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How does anyone become an expert on anything?

Unthinkable: To become an expert you need to embrace a set of scientific values

Trust me, I’m a celebrity: actress and model Jenny McCarthy. Photograph: AP/Chris Pizzello

The recent attempt by a Catholic bishop to give medical advice on the HPV cervical cancer vaccine prompted uproar – and a subsequent apology from the cleric in question who admitted afterwards he had not been “fully informed” on the issue. But the case raises a broader question as to who is qualified to comment on any matter?

Across the media, old and new, you will find people expressing opinions outside of their field of expertise. You’ll find economists talking about how to tackle religious extremism, biologists offering a view on how to run the economy, and theologians weighing into debates on human evolution.

Should we only give credence to an expert in any given field, thereby discounting the view of non-specialists? Doing so would seem rather undemocratic. It would also appear to reduce the scope for holding experts accountable.

Social scientist Harry Collins has been grappling with these issues for 30 years, channelling many of his ideas into his latest book Why Democracies Need Science. As you can tell from the title, he doesn’t see a conflict between democracy and expertise. Quite the reverse, he says: “Democracies, assaulted by the forces of free-market capitalism, are in desperate need of a fountainhead of values . . . Science has the potential to provide it.”

Scientists (in the ideal) are not blinded by ideology and don’t let ego get in the way of results. What’s more, says Collins, “when it comes to the observable world, those who have observed in a systematic way are a better source of opinions than those who have not”. This doesn’t mean they’re necessarily more in the right but “to have observed is better than not to have observed”.

That still doesn’t solve the problem of how to identify the expert? Here Collins and his colleague at Cardiff University, Robert Evans, have a message which many working scientists find less appealing: “Individuals acquire expertise through socialisation into a domain of expertise.” Scientists, the pair argues, are heavily reliant on “tacit knowledge”, a kind of understanding that can’t easily be transferred to another person by means of writing it down or verbalising it.

Drawing on thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Michael Polanyi, Collins and Evans reject the idea that scientific knowledge is “quasi-mathematical” or purely rule-based. Instead, people gain “interactional expertise” through “immersion in the spoken discourse” of the discipline.

Their theory not only tries to explain how knowledge is acquired but also legitimises the contribution which non-practitioners can make to scientific practice. By immersing yourself deeply in a field of study, you can gain enough “interactional expertise” to make practical judgments “indistinguishable from those made by practitioners themselves”, Collins argues. In short, you can reach a stage where you can talk with authority about plumbing or physics, without ever having fixed a leak or carried out an experiment.

Collins himself proved the point by becoming a recognised expert in gravitational wave physics, having spent many years interviewing and talking to scientists in that field for sociological research. Becoming qualified to speak on a subject even if you’re not a practitioner is possible but it takes some effort, as Collins explains.

As this week’s “Unthinkable” guest, he argues that a clearer understanding of expertise can help us to make better judgments on who best to turn to for advice.

Leave stuff which is the business of experts to experts. Otherwise, you are going to have people with the most money, or most power, making decisions for you

How does one acquire interactional expertise?

Harry Collins: “Think about how you learn a language. I’m here forming perfectly-formed English sentences but I can’t tell you the rules behind them. So even speaking a language rests on tacit knowledge. You slowly get better and better at it, and there comes a point where people recognise you have become sufficiently fluent to be taken seriously. You have interactional expertise in that domain of expertise.

“And if you don’t have that concept you can’t make sense of the world. You can’t make sense of how managers can manage technical areas without doing the front line work – and they can manage, make no mistake.”

Can someone like a journalist gain interactional expertise?

“If you’re good, and you really spend your time deeply immersed in an area, you gain interactional expertise. As we know, a lot of journalism isn’t like that.”

Are there rules you can follow if you want the best counsel?

“The only rule is leave stuff which is the business of experts to experts because if you don’t you are going to have a dystopia. You are going to have people with the most money, or most television presence, or most power, making decisions for you. It’s better having decisions made by experts.

“One big advantage that experts have, particularly scientific experts, is their decision-making and thinking is driven by a set of values, and that set of values overlaps with democratic values. One of those values is universalism. You listen to people’s opinions, you don’t weight them as a function of their race or creed; you weight them as a function of whether they are sensible or not. And that’s the kind of society we want to live in.

“My favourite example is the revolt over MMR vaccine. Who do you want to believe over the safety of the MMR vaccine? Is it epidemiologists who have spent their lives studying the danger of MMR vaccine informed by these sorts of scientific values – honesty, the search for truth, universalism, etc – or do you want to take notice for example of Jenny McCarthy, who is a big television personality because she used to be a nude model in Playboy and she has a child who is autistic and therefore announces she knows it was caused by MMR vaccine? The answer is if you don’t want to live in a dystopia it better be the former and not the latter.”

Is there a conflict between expertise and democracy?

“I don’t think philosophy and expertise are in conflict but a lot of theorists do because they think democracy means everybody being involved in every decision and, since technical decisions are opaque, they think it conflicts with democracy. But actually representative democracy is not like that. We decide who we want to make our decision for a few years - and I think we should delegate our technical decisions to people who are best equipped to make them, and those are experts.

“There is no conflict with democracy at all.”

You're never going to solve Plato’s problem of who guards the guardians but you can move to something better

This brings us to your idea of having a policy advisory body which you call “The Owls”. How would this work?

“Owls are wise but it’s not the wisdom that’s the analogy, it’s the fact that an owl can turn its head round 180 degrees - from the science to the social science and vice versa.

“So ‘The Owls’ are scientists who can also understand the social science perspective on science, and they have a very narrow brief. Their brief is not to make policy decisions; their brief is to report to policy makers on what the current scientific consensus is in any field, and how strong is that consensus.

“It would be something like the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], or the scientific advisor to the government, only in each case with an added social science dimension. A committee would have far more legitimacy than an individual.

“It would just be another incremental move towards how we do things better. It’s never going to solve Plato’s problem of who guards the guardians but all you can do is move a little nearer to something better.”