"Patrick Wilson (1983)
developed the cognitive authority theory from social epistemology in his book,
Second-hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority. The
fundamental concept of Wilson’s cognitive authority is that people construct
knowledge in two different ways: based on their first-hand experience or on what
they have learned second-hand from others. What people learn first-hand depends
on the stock of ideas they bring to the interpretation and understanding of
their encounters with the world. People primarily depend on others for ideas as
well as for information outside the range of direct experience. Much of what
they think of the world is what they have gained second-hand.
argues that all that people know of the world beyond the narrow range of their
own lives is what others have told them. However, people do not count all
hearsay as equally reliable; only those who are deemed to “know what they are
talking about” become cognitive authorities. Wilson coined the term cognitive
authority to explain the kind of authority that influences thoughts that
people would consciously recognize being proper. Cognitive authority differs
from administrative authority or the authority vented in a hierarchical
position. " (Rieh, 2005).
Wilson's dichotomy between first hand
knowledge and second hand knowledge may be a trace left from
According to non-empiricist epistemologies such as
pragmatism even out
first hand knowledge (our perception) is influenced by our culture and hence -
mostly indirectly and unconsciously - by cognitive authorities: the way we learn
to look at things when brought up in a culture and socialized into a subculture
and a domain.
The concept of cognitive authority is
important because it forces us to be skeptical towards claims in the literature
and elsewhere. It forces us to considers the criteria we should use, when
evaluating information sources. In other words: It forces us to consider
or "schools" in a given
field tend to have different cognitive authorities.
"Most people, even most academics, do not have the time,
training, or occasion to work through the technical literature on a
controversial topic, and so, they must rely on professionals for a disinterested
evaluation" (Herrnstein, 1973, pp. 52,53; quoted from Tucker, 1994). Tucker
shows, however, that the recognized experts within the field of intelligence
research blindly accepted Cyril Burt's research even it was without scientific
value and probably directly faked: They wanted to believe that IQ is hereditary
and considered uncritically empirical claims supporting this view. When a
researcher from an other field (Leon Kamin) first demonstrated that Burt's
results were wrong, he was not considered a cognitive authority. When his criticism was considered unavoidable
the established researchers tried to change history and to deprive Kamin
of his intellectual credit. This example shows something about how cognitive
authority may be ascribed in the real world.
The concept of cognitive authority also raises the question
of the role of experts. On the one hand, it is dangerous to believe blindly on
claims from "experts". On the other hand is
also a problematic epistemology. John Dewey (1920) discussed this dilemma and
worked for an improvement of general education in order to make the general
public less vulnerable of the power of experts.
The cognitive authority of professional historians
About 1880 history
was established as an academic discipline and as a profession
based on that discipline in both Europe and the USA. The
cognitive authority of history was closely related to the
application of scientific methods and source criticism. A clear
division was established between amateur historians and
professional, scientific historians. From the dominant
"paradigm" in the historical profession of that time is was
clear what to consider "cognitive authority".
history, the "paradigm" shifted to "the present period of
confusion, polarization, and uncertainty, in which the idea of
historical objectivity has become more problematic than ever
before" (Novick, 1988, p. 16-17).
For some has the
development turned around and amateurs have the same cognitive
authority as professional historians: "[I]t is not the
purportedly objective investigations of the historian into a
real subject matter which lead to knowledge about history but
rather the knowledge at which the historian arrives is
conditioned by the linguistic mode in which she/he operates.
Professional historiography for White  generates no more
objective knowledge of the past than does speculative philosophy
of history or the historical novel." (Iggers, 2001, 6772).
What is considered
"cognitive authority" in a given field of knowledge is thus
relative and depending on the "paradigm" of the information
seeker. An argument about what should be regarded "cognitive
authority" is in the end an epistemological argument.
Also for information science the question of cognitive
authority is important. What criteria should be used for selecting information
sources? For advising users about selecting information? For interpreting user
studies and relevance judgments? All such issues involve questions of cognitive
authority and epistemology.
"Perhaps we [library and
information professionals] should learn to be more critical of the very concept
of authority. Authority is legitimate only within the boundaries of the
community (subject or otherwise) in which it is based. Many questions pertain to
areas claimed by competing disciplines, and some to areas beyond the bounds of
recognized disciplinary communities. Even when we are able to locate
authoritative sources with answer to questions, they tend to be less certain
than they look, and greater authority is no guarantee of quality. Authority
tells us only that the creators of the source have qualifications and
institutional affiliations that match the expectations of a given disciplinary
community, not that the source is infallible, or even that its disciplinary
community it the best to pursue the information sought" (Pierce, 1991, p. 31).
Andersen, J. (2004).
Analyzing the role of knowledge organization in scholarly communication: An
inquiry into the intellectual foundation of knowledge organization.
Department of Information Studies, Royal School of Library and Information
(1.2.1. The concept of
cognitive authority, pp. 10-20).
Dewey, J. (1920/1948). Reconstruction in philosophy. Enlarged edition.
New York: Beacon. (Original work published 1920).
J. W., & Cromwell, R. L. (2001). Evaluating Internet resources: Identity,
affiliation, and cognitive authority in a networked world. Journal of the
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Herrnstein, R. J. (1973). I.Q. in the Meritocracy. Boston: Atlantic
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materialevalg. Göteborg: Valfrid & København: Danmarks Biblioteksskole.
Iggers, Georg G. (2001). Historiography
and Historical Thought: Current Trends. IN: Smelser, N. J. & Baltes, P. B.
(eds.). International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Oxford: Elsevier Science (Pp. 6771-6776).
McKenzie, P. J. (2003).
Justifying cognitive authority
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Information Science. From the Development of the Discipline to Social
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Pierce, S. J. (1991). Subject areas,
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(2002). Judgment of information quality and cognitive authority in the
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Erdelez, & E. F. McKechnie (Eds.), Theories of information behavior: A
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Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 30, 335-347.
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Hopkins University Press,Baltimore, MD
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