Expertise and participation

In his discussion of experts and democracy, Peter uses an article by Philip Kitcher to begin asking questions about the role of experts in democracies, particularly with regard to decision making. Kitcher’s review reports the belief that “genuine democratic participation … can only begin when citizens are in a position to understand what kinds of policies promote their interests” and dismisses the idea that democracy requires “extensive public discussion, even on technical matters, discussion in which all participants operate as equals”, not least because such discussion has often “been set up to block the widespread acceptance of conclusions based on an increasing body of evidence”. Kitcher asserts that it is “an absurd fantasy to believe that citizens who have scant backgrounds in the pertinent field can make responsible decisions about complex technical matters, on the basis of a few five-minute exchanges among more-or-less articulate speakers or a small number of articles outlining alternative points of view” and that genuine democracy “requires a division of labor, in which particular groups are charged with the responsibility of resolving questions that bear on the interests of individuals and societies”.

Peter’s questions set out the obvious objections to these sweeping claims, particularly in asking why we should presume that laymen are incapable of making “responsible decisions about complex technical matters”. The assumption is that responsible decisions require specialist knowledge and experience, which is out of reach of anyone who has not undertaken a period of work and study that leads to accreditation of expertise. Against this we might perhaps weigh Feyerabend’s insistence that “one of the most exhilarating experiences is to see how a lawyer, who is a layman, can find holes in the testimony, the technical testimony, of the most advanced expert and thus prepare the jury for its verdict”. Feyerabend argued that science “is not a closed book that is understood only after years of training. It is an intellectual discipline that can be examined and criticised by anyone who is interested and that looks difficult and profound only because of a systematic campaign of obfuscation carried out by many scientists”. We could add that a jury of laymen is required to judge the expert testimony that may have been dismantled by the lawyer, typically on the basis of a few exchanges between rival experts. So much, then, for Kitcher’s concern at the staging of “a brief disagreement between speakers with supposedly equal credentials” being “a cynical abnegation” of the duty to convey information allowing the casting of votes, not least with all experts in a trial chosen in order to support a specific interpretation of the available evidence.

The unstated premise underlying Kitcher’s concern is that if laymen cannot assimilate all the information and arguments available to experts, they are not in a position to make decisions. Kitcher would no doubt agree that all choices are based on incomplete information and that the scientific theories we use to arrive at expert opinion are fallible, unable to explain all phenomena. To assert that “serious” democracy “requires reliance on expert opinion” presupposes a particular form of democracy, not including a participatory or deliberative one. If we start by assuming a representative democracy then the delegation of some decisions to experts is probably uncontroversial; however, the point is that matters being arranged in this way now is no reason why we should accept that they should continue to be. Indeed, the advent of blogging, together with the increasing role of interested laymen in holding experts to account or even overturning expert opinion, implicitly rejects delegation to representatives and expertise through division of labour. As Feyerabend said, science – along with any expert opinion – is something that “can be examined and criticised by anyone who is interested” and, we might add, motivated to do so, with irony that the motivation is often a result of a the presumption that citizens have no business involving themselves in the domain of experts.

Like Peter, I intend to return to this subject over the course of several entries and investigate it further.

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