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.
Wilson (1983) 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 empiricism. According to non-empiricist epistemologies such as hermeneutics and pragmatism even our 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 consider the criteria we should use when evaluating information sources. In other words: It forces us to consider epistemological issues.
Different "movements", "paradigms", "positions" 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 though it was without scientific value and probably directly faked: They wanted to believe that IQ was hereditary, and considered uncritically empirical claims supporting this view. When a researcher from another 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 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 blindly believe claims originating from "experts" while on the other hand, "commonsensism" is also a problematic epistemology. John Dewey (1920) discussed this dilemma and worked on improving general education in order to make the general public less vulnerable to the power of experts.
In 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, it was clear what to consider "cognitive authority".
However, inside 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".
For some the development has 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." 
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.
Implications for library and information science
The concept of cognitive authority was developed in library and information science and has attracted a lot of attention in this field. Its importance for this field is related to questions such as: 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 answers 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 is the best to pursue the information sought" (Pierce, 1991, p. 31).
- (Novick, 1988, p. 16-17)
- (Iggers, 2001, 6772)
Literature and references
- Andersen, J. (2004). Analyzing the role of knowledge organization in scholarly communication: An inquiry into the intellectual foundation of knowledge organization. Copenhagen: Department of Information Studies, Royal School of Library and Information Science. Link: http://www.db.dk/dbi/samling/phd_dk.htm (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).
- Fritch, J. W., & Cromwell, R. L. (2001). Evaluating Internet resources: Identity, affiliation, and cognitive authority in a networked world. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 52, 499-507.
- Herrnstein, R. J. (1973). I.Q. in the Meritocracy. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.
- Hjørland, B. (1996). Faglitteratur: Kvalitet, vurdering og selektion. Grundbog i 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 decisions: Discursive strategies of information seekers. Library Quarterly, 73, 261-288.
- Novick, Peter (1988). That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge University Press
- Olaisen, J. (1996). Information, Cognitive Authority and Organizational Learning. pp. 7–19 in: Olaisen, Johan; Erland Munch-Petersen and Patrick Wilson (eds.): Information Science. From the Development of the Discipline to Social Interaction. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.
- Pierce, S. J. (1991). Subject areas, disciplines and the concept of authority. LISR [Library and Information Science Research], 13, 21-35.
- Rieh, S. Y. (2002). Judgment of information quality and cognitive authority in the Web. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 53(2), 145-161. http://www.si.umich.edu/rieh/papers/rieh_jasist2002.pdf
- Rieh, S. Y. (2005). Cognitive authority. In K. E. Fisher, S. Erdelez, & E. F. McKechnie (Eds.), Theories of information behavior: A researchers’ guide . Medford, NJ: Information Today (pp. 83–87). Available at: http://newweb2.si.umich.edu/rieh/papers/rieh_IBTheory.pdf
- Tucher, W. H. (1994). Facts and Fiction in the Discovery of Sir Burt's Flaws. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 30, 335-347.
- White H (1973) Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Johns Hopkins University Press,Baltimore, MD
- Wilson, P. (1983). Second-Hand Knowledge. An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.