Communication, reasoning, and social epistemology 

Communication, reasoning, and social epistemology

Conference 10–11 July 2017


Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Berlin School of Mind and Brain
Luisenstraße 56
Festsaal (2nd floor)
10117 Berlin, Germany


Richard Moore (Berlin School of Mind and Brain and Institute of Philosophy, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)


Attendance is limited, so please register in advance. To do this, please send an e-mail and 1-page CV to The CV should contain your name, academic background, and institutional affiliation.

Communication, Reasoning, and Social Epistemology

Humans are reliant upon testimony for much of what we know (Goldberg 2010). However, for cultural knowledge to be reliable, what we learn from others must also be evaluated – and without ‘epistemic vigilance’ we are liable to lapse into systematic reasoning errors (Evans & Over 1997). The cognitive mechanisms that we use for this are partly innate (Sperber et al. 2010), but reasoning skills are also learned (Luria 1976). While even young children show discrimination in evaluating what others tell them (Harris 2012; Stoeber, Moore & Tomasello, submitted), we are not always good at assessing the truth of what we are told. The possible influence of ‘fake news’ in the recent US presidential election, and the successful use of propaganda and inflammatory rhetoric in elections on both sides of the Atlantic testifies to the ways in which our reasoning and judgement can be led astray.

This interdisciplinary (Philosophy and Psychology) two-day conference, to be hosted by the Berlin School of Mind and Brain at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, will consider the cognitive science of testimony, reasoning, and social learning. One the first day, we will discuss the nature of the biases that influence our learning from testimony, the ways in which our epistemic dependence on others makes us vulnerable to exploitation, and the ways in which this vulnerability might be resisted. On the second day of talks will be devoted to discussions of the role of dialogue and social learning in the development of human reasoning.

Conference schedule

(updated on 29 June 2017)

Day One: Communication, Prejudice, and Propaganda

8.15–9.00: Conference Registration

9.00–9.10: Richard Moore (Berlin School of Mind and Brain)
Introduction to Day One
9.10–10.30: Jenny Saul (Sheffield)
Dogwhistles and Figleaves: Techniques of Racist Political Manipulation
10.30–11.00: Refreshments
11.00–12.20: Jason Stanley (Yale) and David Beaver (Texas, Austin)
Political Speech as Concealed Action
12.20–13.50: Lunch break*
13.50–15.10: Harriet Over (York)
Prejudice, Dehumanisation and Social Learning
15.10–15.40: Coffee break
15.40–17.00: Endre Begby (Simon Fraser)
Evidential Preemption
17.00–18.00: Discussion session led by Mari Mikkola (HU Berlin)

* Lunch not provided; there are lots of cafés, take-aways and small restaurants in the area

Day Two: Learning from Testimony and the Social Origins of Reasoning

9.00–9.10: Richard Moore (Berlin School of Mind and Brain)
Introduction to Day Two
9.10–10.30: Sanford Goldberg (Northwestern)
Value-Reflecting Reasons and the Reliability of Testimonial Belief
10.30–11.00: Refreshments
11.00–12.20: Catarina Dutilh Novaes (Groningen)
Towards a Naturalized Social Epistemology of Argumentation and Reasoning
12.20–13.50: Posters & Lunch & Refreshments & Coffee
13.50–15.10: Bahar Köymen (Manchester)
Young Children’s Reasoning with Others
15.10–15.40: Coffee break
15.40–17.00: Cathal O’Madagain (MPI-EVA, Leipzig)
Attention to Mental Content and the Social Origin of Reasoning
17.00–18.00: Discussion session led by David Over (Durham)

Poster Sessions and Buffet Lunch on Day Two

On day two a poster session will be held during the lunch break, with a buffet lunch & coffee provided by the Berlin School of Mind and Brain.


Endre Begby, Simon Fraser University
Evidential Preemption
Evidential preemption occurs when a speaker, in addition to offering testimony that p, also warns the hearer of the likelihood that she will subsequently be confronted with apparently contrary evidence: this is done, however, not to encourage the hearer to temper her confidence in p in anticipation of that evidence, but rather to suggest that the (apparently) contrary evidence is in fact misleading evidence or evidence that has already been taken into account. Either way, the speaker is signalling to the hearer that this evidence will not require her to significantly revise her belief that p. Such preemption can effectively insulate an audience from future evidence, thereby creating an opening for a form of exploitative manipulation that I call “epistemic grooming.” Nonetheless, I argue, not all uses of evidential preemption are nefarious; it can also serve as an important tool for guiding epistemically limited agents though complex evidential scenarios.

Catarina Dutilh Novaes, University of Groningen
Towards a Naturalized Social Epistemology of Argumentation and Reasoning
Humans are famously a highly social species, and without collaboration with conspecifics a human being stands no chance to survive. At the same time, we compete with one another for resources at multiple levels. This combination of interdependence and competition means that exchange of information and of epistemic resources more generally among humans becomes a complex affair, involving both trust and vigilance. In my talk, I discuss the role of argumentation in the circulation and production of epistemic resources, relying on insights from social exchange theory, social epistemology, and argumentation theory. The ultimate goal is to formulate a naturalized account of the social epistemology of argumentation, and in this talk I present the main building blocks of this project.

Sanford Goldberg, Northwestern University
Value-Reflecting Reasons and the Reliability of Testimonial Belief
Several recent authors speak of social norms in connection with the production and consumption of testimony. It has been argued that the prevalence of such norms can affect the reliability of testimonial transactions, by enhancing both the reliablity of speakers’ testimony and the reliability of the audience’s discrimination of reliable testimony. In this paper I want to highlight one particular kind of pressure that is generated by the values in play in our testimonial exchanges. While many in the ethics literature have appreciated the presence of these values and their relevance to testimonial exchanges, their accounts are inconsistent with a plausible theory of the epistemology of testimony. I aim to sketch an account that does better.

Bahar Köymen, University of Manchester
Young Children’s Reasoning with Others
Recent accounts argue that “reasoning” – in the sense of explicating reasons for actions or conclusions – is a fundamentally social skill enabling two or more people to produce and evaluate one another’s arguments to reach joint decisions (Mercier & Sperber, 2011; Tomasello, 2014). In this talk I will present series of studies in which young children produce and evaluate reasons with peer partners to reach joint decisions. The findings suggest that children as young as 3-year-olds are able to reason with others; they get better at reasoning in late preschool ages; and they eventually become very “strategic” reasoners at school ages. Overall, these results support the view of children's joint reasoning as a fundamentally cooperative enterprise aimed at making joint rational decisions.

Cathal O’Madagain (co-authored with Michael Tomasello), Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig
Joint Attention to Mental Content and the Social Origin of Reasoning
A growing body of evidence suggests that our higher rational capacities depend on social interaction. What we are so far lacking is a clear account of why. Here we identify a uniquely human socio-cognitive process which we claim is responsible. We call this ‘Joint Attention to Mental Content’ (JAMC). JAMC is the process whereby two individuals focus together on the content of mental states like beliefs, desires, or plans. We argue that the development of JAMC underwrites the acquisition of explicit false belief understanding and explicit reasoning, and makes possible species-unique forms of collaborative problem-solving and cultural transmission.

Harriet Over, York University
Prejudice, Dehumanisation and Social Learning
Prejudice and intergroup conflict remain substantial social problems across the globe. In Europe and in the USA, immigrant groups often face hostility from the local population and support for far-right and sometimes racist political movements is on the rise. In this talk, I discuss our recent research investigating the origins of outgroup negativity in children. I reflect upon a classic question in developmental and social question - the role that social learning play in bringing about negative attitudes and behaviours towards other social groups.

Jennifer Saul, University of Sheffield
Dogwhistles and Figleaves: Techniques of Racist Political Manipulation
Until recently, it was widely believed that explicit expressions of racism would doom a political candidacy in the United States. Yet nonetheless racism was a frequently used tool that won many elections. This talk examines one of the methods, the dogwhistle, that allowed such racist electoral victories. It then turns to the present day, in which explicit racism is proving remarkably successful. Here I explore a different linguistic technique, the fig leaf, which I take to have enabled this success.

Jason Stanley, Yale University and David Beaver, Texas, Austin
Political Speech as Concealed Action

This page last updated on: 18 August 2017