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The Social Epistemology of Argumentation

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - SEA (The Social Epistemology of Argumentation)

Reporting period: 2021-07-01 to 2022-12-31

Argumentation - the practice of giving and asking for reasons to support claims - is a key component of scientific inquiry, legal procedures, and political life. But in many instances, argumentation does not achieve its presumed goal of fostering consensus and circulation of reliable information. Recent events in world politics - Brexit, US elections, refugee crisis - demonstrate that a better grasp of what argumentation can and cannot do for us is urgently needed.
The key question of this project is: ‘what does it take for a process of argumentation to improve our epistemic situation?’ Prior theories fail because they are based on overly idealized assumptions. This project develops a more realistic approach: argumentation is viewed as a practice interwoven with power relations, occurring in situations of epistemic and social diversity, and involving agents who are not ‘purely rational’. We will formulate the first comprehensive account of the social epistemology of argumentation, i.e. of the role of argumentation in processes of circulation and production of knowledge, evidence, and justification. To this end, we will bring together two research traditions that so far remain largely disconnected: social epistemology and argumentation theory.
Our innovative hypothesis is that argumentation is a form of social exchange that can be successful to various degrees. What is exchanged are epistemic resources such as knowledge, evidence, justification, critical objections. Insights from social exchange theory will inform the investigation, a suitable framework for our purposes because it emphasizes the interplay between self-interest and interdependence. The result will be a realistic theory of the processes through which epistemic resources are shared and produced through argumentation. It will offer concrete prescriptions on how to optimize these processes, with wide-ranging applications wherever argumentation is crucial: scientific, legal, and political/public discourse.
The initial question for the project was: under which conditions are argumentative exchanges likely to lead to positive results in terms of sharing and producing knowledge and information? To address this question we relied on the robust findings from social exchange theory on exchanges in general.

The SEA team started with a systematic review of the relevant literature on argumentation and social epistemology (year 1). We then spent year 2 familiarizing ourselves with social exchange theory. This has led to the main research breakthrough of the project so far: the formulation of a three-tiered model of epistemic exchange inspired by social exchange theory. On this model, there are three successive stages in processes of knowledge and information exchange: 1) the source catches the receiver’s attention; 2) the receiver trusts the source sufficiently; 3) the receiver engages with the shared content. Moreover, these agents are viewed as located in complex networks of potential interactions.

This model allows for a much more detailed analysis of the different aspects involved in argumentation, in particular choices concerning where to allocate precious cognitive resources such as time and attention, and the role of trust in argumentation. In this way we are in a much better position to identify obstacles to fruitful argumentation, and when argumentation is not likely to lead to a genuine exchange of knowledge and information (for example, if the parties involved do not trust each other above a minimum threshold). In the remaining time of the project, the model will be applied to a number of case studies, such as scientific practice, the public engagement of scientists with non-scientists, and political deliberation and argumentation.

Moreover, project members have worked on a number of other issues such as whether (and when) laypeople should trust experts on decisions with practical implications, the different ways in which argumentation can in fact contribute to inequalities (perhaps paradoxally), and the implications of adversariality and cooperation for argumentation.

In year 3 (since September 2020), when the second postdoc (Dede) as well as the affiliated members (Ivani, Rittberg) joined the team, the project has started to explore implications for philosophy of science more closely. We have adopted the following perspectives from philosophy of science:
a) sciences of argumentation: critical evaluation of the sciences of argumentation. In particular, we have read (or are planning to read) and critically evaluated alternative scientific approaches to argumentation.
b) argumentation in science: studying science as a disciplined collective epistemic activity to test, inform, and generate philosophical insights about argumentation. In particular, we focus on the epistemic diversity in science by analyzing prominent interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary, and policy-deliberation contexts where scientists engage in argumentative practices. We also focus on science’s role in democratic contexts and the interface between science and the political sphere.

Main results:

C. Dutilh Novaes 2020, ‘The Role of Trust in Argumentation’. Informal Logic 40 (2). This is the paper where the three-tiered model was first introduced and applied.

“What are we doing when we argue?” Interview with PI Catarina Dutilh Novaes on national Australian radio to discuss some of the main findings of the project in an accessible manner.

Entry ‘Argument and Argumentation’ for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Catarina Dutilh Novaes (accepted, in production). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy represents the golden standard for reference works in philosophy, and is fully Open Access. The entries at this encyclopedia tend to be widely read and cited, so it is to be expected that this entry will provide an influential frame of reference for work on argumentation for years to come.
The three-tiered model represents a genuine innovation with respect to the state of the art in that it allows for a much more comprehensive analysis of argumentation in its multiple facets. We will continue to apply the model to different case studies, which is expected both to shed new light on these phenomena and to further validate the model.