Collins and Evans: Expertise in the Age of Amateurs


Digital networks enable an age of amateurs. As barriers to participation, collaboration and self-organization fall, authority is fragmented. Here comes everybody.

Yet specialized expertise remains essential. And in fields like, say, climate science, amateur commentators have stirred a potful of uncertainties – some valid, others not – into a stew of climate confusion.

To me, some of the most interesting tools and practices – online and off – are those that aim to extend the demarcation of expertise or to incorporate and mediate among various kinds of expertise. The websitePeer to Patent, for example, provides structure for an extended expert community to review U.S. patent applications and evaluate claims of prior art. In my work at Ecotrust, we use marine spatial planning toolsto bridge local and scientific knowledge. And, more broadly, indeliberative polling, representative publics are convened and discussions carefully structured to enable thoughtful consideration of pressing policy questions.

One of the most thoughtful books I’ve found for exploring types and levels of expertise is Rethinking Expertise by Harry Collins and Robert Evans, social scientists at Cardiff University.

From the chapter, “New Demarcation Criteria”:

[W]e return to the larger problem that we began with: Who should contribute to which aspects of technological debate in the public domain? At the start of the twenty-first century it is well established that the public should contribute to some aspects of these debates. The public have the political right to contribute, and without their contribution technological developments will be distrusted and perhaps resisted. This is what we called the “Problem of Legitimacy.” Our complaint is that the social sciences of the last decades have concentrated too hard on the Problem of Legitimacy to the exclusion of other questions. As explained, our principal aim is to offer some way into what we call the “Problem of Extension.” The Problem of Extension is concerned with how we set boundaries around the legitimate contribution of the general public to the technical part of technical debates.

On the current third wave of science studies, as distinguished from the post-WWII first wave:
The fifty year rule: Scientific disputes take a long time to reach consensus and thus there is not much scientific consensus about.

The velocity rule: Because of the fifty year rule, the speed of political decision-making is usually faster than the speed of scientific consensus formation, and thus science can play only a limited part in technological decision-making in the public domain.

Uncertainty: Even if the velocity rule does not hold and there is consensus among the scientific community, science is imprecise enough to make it likely that, under conditions of dispute, residual uncertainties will allow it to be “deconstructed” and disqualified from giving a firm guide for policy.

Intrinsic not extrinsic politics: All scientific decisions are intrinsically political, and that is another reason why they cannot form an unproblematic basis for political decision-making even when there is scientific consensus. Nevertheless, this does not mean that politics should be extrinsic to science.

Punditry: Scientists cannot speak with much authority at all outside their narrow field of specialization.

Experience: The major ground for judging expertise is experience, and it widens the base of expert decision-making beyond science and technology professionals.

Fundamentalism: Though scientific thinking is central to our form of life, it cannot form a basis for judging other kinds of thought such as religious, artistic, or romantic thought; scientists are to be treated not as authorities but as experts – plumbers not priests.

Framing: Because of all of the above, a technological decision in the public domain should never be framed entirely as a technical, or propositional, problem. Nonscientific preferences will always enter the decision to a greater or lesser degree.

And from an interview with Collins in Scientific American:

The high point of the authority of science was perhaps the 1950s. In those days one would see on the popular television programs a scientist wearing a white coat with license to speak authoritatively on almost any subject to do with science—and sometimes on subjects outside of science. But things go wrong in the progress of science and technology. If you see the space shuttle crashing, you can see that these guys in the white coats don’t always get it right. …

We believe that you can work out whether someone has the right scientific expertise and experience to make some sensible contribution to scientific debates. It doesn’t mean they’re right. … [W]hat you have to sort is the people who can make sensible contributions from those who can’t. Because once you stop doing that, things go horribly wrong.

It’s an appealing idea: sorting out the value and relevance of various contributors, grappling with both legitimacy and extension, on various aspects of, say, the climate debates. Easier said than done, but something I’ll be thinking about nonetheless. You?