In the two previous posts, I’ve examined various aspects of our epistemic networks, namely, testimony, attention, trust, and conformity. What I have not considered, however, is whether all epistemic agents are the same, or if some might be more qualified than others. In this post, I focus on expertise, and ask, when it comes to the matter of non-human animals as food – who is an expert?
Identifying accurate sources of information is no simple task. As I highlighted in a previous post, much of what we know about the world depends on testimony. We rely on others who we regard as being in a better epistemic position than us. But how can we determine accurate sources of information?
My concern here is not the simple sense of everyday testimonial questions, such as Is it raining?, but more so, complex issues that I do not have ‘first-hand’ access to. To find out whether it is raining today, while I could ask my friend, or watch the weather, I could also simply gather direct evidence myself – by walking outside. In contrast, to find out complex scientific information, such as how much carbon dioxide equivalent (Co2e) results from consumption of beef, I must rely on experts. Not only do I lack the equipment to directly gather first-hand evidence, but I also do not have the skillset to accurately interpret it.
But, often experts do not agree with one another. In such a case, which expert do you believe? Further, once we broaden the perspective to incorporate a number of domains of expertise, another troubling question arises – which domain has the relevant expert, and as such, which point of view matters more? But before addressing these concerns, what is meant by ‘expert’?
According to Goldman and O’Connor (2021), an expert is “someone who – in a specified domain – possesses a greater quantity of (accurate) information than most other people do.” (Goldman & O’Connor, 2021). An expert can be contrasted with a layperson, an agent who has very little information in a specified domain. In his new book, Bad Beliefs: Why They Happen to Good People (2022), Neil Levy refers to experts, as “relevant epistemic authorities” – people and institutions that are recognised as being in the best position to provide information in a given domain (Levy, 2022, Xi). In The Epistemology of Expertise (2019), Carlo Martini defines experts as “people who are in a superior epistemic position with respect to a group of laypeople. They may be in such a position as a result of superior cognitive abilities, more extended training, greater learning, or simply because of the contingencies of their epistemic status” (Martini, 2019, p.115). Martini’s definition also suggests that ‘expert’ is a relative term – an expert is epistemically better-placed than a layperson.
There are several methods that one could use to identify an expert. According to Goldman and O’Connor, one method is to seek out arguments from a number of experts to find out who possesses more accurate information. However, a layperson, being ill-equipped to understand the specified domain, is surely also ill-equipped to make an accurate assessment with respect to the performance of competing experts. Another possible method is to instead obtain competing experts’ credentials, for example, to determine whether they were trained in the specified domain. However, a layperson might have trouble assessing this information or understanding its significance. Another option is to look at the general consensus amongst a number of experts. The idea being that if a greater percentage of experts agree on a matter, they might be likely to possess accurate information, in contrast to an outlier. But there are variety of reasons why a number of experts might agree that can come apart from reliability. For example, as I noted in the previous post, they might all be informed by the one inaccurate source of (false) information. A fourth method identified by Goldman & O’Connor is to allow an expert to establish a track record of producing accurate information; however, as they note, this is not always possible, for example, due to time constraints(Goldman & O’Connor, 2021).
Carlo Martini highlights a number of ‘markers of expertise’, traits, which to some extent, overlap with methods suggested above. These include objectivity, track record, domain-specificity, proportionality, unbiasedness, content-knowledge, meta-knowledge (know how much, or little, they know), consistency, and ability to discriminate between similar cases (Martini, 2019, p.118-119). While neither a comprehensive nor fool-proof list, these markers can be considered along-side one another to identify and evaluate expertise.
In a previous post, I briefly mentioned two structures that shape our online epistemic environment: echo chambers and epistemic bubbles. Not only do they impact our attention and trust by limiting the information that we are exposed to, they also influence who we view as experts. C. Thi Nguyen examines these epistemic structures in the paper Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles (2020). A quick distinction between these two phenomena will suffice for my purposes. According to Nguyen, an epistemic bubble is “a social epistemic structure in which some relevant voices have been excluded through omission” (Nguyen, 2020, p.142). These form, without ill intent, through processes of social selection and community formation. By contrast, a similar and often conflated phenomenon, an echo chamber is, according to Nyugen, a “social epistemic structure in which other relevant voices have been actively discredited”(Nguyen, 2020, p.142). In the case of echo chambers, external voices are actively discredited and undermined, whereas filter bubbles exclude through omission.
Differences aside, both of these epistemic structures can result in a lack of exposure to both relevant evidence and opposing viewpoints. Similarly, they can influence who is seen as an expert. Recall that we are unable to identify experts outside our domain of expertise with complete accuracy. Rather, we rely on a number of epistemic practices to determine who we should consider an expert, and as such, whose testimony we should accept. Nguyen notes that echo chambers abuse these practices, discrediting other epistemic authorities solely on the basis of them being ‘outsiders’ (Nguyen, 2020, p.146-147).
In many of the examples of misinformation that I discussed in a previous post, misinformation is more readily spread with the assistance of these epistemic structures. For example, those interested in upholding a diet that includes the consumption of non-human animals, whilst still acting (superficially) ethically, may subscribe to a narrative of ‘ethical butchering’ or ‘humane slaughter’, and interact in an online environment with other individuals who share the same perspectives, ultimately reinforcing the view that these are acceptable and non-contradictory positions to hold. Likewise, they will likely be exposed to ‘experts’ who support these practices, not those who oppose them.
For example, in the case of ‘humane slaughter’, supporters will see those that they are more familiar with as experts (in the loosest sense of the word), such as Meredith Leigh, author of The Ethical Meat Handbook. At the same time, it is unlikely that proponents of these practices will be exposed to many opposing arguments, nor the countless experts whose opinion contrasts with Leigh (Sorenson, 2020, p.219). In the above example, an epistemic bubble is formed both through actions within the control of the individual agent, for example, by joining a group on ‘ethical butchering’, and outside their control, such as algorithms that filter the information that the individual is exposed to. Similarly, someone who is interested in hunting might join a social media group devoted to hunting. For example, the Facebook group ‘Hunting Australia’ has almost 80,000 members. Countless posts and comments on this group vilify those individuals who maintain a vegan diet, and actively criticize those, including experts, who oppose hunting. This allows misinformation to propagate by actively discrediting those who oppose hunting and effectively silencing conflicting positions.
Before considering expertise across domains, and specifically, expertise with respect to non-human animals, I must first touch on the subject of moral expertise. Laura Frances Callahan, in exploring this topic, notes that experts must have some sort of superior epistemic status compared to laypeople. However, she highlights that the domain of morality is sometimes put forward as an area in which no one meets this condition, and as such, there are no moral experts(Callahan, 2019, p.128). For example, Philosopher Justin Weinberg has recently argued that being an expert in morality does not necessarily translate to being an expert with respect to giving moral advice, given the diversity of moral theories and disagreement among ‘experts’ (Weinberg, 2021). However, it is plausible that some people are better than others at making moral judgements, such as those who are familiar with a range of ethical approaches and those who have actively and reflectively considered these matters. As such, one could argue that ethicists, are, at least relative to the layperson, experts in the domain of morality.
I have noted, above, potential markers of expertise and methods that could be used to identify experts. Recall that an expert is someone who possesses a greater amount of accurate information than others about a specified domain. A problem that I have not yet considered is how in the real-world, matters of concern are not limited to single domains of expertise. In relation to which foods to eat, one could identify an enormous variety of “experts”.
For example, regarding health-related aspects; there are doctors (ie. general-practitioners), then there are also specialists, such as dieticians, who are usually more well-versed in this area. In addition, there are nutritionists, an area with little regulation in Australia, and alternative medicine practitioners, such as naturopaths; who often rely on pseudo-scientific evidence. While the latter are relatively easy to dismiss in many cases, the former all have relatively substantiated claims of expertise. Note, however, that the aforementioned “experts” only concern the health-related aspects of food. When the scope is broadened to include other considerations, the list of possible experts also expands.
There are a variety of political elements to food-production, such as policies and regulations, and as such, politicians might also be considered experts. In a similar way, legal practitioners could also be experts in food policy. Perhaps an ecologist would be more relevant in this situation, expanding the concerns for the environment or the ecosystem. Or, if we are talking more specifically about meat or dairy, we are considering sentient beings, so the perspective of an ethicist might be more pertinent. This is obviously an oversimplification, not only regarding the complexity of the matter, but also regarding the epistemic mechanisms. For example, under the banner of ‘ecologists’ there are likely specialists in this field and others who are not. The same goes for the ‘ethicist’. In addition, various experts rely on one another in the undertaking of their work. The ethicist, in assessing the moral permissibility of these possible courses of action, would gather relevant information (likewise, dismiss irrelevant information) from both the health professional and the ecologist.
My intention here is to highlight that there could be a number of experts that are relevant to any given situation, who are all completely proficient in their domain. Yet these experts might all disagree about which course of action should be adopted. Therefore, for the layperson, the problem of which expert’s testimony to accept persists. As such, it is possible (arguably, very likely!) that the layperson will simply chose to accept testimony from the expert who confirms their existing beliefs.
*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.
Callahan, L. F. (2019). “Moral Testimony”, in M. Fricker, P. J. Graham, D. Henderson, & N. J. L. L. Pedersen (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology, New York, NY: Routledge.
Goldman, A., & O’Connor, C. (2021). “Social Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved September 1st 2021, from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2021/entries/epistemology-social/
Levy, N. (2022). Bad Beliefs. Why They Happen to Good People. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Martini, C. (2019). “The Epistemology of Expertise”, in M. Fricker, P. J. Graham, D. Henderson, & N. J. L. L. Pedersen (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology, New York, NY: Routledge.
Nguyen, C. T. (2020). Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles. Episteme 17(2): 141-161.
Sorenson, J. (2020) “Humane Hypocrisies. Making Killing Acceptable”. In K. Dhont & G. Hodson (eds.), Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy. New York, NY: Routledge.
Weinberg, J. (2021, August 24). “Expert Moral Advice: A Dialogue”. Retrieved August 24th 2021, from: https://justinweinberg.org/2021/08/24/expert-moral-advice-a-dialogue/
 The view that there are no moral experts has been widely-held in philosophical literature. For example, in Plato’s ‘Protagoras’, Socrates argues that there are no moral experts. For a more recent influential criticism of moral expertise, see Gilbert Ryle’s ‘On Forgetting the Difference Between Right and Wrong’ (1958).
 I use scare-quotes here, as I am sceptical of some of these as constituting expertise. For example, in Australia, being a ‘nutritionist’ is unregulated. Similarly, many ‘alternative medicine’ practitioners would self-identify as experts, yet possess no formal qualifications. Nevertheless, depending on what aspect of ‘food’ is being considered here (e.g. health, taste-preference, ethical considerations), a variety of ‘experts’ can be identified.
 Watching Australian politicians discussing animal agriculture, it’s debatable if they can really be considered experts.