Academic writing and epistemic injustice

[image: Miranda Fricker, who coined the term epistemic injustice; this is essay #286 in the Figs in Winter series]

Injustice is, and has always been, a plague on the human condition. Over time, we have invented the concept of rights in an attempt to curtail such a plague. But there can be such thing as frivolous rights as well as frivolous talk about injustice. This article is about one example of the latter.

In a guest post at Practical Ethics, Oxford student Brian Wong argues that academic philosophers ought to write more accessibly, on penalty of perpetrating a new kind of hitherto unrecognized injustice: “respondent injustice.” What is he talking about?

Wong begins reasonably enough, by stating that philosophy should be, at least to some extent, publicly oriented. Indeed, the essay you are reading right now is an example of public philosophy, meaning a piece of writing by a professional philosopher discussing philosophical matters in a way that is (hopefully) accessible to the general public. In this, of course, philosophy is hardly alone. Scientists, historians, economists, and so on ought to engage, to a degree, in talk directed at explaining to the public what they are doing, and why it matters.

However, contra Wong, I don’t mean that every philosopher, scientist, and so forth should do this. Indeed, not even the majority of them. That’s not part of the job description of an academic. That description includes three classes of activities: scholarship, teaching, and service to the university. Of course we could change the standard job description and add public outreach to it, but any such addition would come with a tradeoff: which of the other three should therefore be neglected? (I vote for service on university committees.) Regardless, at least some philosophers, scientists, etc. definitely should be writing for the general public.

But, we are told by Wong, philosophical writing has been panned by some as inaccessible to the public. Let us set aside that one should first establish, empirical data in hand, whether this is actually true or not, rather than rely on unnamed people’s personal opinions. What’s wrong with technical writing — the target of Wong’s criticism — that is inaccessible to the public? Technical writing relies on specialized terminology, assumes knowledge of a vast background literature, and is addressed to other academics. And this not only in philosophy, of course. Try telling a physicists that her writings on the subtleties of quantum mechanics ought to be accessible to the public and get, justly, laughed out of campus.

Wong considers the hypothetical example of a philosopher named Bob, who writes inaccessibly in most of his technical papers. Bob’s behavior is then assessed using a consequentialist ethical framework. Notice that Wong provides no explanation to his reader of what consequentialism is, thereby, by his own light, committing an epistemic injustice. Never mind, of course, that he also doesn’t explain why a consequentialist framework here is better than a deontological one, or one based on virtue ethics.

At any rate, Bob quickly fails the consequentialist test because, Wong says, while his inaccessible style may give Bob “and his friends” a significant amount of pleasure, such pleasure is countered by the pain experienced by his lay readers when they try to make sense of what Bob is talking about. I find this a good example of the impracticality of consequentialist reasoning, since of course there is no way to actually carry out any “hedonic calculus” along the lines of what would be necessary for the argument to go through. (For instance: just how many unhappy lay readers would outweigh the sadistic pleasure enjoyed by Bob & co.? And how exactly are we going to quantitatively compare the irritation of an uncomprehending lay reader with the smug self satisfaction of the academic elite?)

Before we proceed, let me make one distinction clear. My criticism of Wong stands if by inaccessible we mean that a piece of technical writing is written at the level of a technical audience, i.e., it is inaccessible to the general public. But if by inaccessible one means obfuscating, as Wong occasionally seems to imply, then of course Bob — or anyone else — is not justified. The difference is that obfuscatory language is unnecessarily unclear and therefore inaccessible, even to a technical audience. Wong, however, equivocates on these two meanings of “inaccessible” throughout his article.

Wong proposes the recognition of a new kind of epistemic injustice (i.e., injustice about knowledge, or knowledge access): respondent injustice, which he defines as the undermining of an agent’s capacity as a knower due to another person’s modality of communication. Translated: Bob perpetrates an injustice on lay readers (who, remember, are actually not his target audience) by writing in a way that requires more background knowledge from them than they currently possess.

This approach, however, is entirely unhelpful. If my example of the quantum physicist above did not already convince you consider this: many people write with an adult audience in mind, as opposed to one made up of children (of various ages). Following Wong’s reasoning, every time someone writes something that a child (of whatever age) cannot understand that someone is committing an epistemic injustice toward that child. As I said, not helpful.

Wong then proceeds by summarizing what makes possible for a knower to know things. It comes down to: (i) having their ability to know acknowledged and respected by others; (ii) that one’s testimony is listened to and taken seriously by others; and (iii) that the individual should have the subjective confidence and the resources to know particular propositions.

Okay, let’s take yet another example. I am an evolutionary biologist. Over the course of my career, I have debated a lot of so-called “creation scientists,” whereby creationism is a type of pseudoscience. Of course, I respected such individuals as human beings. But should I also respect them as knowers in the way Wong suggests? Hell no. (i) While a creation scientists has, in theory, the ability to know about evolution like anyone else, his opinion on the matter most definitely does not need to be respected by me as a professional scientist, since he appears not to know what he is talking about. (ii) Similarly, his testimony in public should most certainly not be taken seriously by others. And (iii) he really ought not to have the subjective confidence that he knows anything about biology, since he very plainly doesn’t.

There are, of course, cases of actual epistemic injustice, but they are significantly more restricted than Wong seems to suggest. He is correct that “individuals are entitled to a minimum bundle of resources that allows them to understand and make sense of the world around them.” That’s why we have public education in the first place. But that “minimum bundle” is not going to be be sufficient to equip a knower to deal with the full spectrum of epistemic situations, from understanding evolution to grasping quantum mechanics. And just because one doesn’t have the technical know-how to read scientific papers it doesn’t follow that any injustice has been perpetrated.

Wong, oblivious to the irony, goes on to say that “such resources may include the hermeneutical tools Fricker talks about.” I actually had to look this up. He is referring to a technical book published by Miranda Fricker in 2007, and to a substantive technical literature generated by that book. I challenge the non-technical reader to dive into such literature and feel just how painful it can be for someone who doesn’t know much about hermeneutics and related philosophical concepts.

Wong tells us that “inaccessible writing undermines both standing and confidence” [in the knower] and “puts barriers in the way of their ability to make sense of, critique, and engage the scholarship.” Well, good! Let’s get back to my quantum mechanics example, where this time I am the “knower” against whom an alleged epistemic injustice is being perpetrated. Since I am not a physicist, and I don’t understand quantum mechanics, my “standing and confidence” on the subject should be undermined. As for the barriers that get in the way of my making sense, critiquing, and engaging with scholarship in quantum mechanics, I always have the choice of getting back to graduate school and get a PhD in physics.

Another argument put forth by Wong is that our friend, Bob the philosopher, undermines the confidence of the knower in other contexts as well: “a person reads Bob’s works, and, because of the disorientation this person feels, thinks that philosophy in general is not for them. They may even be misled to think that they are systemically incapable of understanding formal philosophical scholarship. The reader may be intimidated into under-estimating their abilities, suppressing their interests in the field.”

That is precisely why we need good philosophical writing aimed specifically at the general public. It would be insane for anyone without technical knowledge to jump straight into specialized literature and pretend to understand what is going on. And it would be very strange if this person were to conclude on the basis of such an experience that she has no ability to understand philosophy at all. To use another analogy, this is like suggesting that people will lose interest in playing tennis unless the first time they pick up a racquet they can go straight to Wimbledon and play against Roger Federer. C’mon!

“Through his writings, Bob establishes an unequal relationship between himself and the reader, for reasons that are almost entirely arbitrary.” Almost entirely arbitrary? Bob is a professional philosopher, of course the relationship between himself and a lay reader is unequal, just like the relationship between Spencer Gore and my brother (who plays tennis at the amateur level) is unequal.

In standard philosophical fashion, Wong concludes his essay by anticipating, and responding to, a couple of objections. First, he says, someone might object that sometimes inaccessibility is made necessary, because there is no other sensible way to communicate information or argument. Seems to me that this doesn’t just happens “sometimes,” but the majority of the times, when it comes to technical literature. But Wong, of course, doesn’t buy it, claiming — without evidence — that there “often” are more accessible ways to present content, but that scholars just “can’t be bothered.”

A second objection he considers is that “the fixation on accessibility favors particular theoretical traditions, and is thereby dangerously parochial.” He is willing to bite the bullet here, assuming that — even if parochial — valuing accessibility is a good thing. Too bad that no scholars in her right mind would actually raise such objection. Accessibility — whenever actually possible and desirable — ought to be a human universal value. The problem is that in this particular case it is neither possible nor desirable.

So, academics should certainly avoid writing in an obfuscatory way, and indeed when they do that they pay a penalty imposed on them by the criticism, and sometimes even scorn, of other academics. And yes, philosophers (and scientists, and historians, etc.) should write also for a general public, at least sometimes. But it makes no sense to talk of epistemic injustice when people write papers that are highly technical, require a vast amount of background knowledge to be properly understood, and are aimed not at the general public but at other academics pushing the frontiers of human understanding.

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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