Authority Delegation (Overgaard-Loiselle-2016)

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This is a definition of Authority Delegation that 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."

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This definition of Authority Delegation was formulated by Nicholas Overgaard and Mirka Loiselle in 2016.1

Broader History

At its base, the concept of authority delegation concerns negotiations among epistemic communities regarding what is known. Philosophers have long sought to understand knowers and knowledge. Early in the twentieth century, epistemologists concerned with philosophy of science tended to a logical positivist approach. In the mid-twentieth century, cognitive scientists conducted laboratory studies of human cognition. It was a hallmark of all these approaches that they focused on the individual knower in an ideal setting.

In recent decades, philosophers and historians of science, along with a few anthropologists and cognitive scientists have adopted a different approach. Focusing on the practice of science, they studied groups of knowers in action – in their natural habitat – and began to pay attention to how knowers talk among themselves. This approach brought us closer to the questions underlying the concept of authority delegation. Where does knowledge reside? Who (or what) counts as a knower? How is knowledge transmitted? Such questions highlight the importance of the division of epistemic labour and therefore of communication within the community (testimony). It also leads some to suggest an epistemic role for artifacts and experiments, and to question the primacy of the individual knower.

An exemplar of the genre is Karin Knorr Cetina’s intensive ethnographic study of two scientific communities: those working in high energy physics (HEP) and those working in molecular biology.2 She argues that these two communities have distinctly different ways of knowing and of negotiating authority. Within HEP, she claims, expertise and authority are necessarily distributed among community members, simply because no one person can know everything required to perform the experiment. Knorr Cetina provocatively proposes that under such conditions, the individual ceases to be an epistemic subject. John Hardwig takes a similar position in his study of a paper reporting on the lifespan of charm particles.3 No one author of the paper under discussion understands everything contained in the paper. This leaves us with a choice. Either a single author “knows” what is reported, but without understanding what he knows. Or we must only claim that the community knows; that is, we can accurately report that “we know that p” but not that “I know that p.”

The locus classicus of the notion of distributed cognition (D-cog) is anthropologist Edwin Hutchins’s 1995 book, Cognition in the Wild.4 Hutchin’s argues that we will achieve a better understanding of human cognition if we study it not in an artificial laboratory setting, but rather in its natural environment, which is “rich in organizing resources.”4p. xiv He conducted an ethnographic study of a community of sailors on board a United States Navy ship engaged in the communal cognitive project of navigating the ship’s course into harbour. Focusing on the central importance of the division of labour, Hutchins describes the communal cognitive process as a computational process that entails “the propagation of representational state across a variety of media” in which both persons and tools play an essential role. 4p. xvi He argues that human cognitive powers are critically dependent on the artificially created environment in which they are exercised. From this he concludes that human cognition is not merely embedded in a complex sociocultural world, but is itself actually constituted as a cultural and social process.

John Searle also highlights communal cognitive processes in his attempt to unearth the logical structure of human society, to formulate a social ontology.5 Searle begins by noting that classical attempts to understand social reality made the critical error of taking language for granted. He argues that the social contract does not arrive after language; rather, he claims, “if you share a common language and are already involved in conversations in that common language, you already have a social contract.”5p. 14 At the core of Searle’s analysis is “collective intentionality,” by which he means the capacity to engage in cooperative endeavours based on shared attitudes. Within scientonomy, it is clearly such collective intentionality that defines an epistemic community.

Based on collective intentionality, Searle suggests, society establishes institutional facts by assigning “status functions,” which confer authority on those who hold them. Thus, a licensed surgeon has the authority to perform surgery, a dollar bill has the authority to be exchanged for goods, and a corporation has the authority to perform certain person-like functions. Similarly, within science, those with demonstrated expertise in a particular area (art authentication or neutrino detection) are assigned a status function via collective intentionality by the mechanism of authority delegation.

Returning to a historical perspective, it is interesting to note the recent suggestion of a conceptual resonance between the current notion of distributed cognition and early twentieth century functional psychology and pragmatic philosophy.6 In contrast to experimental psychology, and consonant with recent dynamic systems approaches, functional psychology attended to adaptive cognitive processes of the organism situated in its environment. Similarly, the focus within D-cog on defining the boundaries of the system resonate with the important role of perspective within pragmatism. Moreover, the functionalist emphasis on the interactional nature of meaning resonates with the pragmatist focus on the importance of value in problem solving.

Scientonomic History

Acceptance Record

Here is the complete acceptance record of this definition:
CommunityAccepted FromAcceptance IndicatorsStill AcceptedAccepted UntilRejection Indicators
Scientonomy1 February 2017The definition became accepted as a result of the acceptance of the respective suggested modification.No6 February 2023The definition became rejected as a result of the acceptance of the respective modification.

Suggestions To Accept

Here are all the modifications where the acceptance of this definition has been suggested:

Modification Community Date Suggested Summary Verdict Verdict Rationale Date Assessed
Sciento-2016-0003 Scientonomy 7 September 2016 Accept the notion of authority delegation. Accepted There 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".c3 1 February 2017

Suggestions To Reject

These are all the modifications where the rejection of this definition has been suggested:

Modification Community Date Suggested Summary Verdict Verdict Rationale Date Assessed
Sciento-2019-0017 Scientonomy 26 December 2019 Accept the definitions of authority delegation, and its subtypes, that generalize the currently accepted definitions to apply to all epistemic agents, rather than only communities. Accepted The commentators found the modification uncontroversial.c1 c2 It was noted that the modification "merely attempts to capture what is already de facto accepted - namely, the idea that authority can be delegated by and to epistemic agents of all kinds (both communal and individual)" as indicated by the "fact that the canonical examples of authority delegation often involve individual experts (see, for example, Loiselle 2017)".c3 It was agreed that the modification "introduces a necessary rewording in the definitions of authority delegation and its species".c4 6 February 2023

Question Answered

Authority Delegation (Overgaard-Loiselle-2016) is an attempt to answer the following question: What is authority delegation? How should it be defined?

See Authority Delegation for more details.


Authority delegation explained by Gregory Rupik

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.


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Questions About This Definition

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  1. ^  Overgaard, Nicholas and Loiselle, Mirka. (2016) Authority Delegation. Scientonomy 1, 11-18. Retrieved from
  2. ^  Knorr Cetina, Karin. (1999) Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences Make Knowledge. Harvard University Press.
  3. ^  Hardwig, John. (1991) The Role of Trust in Knowledge. Journal of Philosophy 88 (12), 693-708.
  4. a b c  Hutchins, Edwin. (1995) Cognition in the Wild. MIT Press.
  5. a b  Searle, John. (2006) Social Ontology: Some Basic Principles. Anthropological Theory 6 (1), 12-29.
  6. ^  Osbeck, Lisa and Nersessian, Nancy. (2014) Situating Distributed Cognition. Philosophical Psychology 27 (1), 82-97.