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Epistemic Laundering: A Typology of Transformations

February 20 @ 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Epistemic Laundering: A Typology of Transformations

Brown Bag with Nicole Nelson (UW Medical History & Bioethics) and Sergio Sismondo (Philosophy, Queen’s University)

Thursday, February 20, 12:30-1:30 pm, 301 Ag Hall

The transformation of “local uncertainty into global certainty,” as Susan Leigh Star has put it, has been a topic of interest in science and technology studies from the early days of the field. These processes have recently attracted the attention of scientists in the context of the reproducibility crisis. Statistician Andrew Gelman has, for example, expressed concern about how “statistics is often sold as a sort of alchemy that transmutes randomness into certainty,” a process he dubs “uncertainty laundering.” In this presentation, we aim to create a more comprehensive typology of laundering practices that captures many forms of epistemic erasure (and resistance to these erasures). We focus not only on uncertainty, but also on the erasure of heterogeneity, caveats and limitations, and the origins of data through processes such as “astroturfing”—the practice of creating groups that resemble grassroots patient movements in order to disguise the corporate or political origins of the information being disseminated through these groups. Means of combatting laundering practices—such as banning P values, requiring authors to disclose conflicts of interest, or encouraging researchers to talk about their misgivings about particular findings—are often inadequate to counter the many means through which dirty knowledge can be laundered.

Suggested reading:

Star, Susan Leigh. (1985) “Scientific work and uncertainty.” Social Studies of Science 15(3): 391-427.

Nelson and Sismondo Brown Bag Poster




February 20
12:30 pm - 1:30 pm
Event Category:


301 Ag Hall
1450 Linden Dr
Madison, WI
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