Epistemic Safety in Numbers?

When groups make decisions, we might hope that those decisions would collect and reflect the expertise of the group members, and that pooling their wisdom would boost the chances of making a good decision.

But alas, the world is not always what we might hope. “Groupthink” is a phenomenon in which decisions made by a group are irrational or dysfunctional on account of the group’s desire to reach consensus and minimize conflict in conditions where consensus is challenging. Structural risk factors are theorised to include:

  • insulation of the group
  • lack of impartial leadership
  • lack of norms requiring methodological procedures
  • homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology

In philosophy, I think it is fair to say, these risk factors are sometimes present. And given my scepticism about univocal philosophical bestness, I would have expected consensus in decisions concerning philosophical quality to be extremely challenging even before considering such structural features.

So it seems epistemically risky to assume that, for example, philosophy hiring committees will generally choose the best candidate, or even that the choices made by hiring committees will generally reflect the combined knowledge and wisdom of the committee members. It seems similarly epistemically risky to assume that tasking a group of philosophers with deciding which papers, philosophers, or departments are “best” will typically result in an outcome that adequately reflects the quality of what is being assessed, or even the combined expertise of those involved. When it comes to what gets selected as “best” in philosophy, the epistemic status of the status quo decision-making procedures can be questioned.

And just as with reflexive defences of the status quo that appeal to our sense of our own personal objectivity, it is important to be aware of the risks associated with defences that appeal to the assumption that our collective decision-making will reflect our combined expertise. Among the risks associated with groupthink are:

(1) that “[g]roup members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints, by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences”,

(2) that “[l]oyalty to the group requires individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, and there is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking”,

And perhaps most relevantly here:

(3) that “[t]he dysfunctional group dynamics of the “ingroup” produces an “illusion of invulnerability” (an inflated certainty that the right decision has been made). Thus the “ingroup” significantly overrates its own abilities in decision-making, and significantly underrates the abilities of its opponents (the “outgroup”).