Misunderstanding and Rethinking Expertise

The public’s distrust of scientific experts has been growing in recent years, as is worryingly evident with subjects such as Creationism and particle physics (think: the LHC)—but why is this happening? Harry Collins and Robert Evans, sociologists at my alma mater, Cardiff University, believe it has to do with a “misunderstanding of expertise itself”. They talk about what determines an ‘expert’, different ‘types’ of expertise and the main concepts of their theory in the book Rethinking Expertise and in these excellent interviews:

Scientists Know Better Than You—Even When They’re Wrong: why fallible expertise trumps armchair science.

The key to the whole thing is whether people have had access to the tacit knowledge of an esoteric area—tacit knowledge is know-how that you can’t express in words. The standard example is knowing how to ride a bike. My view as a sociologist is that expertise is located in more or less specialized social groups. If you want to know what counts as secure knowledge in a field like gravitational wave detection, you have to become part of the social group. Being immersed in the discourse of the specialists is the only way to keep up with what is at the cutting edge.

What is an expert, and how can we assess the advice of others?

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.

The expertise project’s Publications page contains a wealth of excellent information on the subject (including sample chapters from the book)—well worth a look if you’re interested in this topic.

via Mind Hacks