so long that I need full-length posts to hide the fact that my sidebar is now unwieldy[1].]

Traditionally it has been held that testimony is only successful when someone who holds a justified belief is able to transfer that belief to you with the same justification. Thus A tells me that ‘Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March’ and as I know that A is an historian and thus gets her information from the right sources I believe that ‘Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March’ as well, taking onboard A’s justification as my own (in a sense). We don’t usually believe that testifiers who have unjustified beliefs can transmit those unjustified beliefs as testimony (although that gets a little murky when we consider that some of the things we used to believe in, such as astrology, were quite complicated beliefs, transmitted by learned individuals, treated as knowledge).


Yet there is a case for claiming that unjustified testifiers can cause justified belief in hearers. This is unsafe testimonial transmission. I read a paper on this by Sanford Goldberg and it stirred the inner juices of my brain cavity. I think a lot of my suspicion about the generative nature of testimony came out of this one paper, so perhaps, to save face, reduce confusion and create obfuscation, I should reveal all.

Goldberg uses the idea of local invariance to account for unsafe testimonial transmission. To illustrate this he provides a case very much like this one:

Frank has a peculiar habit of buying milk every day and then, no matter the circumstances, pours it down the drain the following morning before putting the empty carton back in the fridge before he sets himself to work in the very same kitchen. Staying with him are Mary and her child Sonny. One morning Mary goes to get some orange juice and sees the milk carton. By pure accident Frank has forgotten to perform his usual disposal and thus there is, actually, milk in the fridge. Mary tells this to Sonny when he asks if there is milk in the fridge. Goldberg claims that this is a case of unsafe transmission because, although Mary has an unjustified belief that there is milk in the fridge, Sonny gains a justified belief.

Why? Well, because:

Had there been no milk in the fridge, this would have been because Frank dumped it (and put the empty milk carton back in the fridge.) As noted above, in such a situation Mary would still have testified as she did; but Frank (who is a fixture in the kitchen, and so who is in the kitchen in most or all of the nearest possible worlds) would have immediately spoken up against the testimony, informing his uninitiated guests of his strange practice. In that case Sonny would not have consumed Mary’s testimony and so would have refrained from forming the testimonial belief that there was milk in the fridge. This establishes that Sonny’s testimonial belief is sensitive. Now, had Sonny formed the testimonial belief that there is milk in the fridge, this would have been a case in which Frank did not speak up against that testimony; but, given Frank’s scrupulousness, the only cases in which he would not speak up against that testimony (given that he was in the kitchen, as always) would be those cases, like the actual one, in which (upon hearing the testimony) he came to acknowledge that he failed to dump the milk from the previous evening. In all such cases, there would be milk in the fridge. In sum, had Sonny formed the testimonial belief that there is milk in the fridge, there would have been milk in the fridge: Sonny’s testimonial belief is reliable. Note, too, that any nearby world in which (a) Frank disposed of the milk and returned the empty carton to the fridge, yet (b) Mary – or someone else, for that matter – testified (on the basis of seeing the milk carton in the fridge) that there was milk in the fridge, will be a world in which Frank speaks up against that testimony, prompting Sonny to refrain from consuming that testimony. Sonny’s belief is safe.
-Goldberg, Sanford, ‘Testimonial knowledge through unsafe testimony,’ Analysis 64:4, 2005. p. 303-4

Frank is an example of local invariance; he is a fixed condition of the world Mary and Sonny inhabit. Had there been no milk in the fridge he would have spoken up, thus defeating Mary’s testimony. The fact that he did not speak up means that Mary’s testimony, although for her unjustified, was justified for Sonny because of Frank.

It’s a curious little case study and it introduces a whole new further issue in the relationship between a speaker and a hearer. Although it took a while to become formalised in the literature, we have worked out that the relationship between trustworthiness of sources and the truth of the proposition they assert is not necessary for testimony to be good. Untrustworthy people can assert the truth and trustworthy people can have momentary lapses of reason. Goldberg’s thesis suggests that trustworthiness of sources can be considered irrelevant in certain cases; what really is important is that the world functions properly (or reliably) rather than the agents within it (which makes sense, because Goldberg’s thesis is firmly centred on a reliabilist account of epistemology, where the proper function of processes is all important).

So, back to generation. A really ideal example of generative testimony (in re that last, contentaive post) would have the new knowledge come out of unsafely transmitted beliefs. I keep thinking about Math, mostly because there are lots of examples of what we would call mathematical knowledge generated from the contradictions of previously well-held views. I am also suddenly contemplating Galileo and his experiments to do with mass; before he performed the ‘Ball drop from Pisa’ he had already worked out that the Aristotelian model of mass-cum-weight was contradictory (heavier objects linked to lighter objects of the same mass should drag the lighter objects down in free fall but, importantly, lighter objects linked to heavier objects of the same mass should drag the heavier objects down in free fall; which was it? Well, it was neither…).

So, yes, more thoughts on the subject. Because thinking is good, unless you only think you are thinking, which is just all too common.

1. Unfortunately the theme I am currently using for WordPress is a just a tad incompatible with the version of WordPress I am using and so it only is held together with paperclips and bubblegum. Thus the nice plugins that would make the categories and the page links fold-away magically don’t work. I’ve yet to find that perfect theme replacement, so kludges it is.

The Generation Game

There is a common claim in the epistemology of testimony, which is that testimony requires witnessing and so isn’t generative of beliefs in the same way that memory is. Memories can combine, it is claimed, to generate new beliefs (you remember that your parents told you the cat went away to the farm and you remember another instance (when you were older) where your parents playfully suggest to some other parents that they should tell their kids that the cat wasn’t put down but was sent away; lo and behold you generate a new belief that your parents cannot be trusted) but that testimony simply transmits existing beliefs between the speaker and the hearer (thus any new beliefs are generated not by testimony but with testimonial support acting along with beliefs you acquired by other means).

I’m not sure I find this (above, crude) account all that convincing. It is true that for a lot of beliefs that are transferred via testimony there did have to be an original witness. For example, a lot of us know about the structure of the atom yet, I would wager, most of us have not performed the necessary experiments to know ‘first hand’ (if you will) that structure. We have, however, been told about it, by reputable sources. Yet I’m also fairly sure that a lot of beliefs have been generated via testimony as well. I’m thinking here of emergent beliefs; beliefs that have come out of inferences from other beliefs. Take the atom example. A lot of the information we have about atoms originated from experimental data; someone ‘saw’ something and then told others. But surely some of the subsequent beliefs about atoms have been generated by people who haven’t performed the experiments but rather have taken these reliable bits of data and inferred further beliefs (which then may well have been subject to testimony). I was going to use an example from mathematics but as it is really quite hard to tell a story about witnessing the truth of any given mathematical proposition I’m not entirely sure this is a good avenue to explore. In any case, surely there are cases of people using only testimonial beliefs, to which they have no other support, to generate new beliefs (which will then count as knowledge) which can then be transmitted testimonially?

The notion of testimony generating belief is contentious as it stands. Reductionists, those who hold that testimony is a second-class citizen compared to perception, memory and the other two classically recognised senses, claim that testimony can’t generate beliefs because experiences generate beliefs and testimony is simply belief-transfer (criude but basically true). If I am right, however, then the reductionist needs to distinguish between primary and secondary testimony. Primary testimony is non-generative; the proposition involved was generated by one of the four senses. Secondary testimony is generative, however, in that the component beliefs of secondary testimony (pieces of primary testimony) infer the belief that is the secondary testimony.

Non-reductionists (oft called anti-reductionists (you can guess by who)) accept that testimony can be generative (via different accounts, usually), in which case you have primary testimony which is generative by whatever mechanism produces testimony and secondary testimony, which is the inferences licensed from primary testimony (so secondary testimony is just a special class of primary testimony).

So, the question is, can I come up with some good examples of secondary testimony? Or, because this is a blog, can you? My problem is that I suspect that most of the obvious candidates for my theory are probably going to be examples of primary testimony. What I really need is an example of an idea where the belief being transmitted really isn’t based upon someone inferring something as an hypothesis, testing it and then transmitting their belief. It needs to be an example of taking primary testimony and, from that alone, coming to knowledge of something inferred from it that doesn’t take its justification (for its truthiness) from the primary testimony that produced it.

Ideas, anyone?