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Would you trust a female mechanic? A look at the subtle prejudice of “epistemic injustice”

Why, exactly, don't you trust that person's opinion?
Key Takeaways
  • The philosopher Miranda Fricker coined the term "epistemic injustice" for any occasion we discount or downplay someone's testimony based on nonrelevant factors (like gender or race).
  • It's something seen in attacks on industry-funded studies. But to attack the source without addressing the content is no better than an ad hominem logical fallacy.
  • We all have some unconscious idea of who or what makes a reputable source. We should remember not to let nonrelevant factors cloud our judgements.

The team is hunched over the quiz paper. Marie knows the answer.

“It’s leopards,” she says, confidently. Keegan, who’s holding the pen, makes an unsure noise. Marie frowns. After a few long, awkward moments, Nick pipes up.

“I think it actually is leopards,” he says.

“You’re right!” Keegan says and writes it down. Marie snorts in quiet anger. It’s not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last. But she swallows her bitter comment. After all, she’s used to it by now.

This is an example of what Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic injustice.”

Selective deafness

There are many ways to express prejudice. It might be physical abuse, but it also can happen when you ridicule, demean, or insult someone. It can occur when we deny opportunities to X that are given to Y. For Fricker, one subtler way we engage in prejudice is when we refuse to respect someone else’s opinions or testimony, without good reason to do so.

For instance, a sexist might say to his wife, “Marge, there’s female intuition, and then there are facts,” or a white racist judge might (consciously or not) give more weight to a white eyewitness. Former Australian foreign secretary, Julie Bishop, referred to it as “gender deafness,” and it’s where “if you’re the only female voice in the room, [men] just don’t seem to hear you.”

Epistemic injustice downplays, reduces, or outright ignores what someone says based upon nonrelevant information, such as their sex, ethnicity, religion, wealth, and so on.

The problem is that when we deny the validity of someone’s voice, we diminish and reduce them. When strict Islamic Law, for instance, says a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, that is to say they matter less. Whereas, Immanuel Kant argued, when we believe and listen to someone else, we show we respect them.

You’re a shill!

While Fricker coined the term “epistemic injustice” to apply to those usually marginalized and discriminated against in society, it’s something also seen in a lot of everyday critiques of certain research.

Let’s take an example: “Big Pharma.” It’s not uncommon for a study or trial to be dismissed because it’s funded (partly or entirely) by some kind of big corporation — usually within the pharmaceutical, food, and consumer industries. When we read, “Yeah, that research is funded by Big Pharma,” or “Well, you would say that, you’re paid by them,” we are not only doing an epistemic injustice, but we’re dismissing an argument based on the source: what’s usually called an ad hominem attack.

Of course, sometimes “industry-sponsored” research is dodgy. It might be that “participants” are selected to make a certain result more likely, like by excluding men or women for no obvious reason. A drug might be tested against a weaker, outdated alternative (“Look, my drug is much better than alternatives*”). So, no, “industry-sponsored” does not mean “perfect.”

But these are problems with all scientific research. A research graduate, hoping to make a name for themselves and/or bag themselves a great job, is just as likely to engineer a result as a corporate shill. An “independent researcher” does not mean they somehow hang up all preexisting biases at the door. Some studies are flawed, and some research is skewed. Who the author is shouldn’t matter: We need to look at the study as a study.

What’s more, a huge meta-analysis from John Hopkins University and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of 245,999 clinical trials concluded that industry-sponsored studies were generally faster and better. They went on to say that the industry’s “increased funding for larger randomized clinical trials may be warranted to inform clinical decision-making and answer important clinical and health policy questions.” With an estimated 70% of all clinical trials being funded by industry, it’s silly to discount so much important research.

Avoiding epistemic injustice

The problem with epistemic injustice, as Fricker imagined it, is that it lies very closely to our unconscious biases. We each have, nestled somewhere in our psyche, the idea of a “knowledgeable person.” From our childhood, via our education, and well into our careers, we carry the image of some paragon of truth we respect and listen to above all else. And so, most of us have likely been witness to, or even guilty of, devaluing someone’s testimony at least once.

Of course, this is not to say that “everyone’s opinion is of equal worth.” If I have a problem with my car, I’m not going to rely on Tipsy Tony from the local bar. I’m going to call a mechanic. But even if we believe some voices do have more weight than others, to judge them on the basis of stereotypical and irrelevant factors is simply prejudice. “Epistemic justice” means that if your mechanic is male or female, black or white, you’ll take their opinion just the same.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.


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