by Judith Curry
Experts might instead need to pick a side, join the fight, and accept that their claims to knowledge and authority will always and everywhere be contested. – Jason Wilson
In recent years, the notion of ‘expertise’ has taken a beating, not the least of which has been from scholars of science and technology studies. Excerpts from a recent article in the Guardian: Graphs are no longer enough: It’s time wonks and experts joined the fight:
Political deference to experts is disappearing. Economists are popularly derided for their role in the 2007-2008 financial crisis, that resulted in huge wealth transfers to the rich. Scientists who warn about climate change are accused by denialists of outright political conspiracy.
Political parties are also cutting experts adrift, crafting policies not for rational median voters, but for micro-targeted constituencies – or bypassing rational processes altogether with neuromarketing. Amid these changes, expertise has been re-politicised.
Whether we like it or not, the raiments of disinterested expertise have been spattered with the mud of politics. More and more frequently, expert knowledge is read as being situated and framed by particular assumptions or interests. It would be senseless to say that expertise is empty, or without value. But it may be that the social and natural sciences need to be more open about their political entanglements, and more comfortable with signalling them.
For some additional context, here are some previous Climate Etc. posts on expertise:
- Death(?) of expertise
- Politics of climate expertise. Part II
- Expertise: breadth vs depth
- On confusing expertise and objectivity
Harry Collins, a scholar of science and technology studies, has written a new book Are We All Experts Now? I haven’t read the book, but I have read an earlier version of several chapters The Periodic Table of Expertises. Some excerpts from the Periodic Table that provide definitions of types of expertise as used by Collins:
Ubiquitous Expertises are acquired by all members of human societies during the course of the normal ‘enculturation’ that takes place during upbringing. They include fluency in the natural language of the society and moral and political understanding. Ubiquitous expertises are the beginnings from which all other expertises are built.
Specialist, or domain-specific expertises include those with a relatively invisible component of ubiquitous tacit knowledge such as beer-mat knowledge, popular understanding, and primary source knowledge, and the full-blown specialist tacit knowledge-laden expertise which enables those who embody it to contribute to the domain to which it pertains; this is contributory expertise. The bridge between experts with contributory expertise and non-domain experts is interactional expertise. Interactional expertise is tacit knowledge-laden expertise in the language of a domain and it is acquired through enculturation in the domain language.
Meta-expertises are used for judging other expertises. External meta-expertises turn on the judging of skills through the judging of persons, or the more general characteristics of their discourse, rather than on domain-specific understanding. Internal meta-expertise do depend on a degree of technical expertise within the domain. The most straightforward kind of internal meta-expertise depends on the application of contributory expertise to a domain through the mediation of interactional expertise. Referred expertise depends on the transfer of domain-specific contributory expertise from one domain to another.
Ok, so it seems like ‘we are all experts now.’ However, the most relevant aspects of the book (for CE anyways) is the part on scientific expertise, where Collins defends traditional notions of elite scientific expertise – that is, expertise in universities and government labs that occurs in a community of scientists sharing the same specialty. This message is conveyed in the title of an article on the book by Chris Mooney: This Is Why You Have No Business Challenging Experts. Excerpts:
But that means that Climategate didn’t undermine the case for human-caused global warming at all, says Collins. Rather, it demonstrated why it is so hard for ordinary citizens to understand what is going on inside the scientific community—much less to snipe and criticize it from the outside. They simply don’t grasp how researchers work on a day-to-day basis, or what kind of shared knowledge exists within the group.
That’s why it’s so significant to find Collins, in his new book, laying out a robust defense of scientific expertise and arguing, as he puts it, that “scientists are a special group of people…in terms of the values that drive their lives and their aspirations in respect of how they live their lives.”
And in the process, he rescues the idea that there’s something very special about being a member of an expert, scientific community.
Read all the online stuff you want, Collins argues—or even read the professional scientific literature from the perspective of an outsider or amateur. You’ll absorb a lot of information, but you’ll still never have what he terms “interactional expertise,” which is the sort of expertise developed by getting to know a community of scientists intimately, and getting a feeling for what they think.
“If you get your information only from the journals, you can’t tell whether a paper is being taken seriously by the scientific community or not,” says Collins. “You cannot get a good picture of what is going on in science from the literature,” he continues. And of course, biased and ideological internet commentaries on that literature are more dangerous still.
That’s why we can’t listen to climate change skeptics or creationists.
Collins has developed a lot of these ideas based on his extensive interactions with the community of gravitational wave physicists. I don’t think some of his ideas translate very well into scientific fields that are policy relevant (e.g. climate change). One of the Mertonian norms of scientific research is ‘disinterestedness’ – according to which scientists are supposed to act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for personal gain. When research is policy relevant, disinterestedness is a considerable challenge, viz. scientists-advocates and ‘urgent action needed.’
Another difference is that the field of climate science is not a narrow scientific subfield; rather it involves a considerable breadth of disciplines, and scientists with a broad range of academic backgrounds and specialties may regard themselves as climate scientists.
So the bottom line is that I don’t buy Collins’ characterization of scientific expertise when it involves policy-relevant science and/or a complex multi-disciplinary problem. So while it would makes sense for very few individuals to challenge the expertise of a gravity wave physicist, I think that broad challenges to climate science expertise can be justified by those with referred expertise and meta-expertise.
Collins is dismissive of what he refers to as ‘citizen scientists’, likening them to novice chess players. However, independent scientists, operating outside of the elite research institutions, have made significant contributions to climate science in the context of journal articles and books. The blogosphere provides a ‘community’ that serves some of the functions that elite academic communities do.
To me, the most interesting aspect of Collins’ argument is the notion of interactional expertise. Within the elite academic community, those with interactional expertise are sought out to serve on advisory panels, members of interdisciplinary science teams, etc. Collins also refers to interactional expertise in context of philosophers and sociologists of science and journalists, that interact extensively with scientists having contributory expertise.
In the context of climate science (or other policy relevant science), the notion of interactional expertise is arguably broader. I am arguing that this includes scientists that engage with the policy process and with the public through blogs, writing articles or books geared towards the public, or through media interviews. Scientists that are asked to do this are not necessarily the ones with the biggest academic c.v.’s, but rather ones that have developed interactional expertise. Note, I will be incorporating the idea of interactional expertise in a forthcoming post on the Art of Integration.
So, who is an expert? In the public debate on climate change, the experts that loom prominently are those with interactional expertise, and this includes individuals from the traditional elite academic institutions as well as independent individuals. An excellent example of this was the inclusion of Nic Lewis and Donna LaFramboise, along with academics, in the UK Parliamentary Hearing on the IPCC. Independent scientists actually have an outsize influence on the public debate on climate change, since they focus on scientific topics of direct relevance to the public debate on climate change. Examples include comparison of climate model projects with observations, auditing of surprising results from academic scientists, etc.
So how does the public judge who to listen to? This is addressed in Collins’ essay, excerpts:
Credentials The standard way to try to measure expertise externally is by reference to credentials in the sense of certificates attesting to past achievement of proficiency. Possession of certificates will define a number of kinds of expert but note that not credentials exist to signify possession of many of the expertises we have discussed so far. There are no credentials for fluency in one’s native language, nor for moral judgement, nor for political judgement. There are no credentials for ubiquitous discrimination, no credentials for the ability to distinguish between experts. Therefore we conclude that credentials are not a good criterion for setting a boundary around expertise.
Track record Track record is a much better criterion than credentials. The philosopher Alvin Goldman argues that track record of success in making sound judgements is the best way for lay persons to choose between experts. Reference to track record of success will certainly exclude a lot pseudo-experts but, again, it excludes too many. For example, it again excludes [people] who might be applying their expertise to a technical debate in the public domain for the very first time.
Experience A criterion that does seem to set the boundary in roughly the right place is experience in a domain. We know from the outset that without experience within a technical domain, or experience at judging the products of a technical domain, there is no specialist expertise. Without experience of doing science, talking to scientists, the minimal standards for making judgements in these areas have not been met.
JC message to PopTech: Formal academic credentials are not particularly useful in judging experts in public debates, and someone’s institutional affiliation (or lack thereof) is even less relevant (unless the affiliation is an advocacy group). Individuals with referred expertise and interactional expertise are playing an increasingly important role in the public debate on climate change. In any even, anyone who self-characterizes or is characterized by others as an expert needs to accept that their claims to knowledge and authority will always and everywhere be contested.