Authority Delegation

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What is authority delegation? How should it be defined?

It has long been recognized that division of epistemic labour is an essential feature of scientific communities. Biologists defer to physicists on matters of physics. Astronomers defer to sociologists on matters of sociology. The concept of authority delegation is an attempt to capture the nature of such relationships among scientific communities and subcommunities that hold authority over different elements of a scientific mosaic.

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Nicholas Overgaard and Mirka Loiselle in 2016. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community. Authority Delegation (Overgaard-Loiselle-2016) is currently accepted by Scientonomy community as the best available definition of the term. It is defined as: "Community A is said to be delegating authority over topic x to community B iff (1) community A accepts that community B is an expert on topic x and (2) community A will accept a theory on topic x if community B says so."

Broader History

It can be argued that authority delegation with regard to knowledge has been an essential feature of human society since time immemorial. Treating Homo sapiens as an epistemic community, Bernard Williams postulates that in early human societies, the division of epistemic labour was essential to survival: some knew best how to find berries; others were expert at tracking the movements of dangerous predators.1pp. 41-62 Aristotle recognized that if you wish to learn about the nature of bees, you’ll do better to ask an apiarist than to talk with your barber.2p. 144)

In recent decades, social epistemologists and sociologists of scientific knowledge have observed that most of what we know derives from the testimony of trusted others.3pp. 272-27345p. 1 Ludwik Fleck was one of the first to apply such ideas specifically in a scientific context. In his concepts of Denkkollectiv and Denkstil, he emphasized the fact that most individual knowledge derives from, and is embedded in, social sources.3pp. 15-17 Thomas Kuhn also recognized the central importance of testimony in the education and training of scientists – of their induction into a disciplinary matrix. His central notions of paradigm and disciplinary matrix depend heavily on sources of authoritative testimony such as textbooks, journals, oral presentations at conferences, and informal information sharing networks. Similarly, Philip Kitcher used the concept of deference to authority.6p. 58

Such notions have been applied in a variety of contexts. Steven Shapin, for example, argued that only gentlemen were accorded epistemic authority within the Royal Society of 18th century England.7 From a highly individual pursuit in the 18th century, many areas of science evolved by the 20th century into massive and complex projects conducted by large groups – so-called big science. In this context, John Hardwig proposed that science is fundamentally a group effort. Citing a single scientific paper on the lifespan of subatomic particles, with 99 authors (in the Physics Review Letters in 1983), Hardwig argued that within such a group, trust in authoritative testimony is essential to the creation of scientific knowledge.8 In contrast, Theodore Porter analyzed peer evaluation of work emanating from the one-of-a-kind neutrino observatory in Sudbury, concluding that assessment of character and integrity were essential to authority delegation in this instance.9 Unbeknownst to Porter, this work would later be so highly valued as to gain a share of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Scientonomic History

Acceptance Record

Here is the complete acceptance record of this term (it includes all the instances when the term was accepted as a part of a community's taxonomy):
CommunityAccepted FromAcceptance IndicatorsStill AcceptedAccepted UntilRejection Indicators
Scientonomy7 September 2016The publication of the article by Overgaard and Loiselle titled Authority Delegation is a good indication of acceptance of the question.Overgaard and Loiselle (2016)Yes

All Theories

The following definitions of the term have been suggested:
TheoryFormulationFormulated In
Authority Delegation (Overgaard-Loiselle-2016)Community A is said to be delegating authority over topic x to community B iff (1) community A accepts that community B is an expert on topic x and (2) community A will accept a theory on topic x if community B says so.2016
Authority Delegation (Patton-2019)Epistemic agent A is said to be delegating authority over question x to epistemic agent B iff (1) agent A accepts that agent B is an expert on question x and (2) agent A will accept a theory answering question x if agent B says so.2019
If a definition of this term is missing, please click here to add it.

Accepted Theories

The following definitions of the term have been accepted:
CommunityTheoryAccepted FromAccepted Until
ScientonomyAuthority Delegation (Overgaard-Loiselle-2016)1 February 2017

Suggested Modifications

Here is a list of modifications concerning this term:
ModificationCommunityDate SuggestedSummaryVerdictVerdict RationaleDate Assessed
Sciento-2016-0003Scientonomy7 September 2016Accept the notion of authority delegation.AcceptedThere was a community consensus that the concept of authority delegation is a significant contribution to scientonomy, as it "sheds light on the mechanism by which the more local, specialized mosaics of epistemic/scientific sub-communities gives rise to the more global scientific mosaic (of *the* Scientific Community), and all in terms of theories and methods".c1 It was also noted that the concept "has already been tacitly accepted by our community"c2 as it has been incorporated in some recent scientonomic research. One further suggestion was to continue refining the concept of authority delegation by focusing on cases "where the delegating community applies its own additional criteria before accepting what the experts tell them".c31 February 2017
Sciento-2019-0017Scientonomy26 December 2019Accept the definitions of authority delegation, and its subtypes, that generalize the currently accepted definitions to apply to all epistemic agents, rather than only communities.Open

Current Definition

In Scientonomy, the accepted definition of the term is Authority Delegation (Overgaard-Loiselle-2016).

Authority Delegation (Overgaard-Loiselle-2016) states: "Community A is said to be delegating authority over topic x to community B iff (1) community A accepts that community B is an expert on topic x and (2) community A will accept a theory on topic x if community B says so."

Authority Delegation (Overgaard-Loiselle-2016).png

If we consider the fact that scientific research is so specialized that no single research lab can account for all accepted theories in their discipline, we quickly recognize that there exists some form of distribution of labour among subcommunities. Authority delegation is an attempt to capture that distribution of labour, in scientonomic terms.

What this definition of authority delegation jointly expresses is the acceptance of a theory and the associated employment of a method. In any instance of authority delegation, the delegating community accepts that the community delegated to is an expert in some field. It follows from accepting that expertise that the same delegating community will simply employ a method to accept whatever the expert community says to accept.

Importantly, the method employed by the delegating community is distinct from that employed by the community delegated to; it would be misleading to suggest that the delegating community employs the same method as the community delegated to. This definition is careful to capture such particularities, as the definition merely expressed a new theory accepted and method employed by the delegating community.

For a simple example, consider a relation of authority delegation between physicists and biologists. A community of physicists can be said to be delegating authority over the life sciences to a community of biologists, so long as the community of physicists both accepts that biologists are experts in the life sciences and will accept a theory on the life sciences if told so by the biologists.



There is currently no accepted view concerning the existence of authority delegations.


No classes are currently accepted as being disjoint with this class.


In Scientonomy, there are currently no accepted subtypes of Authority Delegation.


No classes are currently accepted as supertypes of an authority delegation.


In Scientonomy, there are currently no accepted associations of Authority Delegation.

If a question concerning the ontology of an authority delegation is missing, please add it here.


If a question concerning the dynamics of an authority delegation is missing, please add it here.


  1. ^  Williams, Bernard. (2002) Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy. Princeton University Press.
  2. ^  Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.
  3. a b  Bird, Alexander. (2000) Thomas Kuhn. Princeton University Press.
  4. ^  Coady, Cecil. (1994) Testimony, Observation and "Autonomous Knowledge". In Matilal and Charkrabarti (Eds.) (1994).
  5. ^  Lipton, Peter. (1998) The Epistemology of Testimony. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 29 (1), 1-31.
  6. ^  Kitcher, Phillip. (1993) The Advancement of Science: Science without Legend, Objectivity without Illusions. Oxford University Press.
  7. ^  Shapin, Steven. (1994) A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England. University of Chicago Press.
  8. ^  Hardwig, John. (1985) Epistemic Dependence. The Journal of Philosophy 82 (7), 335-349.
  9. ^  Porter, Theodore. (1995) Trust in Numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton University Press.