Reclaiming and reconfiguring expertise

Sociology visits the science “lab” and discovers: 1) science is often social; 2) expertise is a tricky balance.

An interview in American Scientist about the nature of expertise by way of a sociologist (Harry Collins) who spends serious time with physicists. Some of it is very old ground, like what we read in the 19086Laboratory Life

The idea of analyzing expertise grew out of my long study of the sociology of gravitational wave detection. I’ve slowly become a quasi-member of the gravitational wave community. This means I chat with my new colleagues in restaurants, cafeterias and coffee bars. I began to find I was talking physics—just the normal to-and-fro of science chat. Sometimes I would recommend that they try something different in the experiments and my remarks weren’t just shrugged off; for instance, I might be putting a case that had been considered and rejected for physics reasons that I could follow, or, rarely, I might even get something right.

This began to strike me as interesting: Here was someone, all of whose university degrees were in sociology, talking physics with physicists. I could not do the math, design the circuits or solder wires, and I would never contribute to a physics paper. Yet I could still talk gravitational wave physics.

Then it struck me that the managers of the big gravitational wave experiments … were also not doing much in the way of maths, or designing and building experiments, or co-authoring research papers in the field. Most of what they did was mediated by the same kind of talk that I was doing. And I also realized that talk of this kind was what I heard when I sat in on review committees—it was talk that happened in these places, not calculating or experimenting. I could follow most of this talk, and, every now and again, I felt that I could even have offered something. This made me think about the nature of expertise: how my expertise differed from that of the scientists and the managers.

But then there is a counterbalance:

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 … 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.

One of the services of this discussion is to unpack different moments and types of expertise. The book, Rethinking Expertise contains a periodic table of expertise types, which includes “interactional expertise” (being able to interact with experts in the field) and “referred expertise” (leveraging expertise in other fields in a field which is not your own). It also discusses types of knowledge, such as “tacit knowledge” (“things you can do but can’t describe how”, might be a better phrase than ‘thin slice’).

The interview doesn’t go into much detail, sadly. I’m hoping the book catches on and others review and dissect so I can talk about it without having to read it. In the meantime, it does contain some interesting ideas for management or areas of expertise by non-experts, collaboration, and the eternally fascinating topic of T-shaped people.

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