epistemic injustice?

In her book ‘Epistemic Injustice’ (previously discussed elsewhere on this blog), Miranda Fricker argues that only underestimations of a knower/speaker’s credibility (on the basis of stereotypes, roughly) should count as an epistemic injustice.

In considering cases of the inflation of an individual’s credibility, she suggests these are not harms to the person qua knower, so not properly understood as epistemic injustices. Whilst there may be cumulative harms attached to being attributed excess credibility (becoming complacent about one’s epistemic faculties due to thinking one is a better knowledge seeker than is in fact the case, say) she suggests a one-off case of credibility excess does not constitute a wrong to the knower.

I wonder, then, what we should make of this case reported in today’s news:

‘Judge tells female witness: you’re too believable’.

The witness in question was the victim of a violent robbery.

‘Judge Tabor told Bristol Crown Court: “Denise Dawson was a particularly impressive witness because she showed courage, clarity of thought and was undoubtedly honest. The jury may lend more weight to her evidence than her facts allow. You cannot be sure she got it right . . .’

This last sentence suggests there may be a mixed case, with excess and deficits of credibility attributed – the judge’s estimation that the jurors will inflate her credibility (over-attributing the virtue of sincerity), whilst perhaps deflating her credibility (wrt the virtue of accuracy) himself.

An interesting case. The full story is here. Any thoughts?

7 thoughts on “epistemic injustice?

  1. This is utterly fascinating; thank you, Stoat. The witness says, “They told me there was insufficient evidence but, if I saw him and can positively ID him, surely that in itself is enough evidence?”

    But if you google “eyewitness testimony” you’ll find a string of articles from good sources on the reasons why eyewitness testimony is often given much more credibility than it should be. Vision is one of these fascinating cases where we do not ordinarily understand the factors that make specific details much more elusive than we think. Some of these: attention is really quite restricted, memory in such episodes is less reliable, telling a witness she got it right can greatly overinflate her confidence, etc.

    So we could add in: given that the reporting in the article is right, the judge seems to be relying on pretty well established research that speaks strongly in his favor.

  2. Hi JJ, thanks for the clarification.
    If the judge’s concern is, as you say, that her evidence is not as sturdy as it might be, then his claim about her being ‘too believable’ is a strange way of putting the point!

  3. This particular case, or at least the way it’s described, seems funny to me. But, there is a somewhat similar practice that is at least common, if maybe not completely okay (I’m not sure on it.) That is, people to whom extra veracity is often attributed- priests and sometimes doctors, military officers, etc., for example, are often not allowed to testify while wearing their “professional” garb on the grounds that it would make the jury too likely to credit their testimony beyond its inherent warrant. (To some degree this fits with the general rule that you can’t “bolster” testimony unless the witness’s credibility was first attacked.) This case isn’t really like those ones, as far as I can tell, but might be in the same neighborhood in some ways.

  4. As I understand it, there is a tendency for people to either judge the likely honesty or likely reliability of a source, but not both; if we bother to think about whether the source is honest, and conclude they probably are, we usually don’t bother to try to figure out if they’d really know, and vice versa. Presumably only devoting effort to one of those is a useful way to save time and effort, but I get the impression that instead of worrying about whichever is most doubtful, we worry about whichever is most salient. Being doubtful is a way of being salient, but being extremely good is another way. So we don’t worry enough about whether recognized experts are honest, and we don’t worry enough about whether the impressively sincere actually know what they’re talking about. Which fits with some of the points brought up here.

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