scientific contexts

by Sebastian Benthall


  • For Helen Nissenbaum (contextual integrity theory):
    • a context is a social domain that is best characterized by its purpose. For example, a hospital’s purpose is to cure the sick and wounded.
    • a context also has certain historically given norms of information flow.
    • a violation of a norm of information flow in a given context is a potentially unethical privacy violation. This is an essentially conservative notion of privacy, which is balanced by the following consideration…
    • Whether or not a norm of information flow should change (given, say, a new technological affordance to do things in a very different way) can be evaluated by how well it serve the context’s purpose.
  • For Fred Dretske (Knowledge and the Flow of Information, 1983):
    • The appropriate definition of information is (roughly) just what it takes to know something. (More specifically: M carries information about X if it reliably transmits what it takes for a suitably equipped but otherwise ignorant observer to learn about X.)
  • Combining Nissenbaum and Dretske, we see that with an epistemic and naturalized understanding of information, contextual norms of information flow are inclusive of epistemic norms.
  • Consider scientific contexts. I want to use ‘science’ in the broadest possible (though archaic) sense of the intellectual and practical activity of study or coming to knowledge of any kind. “Science” from the Latin “scire”–to know. Or “Science” (capitalized) as the translated 19th Century German Wissenschaft.
    • A scientific context is one whose purpose is knowledge.
    • Specific issues of whose knowledge, knowledge about what, and to what end the knowledge is used will vary depending on the context.
    • As information flow is necessary for knowledge, the purpose of science, the norms of information flow within (and without) a scientific context, the integrity of scientific context will be especially sensitive to its norms of information flow.
  • An insight I owe to my colleague Michael Tschantz, in conversation, is that there are several open problems within contextual integrity theory:
    • How does one know what context one is in? Who decides that?
    • What happens at the boundary between contexts, for example when one context is embedded in another?
    • Are there ways for the purpose of a context to change (not just the norms within it)?
  • Proposal: One way of discovering what a science is is to trace its norms of information flow and to identify its purpose. A contrast between the norms and purpose of, for example, data science and ethnography, would be illustrative of both. One approach to this problem could be kind of qualitative research done by Edwin Hutchins on distributed cognition, which accepts a naturalized view of information (necessary for this framing) and then discovers information flows in a context through qualitative observation.