Thursday, September 29, 2016

Experts, scientists, lay people... what do they know & what do they do?

I have new paper out in Minerva with the title The Problem of Expertise in Knowledge Societies. It is open access, so this link should enable you to get immediate access.

Here is the abstract:

This paper puts forward a theoretical framework for the analysis of expertise and experts in contemporary societies. It argues that while prevailing approaches have come to see expertise in various forms and functions, they tend to neglect the broader historical and societal context, and importantly the relational aspect of expertise. This will be discussed with regard to influential theoretical frameworks, such as laboratory studies, regulatory science, lay expertise, post-normal science, and honest brokers. An alternative framework of expertise is introduced, showing the limitations of existing frameworks and emphasizing one crucial element of all expertise, which is their role in guiding action.

This paper explains in more detail my thinking about this matter. As readers of the Zwiebel will have noted, I sometimes made comments about people confusing science with expertise. You may have wondered why I think this is the case. Perhaps this paper can help explaining this, and other aspects of the issue.


Werner Krauss said...


congratulations to your new article and: happy birthday!

Anonymous said...

Is the relationship of our western post-modern societies to experts changing?

For example:

“I think people in this country,” declared Vote Leave’s Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.” His fellow Brexiteers were quick to back him up. “There is only one expert that matters,” said Labour MP Gisela Stuart, also of Vote Leave, “and that’s you, the voter.” Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip, suggested that many independent experts were actually in the pay of the Government or the EU. All three reminded voters of occasions when “the so-called experts” had made mistakes.
Anti-expert sentiment was soon spreading across the land. “Experts,” snorted a caller on Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show, “built the Titanic.”

Attitudes, we got used to in the climate debate, seem to spread.


Anonymous said...


das ist einfach nur billigste Propaganda. Typisch insbesondere für rechte Presse. Das ist purer rechter Anti-Intellektualismus. Was ist das Gegenteil von Experten? Der Mob regiert? Um auf dem Niveau der Hohlspacken aus UK zu bleiben: der Mob brachte uns die SA, Hexenverbrennungen, Steinigungen und andere schöne Sachen.

Nun gut verlassen wir mal das Niveau der Rechten Idioten. Experten machen Fehler. Auch wenn sie sehr gut sind, sind sie Menschen. Ansonsten begibt sich schon gern in die Hand eines Experten. Auch die Dummspacken vom Telegraph würden sich nicht vom Metzger operieren lassen und auch Mauer vom Chirurgen bauen lassen. Der "Mob" brachte nicht nur schlimme Sachen, sondern auch bspw. die Wende in der DDR, die amerikanische Revolution und viele, viele, andere Dinge. Das ist schwierig zu definieren.

Ich finde insgesamt diesen Anti-Intellektualismus, der insbesondere aus den USA kam (siehe Trump, die Tea Party und die sogenannten Klimaskeptiker), ziemlich daneben. Den gab es auch früher mal: in der Sowjetunion (siehe Lyssenko) oder natürlich die Nazis. Hatte niemals gute Folgen.

Aber anstatt nun den Teil der Bevölkerung, die diesem Kram anhängt, zu verteufeln, sollte man eher überlegen, woher das kommt. Natürlich, die Hohlspacken im Telegraph sind nur schmierige Lügner, geschenkt, aber Ms. Smith und Mr. Jones oder Maxi Mustermann sind das nicht.

Vielleicht helfen auch Beiträge wie von Reiner Grundmann, die die Rolle des Experten in der neuen Gesellschaft mit neuen Medien und neuen Kommunikationsmöglichkeiten (kam mir immernoch zu wenig) beleuchtet, das Phänomen zu verstehen und die Probleme daraus zu lösen. Ich bin kein Sozialwissenschaftler, um das einschätzen zu können.

Ich denke nicht, dass es von der Klimadebatte ausging. Die Klimadebatte ist nur eine Ausprägung und war es schon immer.


Anonymous said...

Reiner, I have read the article but I don't understand it. Could you provide a very short summary of your main argument, please (for non-experts)?

Werner Krauss said...

My take-away message from Reiner's article is in the conclusion: science has limited function in providing reliable knowledge for practical purposes; expertise is ubiquitous and relational. Expertise is not possessed by someone; instead, it comes into being in the process of decision-making.

I missed practical examples in Reiner's article; in my opinion, decision-making and expertise are always about something, there is always something at stake. On a theoretical level, there is, of course, a lot to discuss; what I liked about the article is giving an insight into the rich debate about expertise; there is nothing self-evident or simple. And even though Reiner dismisses here for argumentative reasons approaches from ANT or STS, I can assure that there is a lot to learn from Sheila Jasanoff, Bruno Latour or Brian Wynne - and I am sure, Reiner agrees. All of them show from different angles that common-sense arguments like "science provides the facts, society decides" do not stand the test of reality. Things are more complex, to say the least.

Recently, I saw a presentation by a French colleague from landscape research, and Reiner's article came to my mind. The landscape researcher presented a conflict about land use in the French Alps. His final ppt slide showed a photo of people standing in rain gear in a circle on an Alpine pasture: farmers, the mayor, conservationists, the functionary from agriculture, the biologist, members of the municipality, the shepherd. They discussed future use according to biodiversity, rewilding, pastoralism, tourism etc; there were also European subsidies and UN heritage issues at stake. The researcher deciphered the back and forth of relations and arguments between the different realities of administration, science and everyday use and practices. The guiding process was democracy; expertise resulted from taking into account the different interests, feelings, needs, and customary rights. My conclusion was that Reiner is right here: expertise is a process; it is relational and dialogic and, I would like to add, it is democratic. It is a lesson for EU, national and regional policies; a lesson not at least provided by social sciences and gaining increasingly attention in everyday practice.

I hope this simple example does justice to Reiner's theoretical reasoning; at least, this is how I tried as an anthropologist to make sense of sociological theory.

Anonymous said...

That helps, to some extent. Although I wonder whether your/his positive view of expertise is built on rather negative strawmen or strawpersons and various straw-arguments or straw-claims (e.g. "I suggest that it is more relevant to emphasize that the qualification and skill of the scientists is not closely linked to the decision context." - we know that). I also wondered why there was such a focus on science. That then frames expertise in a narrow (strawman-like) way and allows Reiner to claim a wider definition of expertise which is, to my mind, relatively trivial - that experts interact with people (relational aspect) (even scientists do that) and that expert advice influences action (why else should it be given?). But of course in the case of climate change one can, of course, only hope for this to happen....

@ReinerGrundmann said...

thanks for the summary and interpretation which you provided on my behalf. Of course each text knows more than its author so I won't attempt to give another, 'authoritative' account. I just want to point out that not all expertise is dialogic or democratic. It is quite possible (and not an exception) that the client demands expertise without interacting with the expert(s), even dismissing the recommendations afterwards.

You say the paper offers nothing new ("We know that") -- I am puzzled by this "We". Who is "we"? We on Klimazwiebel who have discussed these ideas, with my participation? Or we, the public?

You seem to have your own ideas about the literature, otherwise you would not describe my discussion as shooting down strawmen. But why do you ask in your first comment for an explanation because you don't "understand"? Or do I misunderstand you?

The IPCC is an interesting case, indeed. Does it provide expertise?

Anonymous said...

I really don't understand the paper, I am sorry (I have no real background in social science; so the 'we' refers to non-expert readers, I suppose). My incoherent ramblings above just tried to generate some understanding for myself. In trying to do so, I basically didn't get very far, apart from saying to myself: where is the real evidence for such statements, some of which are indeed, I think, quite trivial, some of which are counter-arguments to arguments that nobody (at least nobody who is not a social scientist) would really make and so on. I am just slightly baffled. So I was wondering whether it would be possible to have a sort of lay-person's summary. I would also like to know: What should we do differently in terms of giving expert advice, after your article? As for the IPCC, what else but expertise does it provide? As far as I can make out, it provides expert summaries of the current state of knowledge (and these summaries are written by experts), expertly tailored to a variety of lay and expert audiences. But I might be wrong, of course.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

It is interesting that you think that some of my statements are trivial, coming from a lay perspective. The literature I am critically reviewing does not take into account these 'trivial' aspects. The focus is often on one specific form of expertise, the scientific advice.

Let us discuss the example of the IPCC. It is another instance where science is said to provide the advice. But does the summary for policy makers really provide a guide for action (my trivial statement)? And where are the other experts who could guide our action with regard to this problem?