I got an email recently with a link to this blog post by another Sullivan, Andrew Sullivan, of the Atlantic. Mr. Sullivan pulled a section out of this interview by New Scientist managing editor Greg Ross of Harry Collins. They are discussing the new book, Rethinking Expertise.
I would say that the danger to democracy that my own discipline—social studies of science—is not doing enough to combat is the collapse of the idea of expertise. Current social studies of science has difficulty with the notion of expertise. The attitude that anyone’s opinion on any topic is equally valuable could spread, and there are some indications, such as widespread vaccine scares, that suggest it is happening. A world in which there is said to be no difference between those who know what they are talking about and those who don’t is not one that anyone who thinks about it wants. Such a society would be like one’s worst nightmare, exhibiting many of the characteristics of the most vile epochs of human history.
On first read I wanted to say thank you to Prof. Collins for leaving the “autism community” out of the picture. But, this statement rings too true to think that we he wasn’t just being polite: “The attitude that anyone’s opinion on any topic is equally valuable could spread, and there are some indications, such as widespread vaccine scares, that suggest it is happening”? It’s just too accurate a description of the vaccine-rejectionists in the greater autism community.
It’s worth looking at the interview itself. One paragraph that caught my eye is quoted below:
Expertise is important not only within science but also for understanding the public’s relationship with science. Nowadays any parent of a young child, or anyone who can access the Internet, thinks their opinions on technical matters are sound. Many of my colleagues in the social sciences seem to think the same thing. The trouble is that the speed of politics is faster than the speed of scientific consensus formation, so politicians are often faced with making decisions without firm scientific answers to lean on, and this makes science look like anyone else’s opinion. I found I wanted to work out how to value expertise without going back to the bad old days where anyone in a white coat was treated as an authority on anything scientific or technological. We have to solve the very hard problem of reconstructing the value of science when we know it can’t deliver the certainty that people want. Studying expertise may do the trick.
“Nowadays any parent of a young child, or anyone who can access the Internet, thinks their opinions on technical matters are sound.”
Ouch. There are just too many examples of that, just in recent days, that picking any one out is difficult.
What Prof. Collins is proposing is interesting: a way to quantify expertise. I doubt it will happen soon, so we can expect more of the same false expertise. Frankly, even if we could quantify expertise, the same psychology at play will keep people from accepting it.
Seriously, if we could put a real number on expertise, would it matter? As a whole, society puts more credence behind the person sitting on the couch on a talk show than the person who spent years at the bench in a laboratory. Do I need a number to quantify the levels of expertise?
Thank god research is decided through peer review and not the talk show circuit. (If you think peer review of research proposals is a good thing, and you want to keep it that way, contact the IACC).
But, the takeaway for me on this is scary: if vaccine rejectionists are being used as examples of false expertise, how far away is the “autism community”? Let’s face it, the outside world doesn’t see the various communities that make up the greater autism community. And, the loudest voices of the “autism community” are the vaccine rejectionists.