The Epistemic Division of Labor Revisited

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Thoma, Johanna M.
preprint description
Scientists differ in the ways they approach their work. Some are happy to follow in the footsteps of others, and continue with work that has proven fruitful in the past. Others like to explore novel approaches. It is tempting to think that herein lies an epistemic division of labor conducive to overall scientific progress: The latter, explorer-type scientists, point the way to fruitful areas of research, and the former, extractor-type scientists, more fully explore those areas. And indeed, it has now long been acknowledged that the social structure of science can play an important epistemic role. Still, philosophers of science have so far failed to produce a model that demonstrates the epistemic benefits of such division of labor. In particular, Weisberg and Muldoon’s (2009) attempt, while introducing an important new type of model, suggests that it would be best if all scientists were explorer-types. I argue that this is due to implausible modeling choices, and present an alternative agent-based ‘epistemic landscape’ model which succeeds at showing the alleged epistemic rewards from division of labor, with one restriction. Division of labor is only beneficial when scientists are not too inflexible in their choice of new research topic, and too ignorant of work that is different from their own. In fact, my model suggests that the more flexible and informed scientists are, the more beneficial is division of labor.