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Understanding Contextual Standards

Understanding Contextual Standards

As groups and as individuals, people are faced with difficult decisions every day. For any important debate it is in the interest of each party involved to obtain a well-informed decision. It is difficult, however, to identify whether inquisitions into the nature of decisions are an honest search for knowledge or a form of avoidance. To be able to identify the moment when skeptical inquiry becomes a distraction requires clear boundaries of knowledge context to be in place, for without them it is possible for any contentious issue to change from a practical matter into a debate about abstract principles of epistemology. In the following paper I accept the knowledge-action norm, or the view that when one gains knowledge one has reason to act on it. I will use real world examples from debates around social issues and environmental policy to argue the requisite of a clear understanding of established epistemic context for all decision-based discussions. By establishing this need I will refute David Hume’s claim that the study of epistemology is separate from matters of practical life and present a case for epistemology as being an essential part of day-to-day human affairs.

One could argue that a clear understanding of knowledge context is not essential to decision making processes, as certain knowledge can be easily identified as self-evident when it appears. They might continue that taking care to contextualize knowledge into higher and lower levels for practical situations would create a form of knowledge that is too restricted or abstract, and therefore likely fallible. I would counter that with better understanding of contextual requirements for knowledge, practical issues at hand become less a question of how knowledge applies to itself and more a specific of how knowledge applies to the decision at hand. Inquiries which neglect contextual standards can be seen as an attempt to lower the context of knowledge, reducing any practical debate back down to its basic epistemic foundations. If a common ground of epistemic context is identified and agreed upon by both parties then opportunities for unnecessarily high context questions are reduced, and when such inquiries are advanced their nature can be more easily identified.

Another objection to the previous proposition might be that clear understanding of a knowledge context could disrupt a decision making process more than if the context was left ambiguous. We can imagine a scientific debate about any practical decision where the initial question is something apparently general like “What is ‘proven scientific knowledge’” instead of a more direct question about any present scientific issue. One making this inquiry might expect their debate to veer off topic and evolve into an inquisition about whether any scientist can produce irrefutably proven knowledge. Yet here we see that this question involves a contextual standard which is too high for any practical scientific debate, as it calls into question the scientific method as a whole. All that is needed is a functional definition the term “proven scientific knowledge” as it relates to the current debate, for example “the stability of the research behind a scientific argument compared to the strength of any conflicting research”. In this way a brief evaluation of epistemically relevant questions and their relation to the debate creates a clear outline of context from the beginning, expediting rather than preventing practical decisions.

A case study similar to the hypothetical discussion above can be found in Oreskes and Conway’s paper, “Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War”. In their paper they begin by citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with a well-backed statement which says that “most of the warming over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities” (Conway 1), then go on to examine objections to the claim. The objections appear in the form of skeptical arguments manufactured by a group of Cold War era physicists who perceived environmental advocacy to be an anti-capitalist movement. Rather than expressing this concern directly, the physicists used their credibility as experts to publish “popular articles and letters challenging the science” (Conway 27). This response was not only unscientific, it was also epistemically problematic, as the letters provided negative assumptions backed by no evidence beyond the logic of their authors’ skeptical views. The physicists’ intent was to detract from the scientific claims of their counterparts by neglecting the required scientific standards of knowledge for justified belief and action in their field.

Through their efforts, the physicists in Conway’s paper were able to “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate” (Conway 30), depriving unbiased experts who were in agreement about the threat of human-caused global warming from being able to implement solutions. These physicists were also able to generate similar public skepticism around knowledge about causes of holes in the ozone layer as well as correlation between tobacco products and cancer. Each of these issues have since been definitively agreed upon, and due to the pre-existing context of knowledge through thorough scientific research the group of physicists were unsuccessful in using their skeptical criticisms to promote their pro-capitalist agenda. Conway’s case study makes it clear that poor understanding of skeptical standards poses significant threats to important issues; as demonstrated by the strict requirements of the scientific community, early establishment of contextual boundaries is an effective solution for identifying the line between abstract ideas and practically applicable knowledge.

Problems resulting from a lack of clarity about epistemic standards can be found in society as well, particularly in cases of epistemic injustice. In section 1.3 of her book, Fricker introduces the concept of a “credibility deficit” (17), an identity-based prejudice “that will tend surreptitiously to… deflate the credibility afforded to the speaker” (17). That is to say that such prejudice is not an outright rejection of a plausible assertion, but something that will “be sufficient to cross the threshold for belief… so that the hearer’s prejudice causes him to miss out on a piece of knowledge” (Fricker 17). By this understanding, epistemically unjust claims like “blacks are intellectually inferior to whites… Orientals are sly” (Fricker 23) are similar to the biased opinions on climate change offered by the physicists in Conway. Such negative generalities about identity present themselves as unsubstantiated skeptical arguments which lack familiarity with contextual standards and only prevent reasonable solutions from being discovered.

Let us explore this idea in more detail by following up Fricker’s example of Tom Robinson from Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom is accused of raping a white woman and when he is brought to court to testify he faces an all-white jury. He provides reliable testimony (he could not have committed the crime because of a shoulder injury) which proves his innocence, yet the jury still finds him guilty. In discrediting Tom’s testimony because of his identity and convicting him of a crime he could not have committed, the jury commits an epistemic injustice. The jury believes Tom culpable beyond reasonable doubt, but fails to recognize that this legal stipulation includes (and presupposes) unreasonable doubt as well. Through their lack of familiarity with the contextual standards of legal testimony the jury fails to fully credit the testimonial knowledge presented to them, and though they are able to agree on a decision it is understood through strict legal context to be incorrect. Unfortunately, the epistemic injustice in Lee’s novel is persistent and deeply systematic and so the epistemic error goes unrecognized, but regardless of the outcome the case demonstrates two points: That epistemic injustices have roots in misunderstandings about contextual knowledge standards, and that such contextual errors prevent appropriate and practical solutions from emerging in decision making processes. The case of Tom Robinson is a fictional example, yet real court cases as recent as the Colten Boushie trial affirm that questions about contextual standards and epistemic injustices remain practically relevant.

The examples presented by Conway and Fricker show that a lack of familiarity with given contextual standards of knowledge can create unnecessary complications and sometimes unfortunate consequences in decision making processes. These problems can be avoided if rigid contextual standards of knowledge and clear definitions of context-sensitive terms are developed early on. From this point, if all parties involved in decisions are clear on their established contextual parameters and take care to maintain them, appropriate resolutions will be reached and abstract debates will be avoided. This practice requires a rudimentary but active knowledge of epistemology, thereby negating David Hume’s claim that the study of epistemology is detached from our day-to-day lives.


Works Cited

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. “Challenging Knowledge: How Climate Science Became a Victim of the Cold War.” Agnotology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance, pp. 1–30.,

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