Rethinking Expertise…

May 25, 2008

As science and technology march, we find ourselves, both as managers and as citizens, increasingly dependent on experts. So why, if experts agree (as, for instance, they do about the human contribution to climate change or the central role of evolution in generating diversity of life on earth) are so many skeptical of these experts’ conclusions, even pitched against them?

What is an expert? How can we—professionals, policymakers, voters—assess the advice of others whose competence we don’t share? And what does this mean for commerce, for science, and for our society in general?

In Rethinking Expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007), sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans ponder these questions and suggest a framework for enhancing the effectiveness of expertise in enterprise, in science, and in society.

From an American Scientist interview, Collins reminds us of the stakes:

I do not think that there has to be any trouble for democracy, but we live in dangerous times. The argument goes back at least as far as Plato’s suggestion that the Republic should be controlled by “philosopher-kings.” We now know that cannot work—experts are too fallible, and too much power corrupts. In the last resort, all decisions have to be made through the machinery of democratic politics if we want to preserve a society like ours.

On the other hand, it is vital to preserve the separate spheres of the technical and the political. In practice this can never be achieved, but if we don’t try we will destroy the very idea of science and of expertise as a whole. I would say that the danger to democracy that my own discipline—social studies of science—is not doing enough to combat is the collapse of the idea of expertise. Current social studies of science has difficulty with the notion of expertise. The attitude that anyone’s opinion on any topic is equally valuable could spread, and there are some indications, such as widespread vaccine scares, that suggest it is happening. A world in which there is said to be no difference between those who know what they are talking about and those who don’t is not one that anyone who thinks about it wants. Such a society would be like one’s worst nightmare, exhibiting many of the characteristics of the most vile epochs of human history.

Philosopher-king fascism won’t work, but a reaction to it that creates technological populism is just as bad. It is very hard to work out how to find a rationale for a middle position which does not replace one extreme with the other. Our studies of expertise perhaps indicate how we might establish a middle view now that we know that science and technology cannot deliver the kind of certainties that politicians need at the speed that policy unfolds.

Read the American Scientist piece, and a Scientific American interview with Collins.

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