On expertise

Whose advice should we trust when we need to make judgements about difficult political questions with a technical component? Science sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans, of Cardiff University, believe that this question of expertise is the most important issue facing science studies at the moment. I review their book on the subject, Rethinking Expertise, in an article – Spot the physicist – in this month’s Physics World.

4 thoughts on “On expertise”

  1. Your article raises some interesting points about what skills scientists use in different situations. Without having read the book it is hard to be sure, but it rather sounds as if the series of ‘expertise’ levels identified have close parallels with those that sociologists identify with different levels of epistemological perspective as children and adults develop and mature. The ‘interactional expertise’ level is akin to Perry’s ‘basic dualism’ in which passive learners are dependent on authorities to hand down truth in a black and white way (WG Perry, 1970, Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years). This was modified by Belenky et al in the context of women learners (Women’s Ways of Knowing, 1986) who identify ‘received knowers’ as those who are ‘capable of receiving, even reproducing knowledge from all-powerful authorities but not capable of creating knowledge on their own’. Both books identify further stages in the sequence of knowing which would take us through referred and contributory expertise. Thus, what Collins and Evans identify as new in science studies would appear not to be a particularly novel concept more broadly treated. Indeed, interactional expertise could be said to form the basis of the TV series Faking It!

    The question of the utility of science studies applied to interdisciplinary research you allude to in the review is a particularly intriguing one. Only last week, when the EPSRC visited my university, the vexed question of the difficulties of finding ‘appropriate’ referees for grants which cross boundaries was raised in the Q+A session, only to be rebutted by the CEO Dave Delpy who challenged us – quite reasonably – that we collectively were the peers who refereed these proposals as well as the PI’s who submitted them. Some sociological studies of whether scientists perform differently in different roles would be fascinating and pertinent.

    Additionally, when we are sitting on a panel judging work across a broad range are we more or less likely to be tough on topics close to our heart? The idea that we tend to judge proposals in our own specific field more harshly than those further away was put to me recently by a colleague from another field (with whom I happen to be sitting on a fellowship panel in the near future). This could of course reflect the fact that we give the benefit of the doubt when using ‘referred expertise’, but when using ‘contributory expertise’ we are on surer ground and so can go right to the heart of the problem with confidence and the wool cannot be pulled over our eyes by a confident style of delivery. However, this goes against the spirit of unconscious bias – frequently evoked in the context of job interviews – when people are usually charged with unconsciously preferring the familiar to the different. Again some sociological study of this might be intriguing.

    How these studies tie in with the decisions about difficult political questions with a technical component you refer to is complicated by the fact that then, not only do we have to trust the people (scientists?) making the decision, but they have to be able to convince their political masters that their decision is right. So it may not only be the skills to make that decision correctly that are required, but also the ability to convey it in words that the politician can receive, leading me to think that we should be worrying about the interactional expertise of the politician too. But I entirely agree with you I would far rather my science was judged by another scientist than a sociologist.

  2. Nice article. A small part of a solution has already been mentioned. When stock analysts make TV picks or Prime Ministers take office, they have to announce their potential conflicts of interest. Analysts have to dig through their porfolios and announce holdings, and PMs divest certain assets.
    If scientific advisors sometimes act as lobbyists for their own fields, they could be forced to declare potential field conflicts of interest.

    Who to trust? Hmmm. A political decision is rife with conflicts of interest. Politics means winning, and to do this you must overfund your rich backers (through tax cuts or warming the planet for SUVs, or whatever) and underfund your education, health and social programs. So, even if the “Interactional Experts” in the article gave the best advice, doing the right thing for a country or the world, is only one metric the politician will use. The corrollary is that scientists might also be serving their own career ambitions.
    I’m confused if the “we” refers to who should citizens elect, or if it means what scientists should form important panels, or if it means should we trust scientists or politicians?. Some clarification? If it is the 2nd “we”, don’t scientists already have accreditation measures via their research output?

  3. Athene, of course I wouldn’t dare suggest that a pair of distinguished sociologists don’t know the sociology literature, but they do claim a degree of novelty for their discovery of “interactional expertise” which seemed a little implausible to me.

    Your comments about the comparative effectiveness of peer review in subjects close to and more distant from one’s own area of contributory expertise point to something very important. It is a real problem for interdisciplinary research – but as you say, it isn’t even obvious which way the bias goes.

    Phillip, conflict of interest is a real problem for the increasing number of scientists who have a real commercial interest in the discoveries they are making, through spin-out companies and the like, and you’ll see that journals like Nature now require statements of potential conflicting interest? Is this a problem at the level of a whole field? I’m not sure. When you have (to give a current example from the UK) astronomers running a vocal campaign to say that their field has been unfairly treated and deserves more money, then it’s obvious they are acting as a lobby group. On the other hand, I suppose there is a presupposition that scientists in general are in favour of science, and they can be more or less successful persuading wider society of this.

    With regard to the intervention of scientists in political questions, I think that the attempt to separate out a “technical dimension” and a “political dimension” to a societal problem is completely misguided. David King was an effective and very visible Government Chief Scientific Advisor not because he is an excellent surface chemist, but because he was very effective at putting scientific messages in the appropriate political language. The fact that he wasn’t universally popular is a measure of the degree to which he went beyond giving technical advice into having an opinion on political issues. But even when I didn’t fully agree with his positions, I think he was right to do this. The application of science can’t be separated from politics; what we are talking about is what kind of future we want to live in, which is a fundamentally political question.

  4. Some relevance in an article I’m reading about the 1943 formation of the FAO during WWII. This excerpt suggests for technical competance over politicking and actual results were surprisingly achieved because politicans didn’t think it worthy to attend and technicians were their replacements:

    In the midst of war, delegates from 45 countries went to Virginia to deal with the most basic of biological, social and economic problems. Hoping to contribute something vital to the future of international cooperation, nonetheless, “nobody seemed to know what the conference would actually deal with, or how it would operate.” And, as such, at its start “there was a unanimous feeling at the meeting that the conference was not likely to accomplish much.”Indeed, without any indications that the Conference was to be anything other than a “think-tank” on three main subject areas — comparing food consumption levels with food requirements, increasing food production to meet consumer needs; and facilitating better food distribution — many countries did not send diplomats or develop solid positions on future policy.

    However, and perhaps in part because the participants were mainly technical experts in nutrition, agricultural sciences, fisheries and statistics rather than diplomats and politicians, a Conference with little advance organization and with no clear expectations or long-term goals became the launching point for the establishment of an international organization on food and agriculture. It was a practical start for international cooperation, focusing on the provision of food for life and health for all as an essential step in gaining and maintaining global peace.

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