What is expertise?

Joe Kaplinsky reports on the RSA/Economist summer fringe debate.

Joe Kaplinsky

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The RSA/Economist summer fringe debate of 5 July 2001, at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London, brought together Brian Wynne (research director, Centre for the Study of Environmental Change), Steven Rose (professor of biology, Open University) and Tim Radford (science editor, the Guardian) to discuss the question: what is expertise?

The topic was motivated by the stream of controversies to do with scientific or environmental issues that have been hitting the headlines, like the safety of GM foods, or other supposed health risks, like mobile phones. These have prompted the question from politicians, the media, and the public: who should we believe and why?

Brian Wynne opened by explaining that a scientific paper can never convey all the assumptions and ‘craft skills’ that go into producing a result – a point familiar to anybody who knows how scientists work. Unlike the ‘ideal’ model of science, in which anybody can replicate a result obtained elsewhere in order to confirm or disprove it, real science requires knowledge of a multitude of practical details, which is only gained through experience on the part of the experimenter.

The consequence, suggested Wynne, is that nobody outside the narrow community of specialists is in a position to appreciate the uncertainties and assumptions that go into making a particular piece of scientific knowledge. Therefore we should think about scaling down what we expect from experts, because while scientists may know a great deal about their specialism, the tacit and unarticulated nature of the uncertainties and assumptions behind their work are difficult to translate into public debate.

Steven Rose questioned whether there is any such thing as ‘the’ scientific method, pointing out that different fields of science use very different methods. Furthermore, he claimed, most scientists don’t think about philosophy – they are ‘pragmatic’, in the sense that they produce the sort of papers that will get published in peer-reviewed journals or experiments that ‘work’ according to standards set by a narrow group of peers. Science, said Rose, simplifies, by considering changes in just one factor at a time. Rose’s conclusion was that while science is good at what it does, it is less useful for understanding the ‘real world’.

Tim Radford pointed out that expertise is defined by the recognition of non-experts. We don’t like to think, he said, that when we board an aircraft or go under the knife we are in the hands of anybody other than an expert – even if we know deep down that some pilots and doctors are better than others. This description certainly seems to have some truth when applied to the way that politicians sometimes appeal to ‘scientific expertise’ in order to avoid difficult discussions.

One question from the floor raised the distinction between the current widespread cynicism about science, which attributes the motivation of scientists and other experts entirely to economic interest, and a sceptical engagement with science – which would demand more expertise, rather than less. Brian Wynne replied that the public wants all economic interests ‘on the table’ so that they could ‘triangulate’ between different viewpoints. (But, I would ask, isn’t this strategy – of using economic interest as a proxy to determine how likely the ideas are to be true – really an alternative to engaging with scientists’ ideas?) Tim Radford added the rather contentious assertion that scientists who question global warming are funded by those sections of the oil industry who still deny that global warming is taking place.

On the question of whether bringing ‘lay members’ (usually green activists) on to what were formerly scientific advisory panels could undermine the integrity of the scientists’ advice, Wynne suggested that, while it was appropriate for scientists to debate the technical issues, so-called ‘strategic’ questions required wider debate.

Overall, the panel was more or less in agreement that society tends to ask too much of scientists and experts, rather than too little. There was even a questioning of whether there is anything special about scientific expertise at all. While this was a lively and interesting debate, it was a shame that a vigorous defence of the role of science in broader democratic decision-making was left to the floor.

A new series of RSA/Economist fringe debates begin on Thursday 27 September 2001, looking at education in the twenty-first century, in the RSA Durham Street Auditorium, 8 John Adam Street, London WC2. To reserve a seat in advance, email fringe@rsa-uk.demon.co.uk, or telephone 020 7451 6868. For press information contact RSA press office on 020 7451 6842 or email media@rsa-uk.demon.co.uk

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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