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Interesting interview on expertise

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The charge of “elitism” is often hurled at experts—the idea that someone could become expert in some area and that therefore that person’s opinions are worth more than the opinions of the average guy in the street strikes some  as incrediblyl elitist. And yet…  Here’s a good interview with Harry Collins that appears in American Scientist Online. It begins:

As science and technology inform our society, we find ourselves increasingly reliant on experts. But what is an expert? How can we—professionals, policymakers, voters—assess the advice of others whose competence we don’t share? And what does this mean for the enterprise of science and for our society in general?

In Rethinking Expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Cardiff University sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans consider these questions and offer a framework for exploring their import in science and in society. “Only this way,” they write, “can the social sciences and philosophy contribute something positive to the resolution of the dilemmas that face us here and now.”

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Collins by e-mail in March 2008.

What led you to this topic?

The idea of analyzing expertise grew out of my long study of the sociology of gravitational wave detection. I’ve slowly become a quasi-member of the gravitational wave community. This means I chat with my new colleagues in restaurants, cafeterias and coffee bars. I began to find I was talking physics—just the normal to-and-fro of science chat. Sometimes I would recommend that they try something different in the experiments and my remarks weren’t just shrugged off; for instance, I might be putting a case that had been considered and rejected for physics reasons that I could follow, or, rarely, I might even get something right.

This began to strike me as interesting: Here was someone, all of whose university degrees were in sociology, talking physics with physicists. I could not do the math, design the circuits or solder wires, and I would never contribute to a physics paper. Yet I could still talk gravitational wave physics.

Then it struck me that the managers of the big gravitational wave experiments, such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), were also not doing much in the way of maths, or designing and building experiments, or co-authoring research papers in the field. Most of what they did was mediated by the same kind of talk that I was doing. And I also realized that talk of this kind was what I heard when I sat in on review committees—it was talk that happened in these places, not calculating or experimenting. I could follow most of this talk, and, every now and again, I felt that I could even have offered something. This made me think about the nature of expertise: how my expertise differed from that of the scientists and the managers.

Expertise is important not only within science but also for understanding the public’s relationship with science. Nowadays any parent of a young child, or anyone who can access the Internet, thinks their opinions on technical matters are sound. Many of my colleagues in the social sciences seem to think the same thing. The trouble is that the speed of politics is faster than the speed of scientific consensus formation, so politicians are often faced with making decisions without firm scientific answers to lean on, and this makes science look like anyone else’s opinion. I found I wanted to work out how to value expertise without going back to the bad old days where anyone in a white coat was treated as an authority on anything scientific or technological. We have to solve the very hard problem of reconstructing the value of science when we know it can’t deliver the certainty that people want. Studying expertise may do the trick.

How does one undertake a study of expertise?

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 September 2008 at 10:34 am

Posted in Daily life, Science

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