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SEE Q&A (7): Private Deliberation and Public Controversy November 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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Thanks to Jenny (and John!) for holding down the fort while I was away at HSS. I attended some really interesting sessions, and will share some general-interest highlights presently. Today, though, we present our penultimate entry in our Q&A series with sociologists Harry Collins and Rob Evans about their “Wave 3” Sociology of Expertise and Experience program.  Take note that Collins and Evans crafted their response jointly.

Will Thomas: What is the role of the public/private divide when assessing the uses of expertise, i.e. does the periodic table of expertises function differently in public versus in private?  Returning to themes from questions 2 and 3, would you agree that the sociology of science literature has more of a focus on issues of public authority as opposed to private decision?

Asked to clarify what I meant, I explained:

What was tacit in my question … is the differing standards of consensus in private versus in public, which has a lot to do with the speed of science and the speed of politics …  I would say that in private experts can inform policymakers about what is at stake, what possible options are, what uncertainties are involved, and what the terms of disagreement between experts are.  This is the case even when consensus is not possible.  Having access to these kinds of opinions can allow policymakers certainly to at least narrow their options, but also to make decisions with more confidence that they understand the decision they are making versus if those experts had not been consulted in the first place.  That is, we are not forced to accept total arbitrariness between choices even if consensus is not possible.  (For example, Bill Clinton was faced with differing policy choices by economic advisers Robert Rubin and Robert Reich early in his administration, and was forced to choose between them.  While Clinton was not qualified to make the choice, it seems reasonable to say he still benefitted from their assessments of the situation than if he had had no counsel at all).  SEE is obviously useful here, because it helps identify who should take part in this process of counsel.

Advice, however, is distinguished from public legitimation.  If the lack or limits of consensus are exposed to public scrutiny, controversy can unfold, and political action can be thrown open to question.  This is a classic Ezrahi/Jasanoff situation.  What I take from your [preliminary] answer is that SEE cannot bring the issue to resolution (if a decision is arbitrary due to uncertainty, there’s nothing to be done to make it less so); but SEE can help identify whether a controversy is unfolding in a legitimate way, particularly in terms of whether the proper people are involved in the proper aspects of the problem.

Rob Evans and Harry Collins: One way to understand  this question is that it implies that in private experts can reach a consensus about technical matters which cannot necessarily be maintained in the public domain.  The reasons it may not be maintained in the public domain are that

(a)    politicians/administrators can open up the politics of the question irrespective of technical closure and

(b)    they may even call on maverick expertise to certify that the debate is still open in the face of the private consensus.

This way of looking at things is in some ways similar and in some ways orthogonal to the Wave 3 position.  The orthogonal element is generated by the idea that there is a clear distinction between private consensus and public dissension.  This is less easy to maintain in the light of Wave 2.  Wave 2 shows that even debates among experts such as scientists have a ‘public’ quality about them in the sense that consensus is very hard to establish.  As mentioned above, the speed of scientific consensus formation is very slow where conflict runs deep — 40 years for the constancy of the speed of light, for example — and as Max Planck is said to have said, ‘science advances funeral by funeral.’   That is to say, scientists are very hard to convince of a position with which they disagree and, as Wave 2 (not to mention the Duhem-Quine hypothesis and other bits of philosophy) shows, the logic of neither experiment nor theory is sufficient to compel a rational person to change their mind.  Therefore, scientific consensus is hard to attain even in private and rarely complete.

The parallel elements are twofold.  Firstly, as Wave 3 argues, there is no reason why the political phase should be closed even if there is some kind of consensus in the technical phase.  For example, in the case of genetic research, a scientific consensus that genetic screening is possible does not eliminate political debate about the moral status of the embryo and the uses to which such tests could be put. Here technical and political map onto private and public in what seems to be the sense of the question.

Secondly, it is undoubtedly the case that politicians and others can invoke maverick expertise to try to certify the openness of a technical debate which is largely considered closed among the experts themselves.  Martin Weinel’s analysis of Thabo Mbeki’s actions in respect of anti-retroviral drugs (eg, AZT) illustrates this perfectly.  Mbeki claimed, invoking maverick scientists whose work he had read on the internet, that AZT might be poisonous and had not been proved to be effective in reducing mother-to-child transmission of aids at birth.  In making his inaugural speech to the Second Chamber of the South African parliament Mbeke said:

… many in our country have called on the Government to make the drug AZT available in our public health system. … There … exists a large volume of scientific literature alleging that, among other things, the toxicity of this drug is such that it is in fact a danger to health. … To understand this matter better, I would urge the Honourable Members of the National Council to access the huge volume of literature on this matter available on the Internet, so that all of us can approach this issue from the same base of information.

Mbeki, in other words, was using scientific remarks on the internet to licence the reopening of a debate in public that had long been effectively closed in private — that is, among the scientific community — even though there were, as often, a small body of scientific mavericks who did not accept the consensus.

Wave 3 is prescriptive in respect of these matters.  Wave 3 argues that Mbeki did not have the technological expertise to reopen this matter as a scientific debate even though, it seems, he did have the political power to do so.  Wave 3 argues that he should not have said what he said and should not have urged his ministers to read the internet to back up his claim — none of them had the expertise and the internet is not a legitimate source for either settling or re-opening scientific controversy.  The internet cannot establish that there is a competing play of expertises in the absence of the tacit knowledge needed to assess the significance of the contributions.

Wave 3, however, would accept Mbeki’s right to reopen the issue as a political matter — ‘the scientific consensus holds that AZT will save thousands of newborns from becoming HIV positive but the political costs, such as becoming subject to the thrall of Western imperialist drug companies, is too great.’  By making out that there was an ongoing scientific controversy in the matter, Mbeki was actually taking away his peoples’ right and ability to make such a political judgment.

What SEE can do here is help policy-makers decide if they have been exposed to the appropriate range of experts that would allow them to assess the degree of uncertainty in a decision.  Thus Mbeki was pathologically over-exposed to doubters and saw controversy where there was none.  In contrast, the typical Wave 2 problem deals with cases where policy-makers are pathologically under-exposed to the doubts that remain in the technical phase and thus see consensus where they should see uncertainty (for example in respect of the safety of British beef affected by BSE).

In the longer term we would hope that the public would slowly become educated enough in the methods of science to understand the play of certainty and uncertainty and its consequences as they are expressed in both Waves 2 and 3.  As it is, we seem to have lurched from Wave 1 to Wave 2 and the conclusions being drawn are too extreme.

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1. The lenses of the past « History of Economics Playground - November 27, 2008

[…] Econ ‘dream team.’” And I cannot help tying this to the series on Collins and Evans’s Sociology of Expertise and Experience I read on the Etherwave blog, and wondering what this news says on how scientific expertise and credibility are built, on how […]

2. The lenses of the past « History of Economics Playground - November 27, 2008

[…] ‘dream team.’” And I cannot help tying this to the series on Collins and Evans’s Sociology of Expertise and Experience I read on the etherwave blog , and wondering what this news says on how scientific expertise and credibility are built, on how […]


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