Amending and defending critical contextual empiricism: Lessons from medical research


Amending and Defending Critical Contextual Empiricism: Lessons from Medical Research In Science as Social Knowledge (1990) and The Fate of Knowledge (2002), Helen Longino develops a social epistemological theory known as Critical Contextual Empiricism (CCE). While Longino’s work has been generally well-received, there have been a number of criticisms of CCE raised in the philosophical literature in recent years. In this paper I outline the key elements of Longino’s theory and propose several modifications to the four norms offered by the account. The revisions I propose are shaped by a number of developments in the medical context in recent years. The modified norms, which determined whether a particular community produces objective knowledge, are thus: 1. Avenues for Criticism – there must be recognized avenues for criticism, and these avenues must be publicly accessible and require transparent disclosure of all relevant information (including competing interests) from those who present their ideas. It must also be a community requirement that all members present their ideas for critical scrutiny if they wish them to be recognized as knowledge. 2. Responsiveness to Criticism – the community must be responsive to criticism. 3. Shared Public Standards – there must be some shared standards that determine community membership. Outsiders to a particular community are welcome to engage in critical debates as long as they share at least one of the community standards with the target community. 4. Cultivation of Diverse Perspectives – communities must cultivate diverse perspectives, that is, the perspectives of those who express strong dissent. The version of CCE I defend gives the principle of diversity a more central role than the original and provides greater specification of two of the other norms in light of challenges faced by medical researchers in recent years. The medical context provides us with a number of cautionary tales in which knowledge production that appears to meet the original four norms has been seriously compromised by particular social interests. The proposed modifications attempt to address these ‘loopholes’ in a way that is not ad hoc. I argue that the modifications I suggest are in line with the underlying assumptions and goals of CCE. The modified version of CCE also offers resources for defending CCE against the criticisms leveled against it by Miriam Solomon & Alan Richardson, Alvin Goldman and Philip Kitcher as well as one general concern arising out of a recent work by David Michaels. I provide responses to these criticisms in the final section of the paper. Throughout the paper I connect the theoretical work done in social epistemology to the real practice of knowledge-production as is occurs in the medical context. In light of the variety of social pressures influencing contemporary scientific research, and the role of science in shaping public policy, I argue that a rigorous social epistemology such as CCE is indispensable for understanding and assessing contemporary scientific practice.



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Kirstin Borgerson
Dalhousie University

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