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SEE Q&A (8): Expertise as a “Classic Problem” November 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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As we conclude our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project, I would like to thank them for taking the time to answer the questions and for participating in the blog format.  As we continue to toss around and develop ideas on this site, I imagine we will have many opportunities to refer back to this series.  Please note that Collins and Evans crafted their responses jointly.

Will Thomas: You mentioned back in your foundational paper in SSS (cited here) that the establishment of levels of expertise “has the feel of a classic problem”.  I would tend to agree, finding in my own work on operations research that creating social arrangements where “policy science” can contribute to rather than dictate decision making was a central concern in the postwar evolution of the various policy sciences.  In reading your work I am reminded of Herb Simon’s work Administrative Behavior, or even Robert Merton’s “The Role of Applied Social Science in the Formation of Policy: A Research Memorandum” Philosophy of Science 16 (1949) 161-181.  Have you been finding over the last several years that SEE has had resonance in other fields?

Harry Collins and Rob Evans: It does not surprise us to find that SEE resonates with post-war work because of the fact that both maintain a divide between the technical and the political.  Thus we find 1950s debates in the British Civil Service about the role of technical experts in respect of generalists and the continuing question of whether scientists should be ‘on tap or on top.’  We are undoubtedly going over much of the ground that was first traversed in Wave 1 but we are not going back to same way of thinking.  The differences between Wave 3 and Wave 1, as have been remarked above, concern the nature (more…)

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

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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 (more…)

SEE Q&A (6): Science, Policy, and Certainty October 27, 2008

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We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: You begin the introduction to your book with the statement: “Science, if it can deliver truth, cannot deliver it at the speed of politics.”  The statement implies certain things about the nature of politics and the nature of science, particularly that politics seeks action where science seeks certainty (i.e. “truth”).  Yet, as Jasanoff has pointed out (say, in her “EPA” piece in the 1992 Osiris), it is politics that demands certainty of science, not science itself.  Science, absent a political imperative, tends to be used for the production of more science, rather than the production of solid claims.  Does science have a tolerance for uncertainty that politics does not?  Can science make legitimate decisions quickly if certainty may be discarded?  Does politics demand certainty (or at least the appearance of it) when taking action?  If not, what constitutes the requirements of a legitimate political decision?

Harry Collins and Rob Evans: It is not correct to say that science does not demand certainty of itself.  Thus Collins has spent decades immersed in the gravitational wave detection community and found it to be a community that is obsessed with the certainty of the results.  Collins often finds himself arguing with members of that community because of their hostility to the publication of any finding that is tentative—an argument described more systematically in Gravity’s Shadow as a tension between evidential individualism and evidential collectivism.  Most of the scientists in that field would agree that, unless something remarkable happens, even the first widely accepted published claim to have directly seen the (more…)

SEE Q&A (5): Policymaking in Waves 2 and 3 October 20, 2008

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We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: The problem of expertise in policymaking has long been a concern to scholars such as Sheila Jasanoff (The Fifth Branch, Science at the Bar, etc.) and Yaron Ezrahi (Descent of Icarus [out of print]), and, more recently, for Bruno Latour (The Politics of Nature).  Drawing on the insights of SSK, they have argued that scientific experts cannot be called on to offer non-politicized policy recommendations, because scientific consensus-building is itself a political process.  Instead (to paint with a broad brush), effective policymaking can only take place when facts and political concerns are negotiated simultaneously.  Pretending otherwise only opens the door to the systematic sowing of doubt concerning the validity of even a large-majority consensus (as we can see on classic issues such as global warming, the cigarette-cancer link, and evolution in science education).

I notice you don’t engage with this literature directly.  Is this a fair reading of the literature, and do you see yourselves as extending it, addressing difficulties presented by it, or answering different questions entirely?

Rob Evans

Rob Evans

Rob Evans and Harry Collins: To repeat, Wave 2 of Science Studies shows (and Collins has made a considerable contribution to showing it) that it is impossible to have a pure science free of the influence of ‘extra-scientific factors’ including politics.  To that extent all technological decisions in the public domain must be influenced by politics whether we notice it or not.  Where Wave 3 departs from the previous work is in what are taken to be the implications of these discoveries.  The predominant mode of thinking coming out of Wave 2 is that, because scientific and technological decisions are a continuation of politics, the ideas of a scientific/technological decision on the one hand, and a political decision on the other, cannot be separated.  It follows that Wave 2 treats the very notion of the scientific and the political as constructed.

Wave 3 says it is a mistake to draw this implication.  Though it is the case that there can be no pure science separate from politics it does not follow that politics and science are the same or that institutions for technological decision-making are simply political institutions albeit with (more…)

A Fluid Taxonomy of 20c. Sciences October 17, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Collins-Evans Q&A.
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Will (L) and Christopher pretending to work on the project for the AIP newsletter.

Will (L) and Christopher pretending to work on their web project for the benefit of the AIP's weekly newsletter.

One of my ongoing concerns is the problem of writing a coherent history of 20th-century science and technology.  As I’ve been working on assembling names for my web project on notable post-1945 American physicists (on which Christopher is assisting me), I’ve been trolling through the National Academy of Sciences’ database of deceased members.  Living members are helpfully grouped by section, and we’ve simply taken members of the “physics” and “applied physical sciences” sections.  Deceased members, on the other hand, are not so grouped, so I have to look everyone up and sort out the physicists from the psychologists, anthropologists, chemists, geneticists, and so forth.

Predictably, this has resulted in some problematic category issues.  What to do with physical chemists, electrical engineers (especially those who won Nobel Prizes in physics)?; what separates an astronomer from an astrophysicist? when is mathematics physics-y enough to include mathematicians?

Another interesting problem that I’ve run into is that certain fields seem to have stopped being physics.  Ballistics research becomes more statistical than physical.  Thermodynamics, one of the great products of (more…)

SEE Q&A (4): Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Values/Politics October 14, 2008

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We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: Is there a fact/value divide within this theory to distinguish those who participate purely as stakeholders, and those who participate as experts?  Whose responsibility is it to reinterpret the claims of non-expert stakeholders within the expert framework?  What are the implications of SEE for the democratic ideal?

Harry Collins

Harry Collins

Rob Evans and Harry Collins: There is a clear distinction between experts and stakeholders and between propositions and preferences. The language of facts and values, however, cross-cuts the distinctions we want to make.  Starting with stakeholders, in the Third Wave paper we disentangle the concepts with Wynne’s sheep farmer example.  The sheep farmers were both experts and stakeholders in the matter of farming practice post-Chernobyl.  Those who owned the farms (let us imagine they were London based financiers), were stakeholders only.  The sheep farmers had a legitimate contribution to make to the technical phase of the debate (i.e. how to measure the contamination of the sheep) in virtue of their expertise in sheep farming and Lakeland ecology. The owners of the farms did not have this expertise and so could not, and should not, contribute to this debate.  Nevertheless, both sheep farmers and farm owners had legitimate contributions to make to the political phase of the debate in virtue of their stakes in the matter.

Wave Two, in contrast, has confounded  stake-holding with knowledge and expertise.  (more…)

SEE Q&A (3): Who Determines Expertise? October 6, 2008

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We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: Your book’s epigraph is from Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season… a time to break down, and a time to build up.”  One of the key strategies of prior sociology of science has been to question the socially constructed science/non-science divide in establishing what knowledge can be considered authoritative.  Through the construction of a “periodic table of expertises” you attempt to establish new normative standards of policy participation relating to whether actors have “contributory” or “interactional” expertise, and so forth.  Who determines who has primary access to a given problem and, thus, what other parties have pertinent expertise?  Is this purely a matter of social and political power, or are there other means of assembling teams of relevant experts?

Harry Collins and Rob Evans: The epigraph is directed at our colleagues in science and technology studies who seem to have become addicted to breaking down barriers, creating monsters that cross boundaries, always attending to detail instead of generalising, and so forth.  If the fragility of all generalisations and classifications were widely accepted it would dissipate the power of science.  Science, like any synthesising activity, depends on the creation of new objects and categories and boundaries.  We (more…)

SEE Q&A (2): Expertise and Authority September 29, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Collins-Evans Q&A.
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We continue our 8-part Q&A with Harry Collins and Rob Evans concerning their Sociology of Expertise and Experience project.  Once again, we note that Collins and Evans crafted their answers jointly.  This is not a spontaneous exchange.

Will Thomas: Your main concern in moving in the direction of SEE relates to a long-standing concern with the authority that knowledge bestows, and particularly Wave Two’s concern with dismantling the notion that scientific knowledge possesses an authority inherent to itself.  Would you say that the problem of authority has been the central motivation behind the sociology of science?  Is the unlimited extension of expertise to “folk knowledge” “folk wisdom” , which you criticize, a logical consequence of the Wave Two approach?

Rob Evans and Harry Collins: Chacun a son gout.  We can’t speak for others, but for us the problem has never been one of authority.  Instead, what is at the centre are the questions posed by the philosophy and the sociology of knowledge:  How do we have knowledge and is there any way of making it secure?  Understanding how science works is essential for understanding these more fundamental questions. It is true that the motivations of some of those who came into science studies was more directly connected with ideas of socially responsible science—the Society for Social Studies of Science’s most prestigious award is named after J.D. Bernal after all—but for us any changes to the idea of science have emerged as a consequence of the uncovering of the social nature of knowledge not the other way round.

For Collins, the discovery, in the early 1970s, that science could not have the authority and certainty that the old models of Wave One suggested, because replication by itself could not settle disputes, was just that—a discovery (albeit an exciting one given the dominance of Wave One thinking at the time).    In some ways, it is a shame that science cannot live up to the old model—life would be so much simpler.  Of course, (more…)

SEE Q&A (1): Why is this a new wave? September 25, 2008

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Ether Wave Propaganda is pleased to present as a special serialized feature this Q&A session with Cardiff sociologists Harry Collins and Rob Evans regarding their Sociology of Expertise and Experience (SEE) program.  As a special feature, it will not adhere to the usual length restrictions we try to keep on posts, and, therefore, will run unusually long. Also note that this post does not represent a spontaneous exchange.  Collins and Evans have asked for clarifications on the original questions, and have carefully crafted joint responses.  They have also asked me to ask them to modify their responses if I deemed them inadequate or wrong, so as to make the Q&A as useful as possible.  I saw no need to do so for the first question.

Will Thomas: SEE is an attempt to move beyond the sociology of knowledge into a sociology of expertise, and is explicitly formulated as a “third wave” in the sociology of science.  What is it that most distinguishes SEE from other attempts to move beyond the initial insights of SSK, such as the Actor-Network Theory, or Pickering’s “mangle”?

Asked to clarify what I had in mind as the proposed novelty in ANT and the Mangle, I replied: (more…)

Q&A (Intro): The Use of Sociology September 23, 2008

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As I’ve suggested in my posts on Simon Schaffer’s early works, sociology, whether we acknowledge it or not, is an essential component of historiographical work.  The sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) program, initiated in the 1970s, has led to some remarkable improvements in historiographical method, essentially by requiring historical explanation for things that were previously taken for granted because knowledge produced by scientific method was assumed to speak for itself.  Where prior scholarship might have simply assumed that good scientific work diffuses on its own (and those who didn’t see that it was “good” were just intellectually deficient), suddenly educational background, the efforts of scientists to “sell” their ideas, resonance with scientists’ religious or intellecutal convictions mattered in understanding the history of science (what I call the “Reception Revolution”).  Similarly, it became inadequate to claim that those who were simply “more curious” or who “looked harder” at nature saw new things; the ability to see new things (at least in all but the most obvious cases) required some understanding of what projects those scientists were undertaking, what training prepared their minds to see what they saw.  And, most famously, the policing of the borders of scientific communities became of paramount historical interest, because conclusions could only be legitimately validated by those in an appropriate moral and intellectual position (Shapin and Schaffer’s famous “Hobbes was right”).  SSK was a boon to the history of science because it caused historians to ask new questions, and, lo and behold, we found good answers to the questions that we asked.

But, to paraphrase Copernicus, sociology is written for sociologists, and historians do well to keep that in mind.  Sociologists seek a sociological theory of science, but this goal has been interpreted by different sociologists in different ways since the SSK revolution.  All seem committed to viewing sociology as the only lens that they are willing to use to understand scientific actions.  Now, some seem to view this as a call for the sociological theory of science to be the theory of science.  This has led to the theories of the “French School” and the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) program, which seek to incorporate the individual scientist’s persuading encounter with the natural world into sociological schemes, which, famously, gives agency to non-human (more…)