Your Epistemic Neighborhood is Really Important

One of the most important concepts in social psychology is the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). The FAE leads us to mistakenly attribute the effects of circumstance or environment to the inherent qualities of individual people. For example, I might think the person who cuts me off on the highway is just a jerk or a poor driver, when he might have instead simply been distracted or in a hurry. One corollary of this that we also take credit for features of ourselves that are in fact reflections of circumstance, and that we ignore the role of background circumstances explaining individual decisions.

On the face of it, the problem with the FAE seems simple enough. It’s obviously a mistake to confuse people with their circumstances–a confusion we’re taught to avoid as young children. But the FAE is a surprisingly supple concept.

Many people who vaccinate their children believe that vaccine refusers (people who either partially or wholly refuse to vaccinate their children) are irrational and ignorant. This view is partly true, since many vaccine refusers do have false beliefs about vaccine science. But the problem with the view is that it tries to explain vaccine refusal with the concept of individual irrationality. Vaccine refusers are generally neither more or less irrational than vaccine compliers. For example, one bias at play in the decision to vaccinate is the affect heuristic, where reasoners mistake how a belief makes them feel with whether the belief is true. Vaccine refusers may refuse on the basis of bad experiences with their pediatricians or other medical professionals on grounds that the belief that vaccination is dangerous would be consistent with their negative affect toward medical professionals. The affect heuristic clearly can lead us astray. However, vaccine compliers are also susceptible to the affect heuristic. A positive relationship with your pediatrician is the most important predictor of whether you will vaccinate your children. Fortuitously, the affect heuristic leads vaccine compliers to act in accordance with accurate medical science, but not because vaccine compliers are more individually rational than vaccine refusers.

The problem with vaccine refusers is not that they are individually irrational, but that they are a part of an irrational environment. Refusers form (often online) communities that are closed to outside voices and fail to give appropriate weight to scientific expertise. The FAE, however, leads us to mistake a defective epistemic environment for defective individual reasoners. Competent individual reasoners in an uncritical or closed environment will not reason competently.

One personal implication from this application is not to take too much credit for one’s good beliefs. Good beliefs reflect a good “epistemic neighborhood” as much as one’s own individual competence, and bad “epistemic neighborhoods” more than bad individual reasoning explain perverse practices like vaccine refusal.