I’m busy this week preparing for the AAAS Annual Meeting and specifically this panel. I convened this panel to try spark a debate on how we should think about science communication and expertise when we have over 7 million scientists in a $1 trillion enterprise. I’ve briefly touched on this theme before.
On an unrelated note, check out this MSNBC report on creationism in schools. Here’s the associated Science paper. Apparently 13% of biology teachers back creationism. I’ll have more to say later, but wanted to link to it now (h/t Omair).
I’ll try to do some live-blogging from the meeting.
UPDATE: I meant to say earlier that several of my interlocutors on this space helped me develop the panel. Moreover, discussions I’ve had in the comments have also helped clarify my thinking. Much thanks!
This past week I’ve been at the Gordon Research Conference on Science and Technology Policy. It’s really a great conference with a nice mix of academics and practitioners. I’d discuss more here, but it’s unfortunately off-the-record. I could try make the case that given my underwhelming readership, my blog should qualify as off-the-record, but I don’t think it’d fly. Oh well, such is life.
I will say that I just had some very fruitful discussions on Rethinking Expertise, which I just gave a glowing review. Definitely gave me some perspective on how the work is viewed by people in the field.
My earlier post neglected to mention another reason I liked the book. On page 51, EC noted that the failure to wrestle properly with expertise gives a “misleading picture of the power of logical thought and experimental genius.” In light of my views on scientific thinking, this message had special appeal. Ultimately content knowledge and specific expertise matters much more than an amorphous, poorly defined method of thinking.
Now resolving the problems of expertise won’t necessarily make contentious debates any easier. Climate change and genetically modified crops are contentious for reasons deeper than a misunderstanding of expertise. But addressing the misconceptions might be a useful place to start.
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.
ClimateScienceWatch has an interview with Steve Schneider, one of the authors on the PNAS paper we just discussed (h/t Joe Romm). I recommend the entire interview (video at the end), but I’ll highlight these passages:
It really matters what your credentials are. If you have a heart arrhythmia as I do, and I also have a cardiologist, and you also have an oncological problem as I do, I’m not going to my cancer doc to ask him about my heart medicine and my cardiologist to ask about my chemo, I’m going to the experts. Who’s an expert really matters. People with no expertise, their opinion frankly does not matter on complex issues. And in my opinion shouldn’t even be quoted when we’re talking about the details of the science.
Scientists are really stuck. It’s exactly the same thing in medicine, it’s the same thing with pilot’s licenses and driver’s licenses: We don’t let just anyone go out there and make any claim that they’re an expert, do anything they want, without checking their credibility. Is it elitist to license pilots and doctors? Is it elitist to have pilots tested every year by the FAA to make sure that their skills are maintained? Is it elitist to have board certification on specialities in various health professions? I don’t think so.
In light of many of my previous posts, it should be obvious that I think Steve has a point. Cardiologists should be trusted over oncologists for an arrhythmia, and I’m quite happy that pilots are licensed.
But Steve’s analysis elides a key difference between scientists and licensed professionals. Namely, scientists aren’t licensed! Heck, much of authority comes from our self-proclaimed ability to tackle any problem whether or not we’re formally trained, a theme we’ve just just discussed. The idea that scientists actually have a fairly limited range of expertise counters what we’ve been saying for several hundred years now. At this point, I think that scientists themselves have internalized the message. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a random physicist (myself included!) wax eloquently about “the” scientific method or make a tendentious claim about all of science. Some would even call this attitude arrogant. As I said about Eugene Robinson’s op-ed, I’m happy people are rebelling against a mindless acceptance of scientific expertise. I just don’t know how successful it will be when practically every science organization out there promotes the opposite.
I’ll make one final, brief comment (complaint?) about the interview. Towards the end, Steve responds that it is “very difficult to disentangle” the policy prescription from the science expertise. While I think he may be factually correct, the attitude has also played a non-trivial role in why the field is hyper-politicized. We need greater efforts to highlight that science is not “the” basis of policy, and there are non-climate reasons to pursue mitigation and adaptation. But again, such a message would contradict what we’ve been arguing for years, and I bet there’s no interest.