pp 1–24 | Cite as

An ethical obligation to ignore the unreliable

  • Bennett HolmanEmail author
S.I. : Reliability


Stephen John has recently suggested that the ethics of communication yields important insights as to how values should be incorporated into science. In particular, he examines cases of “wishful speaking” in which a scientific actor (e.g. a tobacco company) endorses unreliable conclusions in order to obtain the consequences of the listener treating the results as credible. He concludes that what is wrong in these cases is that the speaker surreptitiously relies on values not accepted by the hearer, violating what he terms “the value-apt ideal”. I expand on this view by integrating into it Miranda Fricker’s account of testimonial injustice. I find testimonial injustice can arise in a manner unanticipated by Fricker, specifically that a credibility excess given to a speaker typically reduces the ability of others in the epistemic community to transmit knowledge, a phenomenon I term “collateral epistemic injustice”. I argue that this possibility entails that receivers have an ethical obligation to assign credibility judiciously. A further consequence of this view is that the value-apt ideal is insufficient. Because audience members have an obligation to assign credibility judiciously, a speaker cannot merely rely on shared values, they must also be open about the extent to which their conclusions depend on those values. Thus, both wishful speaking and obscuring the value-dependent nature of a conclusion makes one an unreliable source of information. Accordingly, other community members have an ethical obligation to ignore a speaker that frequently engages in either.


Values in science Wishful speaking Epistemic injustice Industry-funded science Intransigently biased agents 



I would like to thank Steven John, Christopher ChoGlueck, and Kevin Elliott who all responded to questions and corrected (at least some of) the misunderstandings I had of their work. The form and substance of the paper was helped tremendously by insightful feedback from Elizabeth Seger, audiences at “Understanding Epistemic Injustice” conference, The University of Texas (El Paso), The University of Ghent, and two blind reviewers. Finally, I owe my biggest debt of gratitude to Justin Bruner. Not only was he kind enough to supply the graphs and to run the simulations reported in Sect. 3, the core of this paper emerges from our early work on intransigently biased agents. Sections 35 were revised and sharpened over multiple drafts and innumerable long conversations with him. Justin spotted numerous gaps in my thinking and though we do not agree on all points contained herein, the paper has been greatly improved by our ongoing disagreement.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Underwood International CollegeYonsei UniversitySeoulSouth Korea
  2. 2.Faculty of HumanitiesUniversity of JohannesburgJohannesburgSouth Africa

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