the recognition heuristic and epistemic injustice

Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.

The Defense of Poesy, by Sir Philip Sidney

It’s easy, especially for a white man like me, to take for granted my capability to assert.  If I want to say something — in person, on a blog, to a reporter, to an administrator at my university — all I have to do is open my mouth or start typing.  What could be simpler?

But any particular act of asserting, like any speech act at all, is possible only because it originates in a complex linguistic, social, and cultural matrix.  Some elements of this matrix are obvious and uncontroversial when pointed out.  I can’t say something to you if we don’t speak the same language and have no a way of translating from my language to yours.  Likewise, I can’t make an assertion if I’ve established a reputation, like the boy who cried ‘wolf!’, as unreliable: in that case, any intelligent interlocutor would treat the probability of p given that I said ‘p’ as equivalent to the prior probability of p:

P(p | Mark says ‘p) = P(p)

P(wolf | boy cries ‘wolf!’) = P(wolf)

My word would carry no weight one way or the other.  It’s unclear whether I’ve even made an assertion when my word has no weight — especially if I know in advance that I’m so distrusted.

What if I’ve established no reputation one way or another?  You might think that, in such a scenario, the default should be to trust me, to give my word some, though of course not dispositive, weight.  Call this default assertoric empowerment: an epistemic agent S is default-empowered to assert that p for a range R of propositions just in case S’s saying that p (when p is in R) typically carries some evidentiary weight even with strangers. (I’m drawing here on Searle’s idea of empowerment in The Construction of Social Reality.)

For other kinds of speech acts, it’s obvious that constraints are placed on empowerment.  Not just anyone can issue me directives.  “Eat your vegetables” carries some force when my wife says it to me, but not when the bus boy at a restaurant says it to me.  “Class dismissed” will end my class when I say it, but it won’t end my class when you say it or your class when I say it.  I can’t promise to give you the Grand Canyon for your birthday because I don’t own, and have no way of acquiring, the Grand Canyon.  One needs to be suitably empowered to give people orders, to declare X to be Y, or to promise to Z.

For “pushy” speech acts such as directives and declaratives, default empowerment is highly circumscribed.  There are very few things that any given person is assumed by default to be able to command others to do.  “Stop harming me” is probably one, though that presupposes that the speaker is in fact being harmed.  “Don’t harm me” might work a little better.  Likewise, there are very few things that any given person is assumed to be able to declare.  I can’t declare myself President, declare myself tenured, or name your baby.  Most default declarative empowerments seem to have to do with voluntary affiliations.  I can declare myself a Christian, or an atheist, or a socialist, or gay.  Historically, though, even these kinds of affiliations couldn’t be declared by default.  After the Peace of Westphalia, a German peasant couldn’t declare his own religious affiliation: it was declared for him by his prince.  Until very recently, it was impossible to self-identify as homosexual because there was no concept or word for the category.  Even after the words and concepts were forged, self-declaring as gay was not default-empowered: someone who tried might, instead of being acknowledged, face electroshock therapy.  In 2013, Bangladesh recognized a third gender category of hijras, who are neither men nor women.

Not so, one might think, with assertions.  Unless one is explicitly disempowered because one is severely mentally ill, a very young child, or a notorious liar, one is default-empowered to assert that p for a very wide range R.  I want to challenge this assumption.  Just for starters, consider the fact that in ancient Greece the testimony of a slave was admissible as evidence in a trial only if it was acquired under torture.  This shows that belonging to a certain social category has been enough, historically, to disempower someone from making an assertion unless very special steps were taken.  Surely, though, things have improved in the ensuing centuries.  But how much?  Even in progressive Sweden, a woman’s “no” still means “yes.”  In the USA, a black man’s saying “I’m not resisting arrest” can still lead to charges of… resisting arrest.  Sad to say, default assertoric empowerment does not characterize the epistemic lives of many, many people: whether you’re empowered to say that p depends on which social category you belong to.  In this post, I’ll just assume that it’s clear that the examples of assertoric disempowerment I’ve mentioned are repugnant.  Those who share my sensibilities will agree that women should be default-empowered to say (and mean) no, that black people should default-empowered to say (and mean) that they’re not resisting arrest, and that it should never be a condition on someone’s assertoric empowerment that s/he first be tortured.

It’s useful, then, to distinguish normative assertoric empowerment from descriptive assertoric empowerment.  On the one hand, default assertoric empowerment shouldn’t depend on the social category the speaker belongs to.  On the other hand, it often does.  What seems to happen all too often can be captured by a relativized version of the empowerment schema:

An epistemic agent S of socio-cultural category C is default-empowered to assert that p for a range R of propositions just in case S/C’s saying that p (when p is in R) typically carries some evidentiary weight.

When descriptive default assertoric empowerment diverges from normative default assertoric empowerment because of the role of the C-variable, we have an instance of social-categoriy-based-epistemic injustice.  In other words, if your belonging to a social category that should be irrelevant to whether you are empowered to say that p disempowers you from saying that p, you have been wronged.  (On the other side of the coin, if you are unfairly privileged to say that p only because you belong to a particular social category, a different sort of epistemic injustice has been committed.)  I won’t even attempt to lay out a general account of when people of a given category should or should not be default-empowered to assert that p.  For one thing, I don’t have the space here.  For another, I have no idea how to do so.  What I do want to try in the balance of this post is to convince you that a particularly pernicious form social-category-based epistemic injustice, in which people’s capacity to make assertions is undermined, is rife in the news — in particular, in the coverage of violent ongoing conflicts.

People don’t have time to travel the world in search of everything worth knowing.  We rely on reporters and newspapers to tell us what’s worth knowing.  We expect that, if we’ve chosen an epistemically responsible paper to read, then if it systematically ignores something, that thing isn’t worth knowing about.  One way in which epistemic injustice can crop up, then, is that people who have important assertions to make are systematically ignored because of where they’re from.  If you won’t be heard — and you know that you won’t be heard — then you cannot speak.  If you cannot speak even though you have something important to say, and your silence is determined by the social group you belong to, then epistemic injustice has occurred.

In decades of research, Gerd Gigerenzer and his collaborators have shown that the degree to which something is covered in the news is highly predictive of whether people in other countries recognize that thing.  Moreover, people seem to use the fact that they recognize something to decide whether it is large on some important dimension.  This “recognition heuristic” can be a powerful epistemic tool when the importance of something correlates with how much it gets covered in the news, and hence how many people recognize it and think it’s important.  For instance, Americans are surprisingly good (and better than Germans) at saying which of two German cities is bigger because they tend to recognize only some of them, and almost always say that the one they recognize is bigger.  Likewise, Germans are surprisingly good (and better than Americans) at saying which of two American cities is bigger because they tend to recognize only some of them, and almost always say that the one they recognize is bigger.

Population is an important dimension of a city, so it reflects well on major newspapers that their coverage (and hence our recognition and decision-making) tracks city population pretty well.  Indeed, correlations between population, news coverage, and proportion of people recognizing a city tend to be at least .60 and as high as .86.  On the plausible assumption that people from different cities have roughly as much of note to say as one another, high correlations like this indicate that epistemic justice is being served.  In other research, however, I’ve started to document problems with this model when cities outside of the US and Europe are thrown into the mix (see this post and follow-ups on my blog).  Although the correlation between population and coverage is .83 for the New York Times‘s coverage of German cities and .77 for Argentine cities, it’s a measly .41 for Turkish cities and drops to .19 when cities from Germany, Argentina, Turkey, Thailand, and Nigeria are considered together.  Ignoring for the sake of brevity a lot of important caveats, the reason for the international discrepancy is that cities outside of Europe are covered much, much less than those in Europe.  Here’s a graph that represents the correlations between ordinal population ranking and ordinal NYT coverage ranking for Germany and the rest of the world:

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Note the many cities, some of which are quite large, tied for last place with 0 mentions in the NYT.  If you lived in one of those cities between 2000 and 2010 (the dates covered by my analysis), you could not speak to the world — at least, not through the NYT.  Geography determines communicative destiny.

One might think that I’m overstating the case.  After all, maybe nothing important is going on in cities outside of Europe.  Maybe entire cities have lost their default assertoric empowerment because they have nothing worth saying.  Surely, though, you’d admit that whether people are meeting violent deaths in a given area would make that area remarkable.  If a newspaper fails to cover large-scale violence, then it is committing epistemic injustice against the survivors and victims, who presumably want to say something worth hearing about their plight.  The number of people killed in armed conflict is an important dimension of the such a horrific event.  One would hope, then, that the amount of news coverage would correlate well with the severity of the horror.  Sadly, this is not so.  To show this, I correlated the number of violent deaths in 2013 in a given area with the number of articles in the NYT that mentioned killing in the area in question.  There were 17 conflicts in which at least 100 people were killed (an arbitrary cutoff I imposed before looking at any correlations).  The correlation between the number of deaths in 2013 and the number of articles mentioning those deaths in 2013 was a paltry .28.  Here’s a scatterplot:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 4.23.57 PM


The blue line is a regression line for the data.  It’s got a shadow around it indicating the 95% confidence interval.  Basically, what this means is that we can be 95% certain that the true regression line lies somewhere in the shaded area.  Notably, this means that, although the point-estimate of the correlation is .28, the real correlation could be positive, negative, or zero.  In other words, for all we know from this data, there is no correlation between the number of people killed in a violent conflict and the number of times that conflict is mentioned in the NYT.

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