Mark Alfano: Extended knowledge, the recognition heuristic, and epistemic injustice

Professor Mark Alfano (University of Oregon) speaks at the Extended Knowledge conference, University of Edinburgh, 22-24 April 2015.

Abstract: Following Palermos’s (forthcoming) pioneering application of dynamical systems theory to the extended mind debate, in recent work (Alfano and Skorburg forthcoming), we have developed a principled way to distinguish between cases of cognitive embedding and cases of outright cognitive extension. We here deploy that distinction to argue that the effectiveness of common heuristics (availability, representativeness, recognition) is an example of embedding. We focus in particular on the recognition heuristic. Recognition is the thinnest and most basic form of memory: to recognize something, all you need to do is be aware that you’ve encountered it before. You needn’t remember any particular information about it, how you came to be acquainted with it, or what its nature is. Gigerenzer and his colleagues have shown that people often use their recognitional capacities in decision-making: if you recognize only one of two cities, you will tend to infer that therecognized city is more populous than the unrecognized city, and if you recognize only one of two universities, you will tend to infer that the recognized university is more prestigious than the unrecognized university. This heuristic works, when it does, because newspapers and other media tend to discuss bigger cities and prestigious universities more than they discuss smaller cities and less prestigious universities. Moreover, people know this, if only implicitly, and therefore rely on the “if that were true, I would have heard by now” inference (Goldberg 2011). The reliability of the recognition heuristic for a particular criterion variable (e.g., population) in a given context (e.g., Western European cities) depends on the extent to which intensity of media coverage correlates with the criterion. Using data mining and a new experimental results, we show that there are systematic biases in the US press against reporting on cities outside the United States and Western Europe. We conclude by placing these biases in the context of epistemic injustice.