Knowledge is power

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

“The list of things that I believe is, if not infinite, virtually endless. And I am finite.  Though I can readily imagine what I would have to do to obtain evidence that would support anyone of my beliefs, I cannot imagine being able to do this for all of my beliefs.  I believe too much, there is too much relevant evidence (much of it available only after extensive, specialized training); intellect is too small and life is too short.”

These words are a direct quote from the opening paragraph of an article by John Hardwig published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1985. He goes on to argue that we can have good reasons for believing something if we have good reasons for believing that others have good reasons to believe it.  So, it is reasonable for a layperson to believe something that an expert also believes and that it is even rational to refuse to think for ourselves in these circumstances.  Because life is too short and there are too many other things to think about.

This implies a high level of trust in the expert as well as a concept of knowledge that is known by the community.  Someone somewhere has the evidence to support the knowledge.  For instance, as a professor, I am trusted by my students to provide them with knowledge for which I have the supporting evidence or I believe someone else has the evidence.  This trust is reinforced to a very small extent by replicating the evidence in practical classes.

More than 30 years ago, John Hardwig concluded his article by worrying about the extent to which wisdom is based on trust and the threat to “individual autonomy and responsibility, equality and democracy” posed by our dependence on others for knowledge.  Today, the internet has given us access to, if not infinite, virtually endless information.  Unfortunately, much of the information available is inaccurate, incomplete and biased, sometimes due to self-interest.  Our problem is sifting the facts from the fabrications; and identifying who are experts and can be trusted as sources of knowledge.  This appears to be leading to a crisis of trust in both experts and what constitutes the body of knowledge known by the community, which is threatening our democracies and undermining equality.


Hardwig J, Epistemic dependence, J. Philosophy, 82(7):335-349, 1985.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge is power

  1. B. Johnson

    This is not a direct reply to this most recent blog post, but I had a general question, which might make a good blog post for you to answer and discuss. My question is, “Are engineers scientists?” I never considered them such, but I just finished reading an article in the online Business Insider with the title, “The US just elected 8 new scientists to Congress, including an ocean expert, a nurse, and a biochemist. Here’s the full list.” The article also lists other “scientists” who were already incumbents, but re-elected. What I noticed is at least half of the people listed are engineers.

    1. Daniel

      In my experience with physicists and engineers, there’s the general (simplified and thus inaccurate) distinction that physicists tend to care a lot more about universal truths while engineers appear a lot more pragmatic.
      Reminds me of the joke where a mathematician, an engineer and a physicist try to find a formula for prediction horse races: the mathematician proves that a solution exists, the engineer has a formula that works almost all the time but can’t really tell how he arrived at it and the physicist has a clean derivation for his formula, but it only applies to spherical horses in vacuum.

      Then again we might have to distinguish between engineers in a researcher position (which I’d consider science with a focus on application) and engineers in “normal” work positions (from my experience, most non-R&D-engineer’s work compares more to the work of a mechanic or plumber than a scientist: Making things and ensuring that they work as intended).
      Probably the answer depends on both your definition of “scientist” and of “engineer” (as in: what’s included and what isn’t in each group).
      Cheers, Daniel


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