(Very) brief review of “Rethinking Expertise”

So I just plowed through Harry Collins and Robert Evans’ [henceforth CE] Rethinking Expertise. Though it’s a bit dense, you’ll find it insightful if you can get past the STS jargon. I’ll give a brief review now, and try to expand more in future posts.

Very early on, the authors insist that expertise does matter and all else being equal, we should prefer their judgment on technical matters.   Their attitude contrasts with some of the more egalitarian (and misinformed in both mine and the authors’ views) approaches that deprivileges science completely.  While science studies has performed admirably in deconstructing and removing science’s mystique, it can go too far.  There are actual facts about the physical world, and oftentimes these do matter.  Neither democracy nor science expertise should  dominate a decision, and we must welcome but limit public involvement.  Ultimately, CE aimed to provide a vocabulary and way of thinking about expertise to help us negotiate this terrain.  They succeeded in the latter goal, but their clumsy and inelegant terminology will hinder the former.

CE spend quite some time developing a taxonomy and diagrammed it in a rather unhelpful “Periodic Table of Expertise.”  While the figure itself was unclear left much to be desired, the corresponding discussion was excellent.  What I found most interesting was their distinction between interactional and contributory experts.  The latter group consists of scientists publishing in a fairly constrained field in (to use their example) gravitational wave physics.  Interactional experts can talk-the-talk but aren’t qualified to publish.  Their arguments were bolstered by what appeared to be carefully run experiments.  Such experimentation and data analysis are rarities in science studies, and I greatly appreciated their presence here.

After reading their work, I realize my insistence that only climate scientists be allowed to speak on global warming is a bit restrictive.  There are people–namely interactional experts–who can speak on aspects of the problem without actually being a part of the IPCC.  Joe Romm and Roger Pielke Jr both probably qualify, though I’m sure they’d both hate to be lumped together! Interactional experts can even be non-scientists, as the sheep farmers in Brian Wynne’s famous study showed.  The fact that their framework coherently incorporates both scientists and non-scientists makes it even more impressive.

I wish they had applied their model to a contemporary science controversy, and the omission of an in-depth case study is the only major omission.  It will hopefully be corrected in the future.

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