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Number Seven Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty Six - 13 March 2023
Iran Daily - Number Seven Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty Six - 13 March 2023 - Page 6

Northwestern University scholar Sanford C. Goldberg:

Scholars need brutally honest feedbacks to keep them honest

What do you do, if I may, to avoid that trap?
So, what I actually do is that I cultivate a practice. I think many of us do this. I have friends who will keep me honest. Those are the ones who were with me when I was just a little pipsqueak. They will say, “Hey, Sandy! Your argument there is really shoddy. I think you’re actually not being careful.” They will be brutally honest with me. In fact, they do me a huge favor in doing that because that’s great feedback. And I will cultivate and appreciate that.
The last comment that I’ll make to you is kind of a slightly humiliating comment. I was at a conference a while ago where one of my dear friends told me that I was failing him in this regard. He regularly sends me papers. He said, “Sandy, you’re not being brutally honest with me. I need you to be more brutally honest, and you have been failing me for the last year.” And I think he was right. I decided I have to give him the same kind of effort that he gives me. Otherwise, that’s a lack of reciprocity in our many, many decades of friendship.

A few months ago, I was trying to write a paper, and my friend was helping me. We were searching through journals and we came across a specific issue of a specific journal. There were some really good papers on that issue that were relevant to the argument I was trying to establish. And then there was this one piece by a very famous person. I and several of my friends agreed that it revolved around an anecdote, at best, and a very poor one at that. By the way, it still managed to be on the front page of a very prestigious journal. This is somehow related to the earlier questions I asked. There is an Arabic saying that says, “The words of the rulers rule the words”. I’ll say something like that is happening right now in academia as well.
Absolutely. What this nice anecdote illustrates is the importance but also some of the limitations of peer review. I don’t know if this was a peer-reviewed piece. Do you happen to know if this was peer-reviewed?

It was peer-reviewed. I don’t know the inside workings of the journal, but the journal is advertised as doing double-blind review.
Double-anonymized means that the editor knows who the author is, but the peer reviewer and the author don’t know each other. So, I actually think best practice might be triple-anonymized where the editor doesn’t know either.
I think you made a very, very nice point. I should say one of the lovely areas of social epistemology is the social epistemology of peer review. This is an area where I’ve had the great good fortune of having an undergraduate at Northwestern who became obsessed with this topic. So, we studied it for most of last year. There’s excellent work on the various good-making and bad-making features of peer review and anonymity.
Frankly, I don’t think I would ever have to submit to peer review again in order to publish a lot of papers — and I think many of my friends are in the same boat. I’m very, very fortunate and privileged to be asked to write for a lot of edited volumes and edited journals. But at the same time, I have a requirement on myself that I will submit at least one and often more papers to triple-anonymized peer review because I feel like I want to keep myself honest. What you’re talking about, I see all the time, and I’m worried that I will become that guy. That’s a real worry. So, to try to keep myself honest, I will send at least one paper every year for peer review. I will take the slings and arrows of peer review just to remind myself, “Hey, this is the kind of thing that one needs to undergo to keep oneself intellectually honest.”

Let’s get to Chapter 9, ‘Should’ve Known’. What’s it all about?
Of all of the papers that I’ve written, this is perhaps the paper that got the greatest uptake. What I wanted to try to argue in that paper is that we often talk about what we should have known. What struck me as interesting is that the way that people talk and the way that epistemologists talk was very different. When people talk about what we should have known, they don’t care what evidence you had.
There are things you should have known, even though you didn’t have the evidence on the basis of which you could have known it. Just to give a simple example, if you’re a doctor, you may not have looked at the most recent journal of pediatrics. But if you’re a pediatrician, and there was something in that journal that was crucial to your treatment of your patient, you should have known that because it was your professional responsibility to know that.
So, what I wanted to try to do is to understand what makes it true that you should have known something even if you didn’t currently have the evidence that you needed to know it. What still makes it true that you should have known it? That’s what I was trying to present in that paper.

My impression was that there were many assumptions in your analysis of this matter, and, if I may, it was oversimplified, especially in terms of intelligence. Because you seem to assume that all the subjects might be on the same level of intelligence.
Yeah, I fear that that criticism is probably true of a good deal of my work. So, let me see what I can do to try to assuage your worries here. Because I think you’re right that I’m making a number of simplifying assumptions.
What I’m really after in these papers and throughout this book is a theoretical account of how we can hold each other to account in our beliefs, judgments, and opinions. You’re quite right that I assume that, certainly if you have evidence that if you are able to judge on the basis of them you judge reasonably, then, if you don’t judge reasonably on the basis of your evidence, my theory is going to suggest that we can hold you to account. We can say, “Come on! You should have known this. You have the evidence.”
But I want you to go even stronger. I wanted to create a theory where you could hold me accountable. You know that I’m a professor at Northwestern. Suppose that as a professor at Northwestern, there are things that I should know. For example, suppose I didn’t know the practices at Northwestern. I wanted a theory where you could say to me, “Sandy, I know that you didn’t look into this, but you should have looked into this and you should have known.”
In order for me to create a theory that can generate that, I do need to assume the basic competencies of people. So, that’s true. If a person fails in competently judging on the basis of evidence or doesn’t do her job, my theory is going to suggest that, in fact, we can give her a downgrade. We can say she should have known.

I wanted to mention, with that point in mind, that those who argue about ableism and things like that might criticize your work for not being fair to the diversity of society.
Excellent. So, what you’ve just done is you’ve put a little note in my head where I have to think about that one further. Because I think that’s a fair worry to have. I’m going to write you and the rest of the folks an IOU. I’m going to try to think about this one further.

Chapter 10 of your book is titled ‘If That Were True I Would Have Heard about It by Now’. Can you elaborate on your points in that chapter?
Yeah. Here, I was thinking about a number of our ways of actually reading newspapers. This may be of some interest to you. I was thinking about what happens when I hear something about some big piece of news, and I haven’t read it in any of the newspapers that I follow. I do try to follow, not always well, but I do try to follow newspapers not just from the United States. I follow at least one newspaper in the UK, the Guardian.
When I hear something from someone that’s a big piece of news that I haven’t read in any of the newspapers that I follow, I realize that I will often take the fact that it wasn’t reported as a reason for skepticism about the report. What kind of skepticism is it? I say to myself, “Ah, if that were true, I would have heard about it by now through the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian.” There is a bit of a left-leaning bias in many of the newspapers that I read, I must admit.
So, I was basically trying to ask, “Is there a condition under which that kind of reasoning is good?” Because a lot of times in epistemology, we say the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because you haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. So, my question was, “Is there ever a case where the fact that I haven’t heard about it is a good reason for skepticism?” The answer is yes, and in that paper, I tried to lay out the conditions under which that’s an okay form of reasoning.

What are those conditions?
You have to have what I call “coverage”. Coverage is an important one. This is an area where, for example, someone like me who’s in a bubble on the political left may not have the coverage that I think I have. There may be some kinds of news out there that don’t get reported in papers. And if that’s true, I don’t have coverage on those. And if I don’t have coverage on those, this kind of reasoning is no good. It will lead me often to errors.
So, I need to have coverage. The sources that I rely on need to be competent. That is, it needs to be true that if there were news, they would report it competently. Third, there needs to be enough time so that they had time to investigate it. If there’s something that just happened like 15 minutes ago in the city of Chicago, I can’t possibly expect the New York Times to know about it in 15 minutes. So, enough time needs to have gone by. And I need to be such that I am situated so that I would get a report if there were one. So, I can’t be, for example, in a house in the middle of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with no connection to the internet and no connection to newspapers. I must be situated in such a way that I’m regularly getting the news reports that are coming in, whether in the morning newspaper or through the internet.
So, if all those conditions are satisfied, I think I can reasonably reason that if I didn’t hear about it, the chance is low that it’s actually true. And that may lead me to doubt whatever is being said.


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