Monday, 18 August 2008

Studies of Expertise and Experience

I’m very grateful to have been invited by Harry Collins (pictured)and Rob Evans to the second international workshop on studies on studies of expertise and experience (SEESHOP2) in (a very wet) Cardiff. For me the specific interest is in the connection between expertise and tacit knowledge. I’m interested simply to learn what is going on in this area of sociological theory especially because of Collins’ Wittgensteinian leanings.

The role of expertise is central within the so called Third Wave of sociological analysis of science. As I discovered yesterday, the Third Wave came about in part as a reaction to a conversation Harry had on a bus in the US. He was challenged by some cultural anthropologists to say what help sociology of scientific knowledge could be in the case of AIDS policy in Africa, given that, eg., some men believed that sex with a virgin would cure them. The Second Wave adopts a methodological relativism: it is confidant that any historical belief could be shown to be rational by suitable contextualisation. Scientific beliefs are not treated as in any sense a special kind of belief. But that seems no help in guiding ongoing public policy decisions.

The Third Wave aims to take account of the special value generally ascribed to science and to suggest some policy tools for making judgements in the face of scientific debate and disagreement. Central to that is the issue of working out who has the role of an expert and how experts, of different sorts, can be differentiated from others. So expertise isn’t merely a matter of attribution. It is a genuine feature or ability of some people in the debate. (Collins suggested with some sense of irony that in setting out the factors that should guide policy decisions, he found himself approaching Karl Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies, Popper’s methodological philosophy of science having been left behind by sociology of science thirty years ago.)

So described, I wondered why the Cardiff movement didn’t simply give up Wave Two’s relativism and say that these were tools for getting, albeit fallibly, to the truth, since truth is surely the aim of science policy. (Over a beer, Rob Evans suggested that that might be acceptable providing that truth were pretty minimally construed. As long as it wasn’t a correspondence notion of truth with a capital T. But that’s fine, since that’s the right thing to think about truth.)

Equally, I wonder why a commitment to a non-relational, non-attributional theory of expertise – realism about expertise! – doesn’t leech into realism about ground level science claims; whether, in other words, Wave Three is inconsistent with Wave Two. Perhaps that will become clearer to me. In the meantime, however, I’ve heard an interesting mix or methodological papers and papers examining the transfer and management of tacit knowledge in real settings, from nickel factories to physics laboratories.

As set out in Collins and Evans 2007, there are a variety of kinds of expertise. Especially relevant to science policy and management is ‘interactional expertise’: non-coal face, non-contributory expertise but an ability to speak the relevant language and thus, if necessary, to bluff. Empirically testing this, Collins and Evans spend quite a bit of time running Turing-style imitation games to see, eg, whether blind people can bluff sighted people and vice versa (theory predicts the blind can fool the sighted, having been linguistically socialised, but the sighted cannot fool the blinds). Collins expressed some surprise that the journal that published their much cited first paper on the Third Wave, refused to publish this work, but I can imagine that it doesn’t seem much like sociology of knowledge.

In an unintended reflective application of interactional expertise, Collins presented the slides of a psychologist who could not be present and whose specific training he lacked. Ironically, no one seemed to think that this presentation went very well.

One presentation that took a line against Collins and Evans was by Theresa Schilhab. She reported an imitation game study on mother and non-mother midwives and non-midwives. Apparently, although non-mother midwives could fool non-midwives into thinking they were mothers, non-mother midwives could not fool midwives. This, she suggested, was probably because mothers had a kind of embodied cognition of what giving birth was actually like which they could reveal and which could not be imitated. Such embodied cognition could not in general be captured in merely interactional ways.

I’m not sure what to make of this experiment but two things strike me. Firstly, it might not be a matter of mothers having an embodied cognition. It might be merely that giving birth has non-cognitive, perhaps affective, effects on a subject that can later be detected. Perhaps being a mother has emotional effects – such as calmness under pressure – that are hard to fake. If so, the result would not have interesting conclusions for the study of expertise. ((Theresa said she called any effect ‘cognition’ but that has the advantages merely of theft over honest toil, in Russell’s phrase.))

Secondly, and thinking more generally, having particular experiences need not give rise to a distinct kind of (embodied) knowledge but can clearly give rise to a distinct source of knowledge. So a visual memory of a seating plan may enable a ‘contributory expert’ to say that Evan was to the right of Kyle and that Barry was opposite both. But an interactional expert who hears this can know – via standard testimonial transmission – just the same facts. They need not know them with a different kind of – as it were embodied – content, especially if they have vivid visual imagination (although their justifications will be different). But, and this was always implicit in the contrast between interactional and contributory experts, the former have always to await the claims of the latter. If so, the idea of embodied knowledge may not be as interesting as it sounds and may not run counter to Collins and Evans’ claims.

See also the postscript.