Elizabeth Popp Berman - University of Michigan
The Crisis of Expertise begins by mapping competing theories of expertise—such as artificial intelligence, the sociology of professions, or actor-network theory—along two axes: whether expertise is located inside or outside the individual, and whether it is fundamentally abstract or reflects practical, tacit knowledge. Eyal makes the case for a new approach to the study of expertise that is located in none of these quadrants but at their intersection. He also draws our attention to two key concepts in understanding it: trust (which he portrays as an unsteady position balanced somewhere between faith and knowledge, or default and vigilance) and risk (which he centers as fundamental to modern society, but also inherently productive of expertise problems).
It is also worth pointing out that Eyal sees the crisis of expertise as fundamentally a crisis of the regulatory state. It is the state that must navigate this difficult space in which multiple voices must be heard and taken into account, and decisive action must be taken, but never on the basis of fully conclusive scientific knowledge. Thus while Eyal does not provide prescriptive solutions to the crisis of expertise, the implication is that ending it will require developing better regulatory institutions.
Eyal does not try to prescribe solutions to this crisis, but closes the book by recovering a concept proposed by physicist Alvin Weinberg in the early 1970s, “trans-science” (Weinberg 1972). Trans-scientific problems, which are rife in the kinds of regulatory spaces Eyal is interested in, are not those which have moral or societal implications that complicate them. Rather, they are problems that are fundamentally amenable to scientific analysis, but that for practical reasons, science simply cannot answer. So we may suspect that Colony Collapse Disorder results from the cumulation of low-level stressors on bees, there is no practical way to determine exactly what combinations of stressors under what conditions might begin to produce it (Suryanarayanan and Kleinman 2016). Or we may know that there is a small but real chance of a catastrophic earthquake taking place in Northern California over the next five years, but we cannot specify precisely what that chance is, even though the question is still solidly in the scientific realm.
Expertise, Eyal concludes, lives in this realm of trans-science. It requires expert judgement, because these are not questions that can have precise answers. And because they require judgement, they can never fully escape the bounds of politics. The challenge they pose is one of redesigning state institutions with these questions, and this fundamental uncertainty, in mind.
Having now given some flavor of the book itself, I propose three questions provoked by it that I think are worthy of further discussion.
First, how does the crisis of expertise in the state differ from the crisis of faith in academic science, on the one hand, or in broader societal knowledge claims, on the other?
For Eyal, expertise is something that takes place at the intersection of science and action, and is fundamentally a problem of the state. Yet the crisis of legitimacy of knowledge-producing institutions of course goes well beyond the state. In academia, we have the replication crisis in fields ranging from cancer research to experimental psychology. This involves experts, and attention by the public, but is not very directly tied to the state, or even, in the case of psychology, to applied knowledge.
On the other hand, we have the crisis of fake news in journalism, and more generally the fracturing of the media ecosystem so that different people no longer agree on basic empirical facts. Again, these developments only indirectly related to the state, and have little to do with specialized, abstract knowledge.
Second, can we really bracket the legitimacy of regulatory science from the legitimacy of government institutions more generally?
In the middle of the book, Eyal spends some time trying to pick his way through a middle path between Habermas, who sees legitimacy as resting on a belief that with enough time for reasoned debate sufficient evidence could be produced to justify a decision, and Luhmann, who sees legitimacy as fundamentally deceptive, as it is never in fact possible to produce a fully reasoned defense of action. Eyal tries to thread this needle by suggesting that one critical piece of creating legitimate expertise involves ensuring the right “temporal frame” for decision-making—one that is slow enough to allow for input and deliberation and careful consideration of evidence, but faster than the temporal frame of pure science, since regulatory science needs to come at least to temporary conclusions so that action can be taken.
There’s little question that successful regulatory science involves careful balancing between the need for input from various nonscientific constituencies as well as (possibly competing) groups of scientific experts, in a timeframe that allows enough input while eventually coming to a close. But this framing of the problem only seems to me to make sense if we assume that challenges to regulatory expertise are, at some level, fundamentally about whether scientific claims are reasonable. But what if the issue is not one of reason, and the legitimacy of regulatory science, but of the legitimacy of government more generally?
Compare, for example, the fights over regulatory decisions at the EPA in the 1980s (e.g. Lash et al. 1984) to those that occur now. In both cases, scientists argue over interpretations of evidence, while interest groups lobby for interpretations that favor them, casting doubt on those that do not. But today, unlike the 1980s, such challengers can channel the energy of a political ecosystem in which a large fraction of the population has come to see the EPA, and government agencies more generally, as the villain. No appeal to either scientific reason or proceduralism is going to assuage those whose fundamental issue with the process is based on identity, not reason.
Finally, cui bono? Where are power and interests in this story?
It is striking that a book centrally concerned with the question of how expertise is established and legitimated pays little attention to questions of interests and power as a means of either supporting or challenging expertise. Of course Eyal mentions “merchants of doubt” (Oreskes and Conway 2010), agnotology (Proctor and Schiebinger 2008), and organized efforts to sow distrust in science. But it seems unrealistic to me to propose a starting point, at least, for thinking about structuring institutions that can create reliable regulatory science without thinking through all the reasons groups might not want them to.
And power and interests are not only a factor in challenges to expertise. They are also critical in upholding it. A working paper by political scientist Philip Rocco (2019) comes to mind, which demonstrates how interests and power help to uphold the Congressional Budget Office as a producer of neutral numbers. While past accounts of the CBO have emphasized its careful work to visibly cultivate neutrality and nonpartisanship, Rocco convincingly argues that at least as important is the fact that the powerful Budget Committees of Congress have come to rely on the CBO’s numbers as a buttress for their own influence. Because powerful actors benefit, the CBO survived the 1990s, a decade that saw the elimination of a peer office, the Office of Technology Assessment, and the CBO has persisted despite more recent challenges: its ability to be neutral rests on raw power.
The Crisis of Expertise is a very stimulating book to engage with for those of us interested in the uses and limits of expertise, and it is difficult to limit myself to three questions in response. I’ve already had one long conversation trying to think through its implications, and will doubtless have many more; we are all richer for having to it to react to, and reflect upon.
Jonathan, Katherine Gillman, and David Sheridan. 1984. A Season of Spoils: The Reagan Administration’s Attack on the Environment. New York: Pantheon Books.
Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Proctor, Robert N., and Londa Schiebinger, eds. 2008. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Rocco, Philip. 2019. “Keeping Score: The Congressional Budget Office and the Politics of Institutional Durability.” Draft article.
Suryanarayanan, Sainath, and Daniel Lee Kleinman. 2016.Vanishing Bees: Science, Politics, and Honeybee Health. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Weinberg, Alvin. 1972. “Science and Trans-Science.” Minerva 10:209-222.
Stephanie Mudge - University of California, Davis
This engaging and thought-provoking book begins with the primary dilemma of the contemporary crisis of expertise: experts have never been more ubiquitous and necessary, and expertise has never been more politicized. Seeking to move beyond unhelpful antinomies (facts versus fakeness; expertise versus ignorance), Eyal narrows the focus from “science” in general (which he notes, following Latour, has no singular existence) to regulatory science specifically. Regulatory science, by contrast with the action-oriented fast lane of legal and policy sciences and the slow lane of the ever-revisable hard sciences, resides in the contentious “middle lane,” doing the work of bridging “open-forward scientific facts with closed, actionable legal and policy facts.” A site of the production of “cutoffs, thresholds, guidelines, surrogate end points, acceptable risk levels, consensus documents, expert assessments, simulations, stress tests,” the middle lane is especially contentious and crisis-prone because of its location at the “interface” of science and policy. In the middle lane there can be no “long-termism” defense against accusations of bias or arbitrariness; “one cannot wait for the long-term,” where social mechanisms of judgment, interpretation, and interpersonal trust “stand exposed in the glaring light of a decision taken in the here and now” (8). This, Eyal argues, is where the real contention lies.
It is easy to forget nowadays that today’s crisis of expertise was long in the making. As Eyal reminds us, the 1960s saw both the rise and the politicization of the category of the expert. As it turns out, there is no final way of knowing the difference between experts and non-experts, or evaluating the legitimacy of expert claims. Expertise is not the same thing as skill; it can be both specialized and practical; it is both tacit and linked to evaluations of abilities to explicitly formulate it; it is not always clear what forms of expertise are most relevant or important.
In a particularly deft move Eyal lays out how varying conceptions of expertise can be thought of in fielded terms—that is, one can map out scholarly contention over the nature of expertise as a field of struggles over who should be understood as an expert. The space of contention, in his analysis, is organized by two axes: the problem of extension (technocrats or citizens?) and the problem of trust (rules or judgment?). In the latter case Eyal reminds us that trust, like gift exchange, has a “two-fold truth” (quoting Bourdieu): it has to be grounded in both personal faith and in “organized, collective self-deception”—that is, a willingness to sustain the relationship in the absence of guarantees.
What polluted the trust relationship that faith in expertise requires? This is the million-dollar question. The answer Eyal settles on, drawing from Ulrich Beck, is that the rise of risk, the impossibility of any final expert or expertise of risk, the inevitable failure of efforts to assess and manage risk (risk can’t be eliminated!), and the use of quantified risk to camouflage otherwise ethical and political concerns, undermined “the reputation and credibility of scientific institutions, experts, expert systems, and government agencies” (62). The crisis, then, is not “knowledge and ignorance,” but rather “authority, legitimacy, credibility, and reputation” (84).
Here the book takes a surprisingly optimistic turn: as the crisis deepens, the world of expertise builds a capacity to defend and, perhaps more importantly, to limit itself, becoming able to identify the questions it cannot answer—what Eyal calls “trans-science as a vocation.”
This is a really thought-provoking assessment. It is surprisingly optimistic, which is refreshing. But, then again … perhaps because I’m not in a very optimistic frame of mind just now, or maybe because we’re never really able to read things without putting them in the context of one’s own work, it raises questions about where politics and political institutions are situated in the making and (hopefully) resolution of the crisis of expertise.
Shouldn’t our default assumption be that the politicization of “scientific” and “fact-based” truth-claiming in the regulatory sciences is rooted at least partly, or maybe primarily, in politics? And if so then doesn’t this suggest that, if we are to grasp the crisis of expertise historically, then (as I’ve argued elsewhere) we have to link the sociology of expertise to the sociology of states and parties? What I’m especially interested in here is not so much the place of the legitimacy of government or democracy in the story of the crisis of expertise, but rather the place of the integrity of political representation and functioning of the political field. Indeed, one could argue that the “middle lane” that Eyal describes is the political field.
To think this through, let’s reconsider the matter of trust and the axis of contention over rules or judgment in the case of economics in the 1960s. Was economics’ politicization generated by the problem of risk? Well, maybe, but the stage for this was set in the so-called Keynesian period in which, as I show in my recent book, an economics that was very much centered on judgment (as opposed to rule-based decision-making) was also de facto allied with American New Deal Democrats and, in Western Europe, with socialist, laborite, and social-democratic parties. The initial effect, on the political right and the (linked) non-Keynesian corners of economics professions, was emphasis on governing according to rules given by markets; the longer-term effect was that, in time, orthodoxies within economics shifted to rules—a way of thinking that does not dovetail too well with the necessities of political strategy and coalition-building. And so, by the 1990s, in the political field we find the rise of strategic political expertise or, in other words, specialized expertise in the art of winning elections. The flipside of contention over trust, it would seem, was a tectonic shift in representative politics away from representation and toward the science of strategy.
The problem, in this case, is that the dynamics and effects of the crisis of expertise cannot be understood without an analysis of the relationship between expertise and partisan politics. In a way this isn’t too surprising. It was, after all, Mannheim who identified the rise of parties with the production of “ideology.” Mannheim saw the particularization of knowledge claims, and recognition thereof, as having origins in an emergent association between knowledge-claiming and partisan organization. Bourdieu updated this story for the contemporary period: for him the problem was not so much the rise of parties and ideology but rather a re-centering of institutions that are supposed to be communicative and representative on winning at all costs. The key thing here is the reduction, in other words, of representative politics to theater and the alienation that is its natural correlate. In such a world one wonders how expertise of any form can be established or legitimated, since the space of “interface” between science and law or policy—which, in democratic orders, is populated by political parties—operates on a logic in which all truth claims are subordinated to strategic office-seeking.
The upshot is that there is a kind of “pollution” or “contamination” story that one could tell that is not internal to fields of expertise or contention over it. It originates in the political field, and from there it encroaches on both expert professions and the technocratic state. What emerges, then, is a world in which partisanship and political strategy dominate, and are perceived as being dominant over, truth, government, and representational claims-making; a world in which everything—the weather, everyday language, styles of dress—takes on a partisan hue. One wonders, in this world, whether any kind of non-partisan ‘expert’ is historically possible.
Last thing—and this is going to be one of those questions that I really should elaborate, but instead I’ll just put it out there and leave it at that. It seems to me there is a political economy to the story Eyal tells, as well: expertise can be contaminated by partisan power-seeking, or it can be contaminated by the dominance of profit-seeking. This comes up in the book here and there. Is there not also a story of the rise of financialized capitalism in the crisis of expertise? Of states that increasingly, in the terms of Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy, “see like a market”?
These are my central questions for Gil—which, of course, I would be unable to formulate had he not written a really excellent book!
Steven Epstein - Northwestern University
Perhaps few will be shocked by such duplicitous and cynical rhetoric from the current director of the EPA. But readers of Gil Eyal’s wonderful new book will immediately notice how astutely Wheeler has appropriated the crisis of expertise. When and why should we trust the expert findings on which the EPA relies to generate its regulations? On the one hand, by invoking replication and an emphasis on procedures of validation, Wheeler appeals to our faith in “mechanical objectivity” as a warrant of the credibility of expert claims: Of course we want studies to be reproducible! On the other hand, by gesturing at “the public and stakeholders,” Wheeler tips his hat in the direction of the democratic revolt against expert technocracy, and acknowledges the widespread dissatisfaction with simply leaving important judgments up to the experts: How can stakeholders have their say, unless all data are made available? Close readers of The Crisis of Expertise might well conclude that every position in the agonistic field that characterizes the contemporary debate over expertise has nowadays become grist for the mill of cynical obfuscation. “Crisis of expertise” indeed.
But if the episode demonstrates the indisputable timeliness of Eyal’s intervention and the handy analytical tools that Eyal offers us, it also suggests some of the weird and wild complexity of the current debates surrounding expertise. What is expertise, anyway? Who gets to be called an expert? When should experts be trusted? How are experts best held accountable? How are expert findings best incorporated into political processes? And, yes, how might we respond when the very defenses of expertise are appropriated and manipulated? I’m tempted to say that the most controversial claim in Eyal’s book is the one implied by the first word of the title: “The.” Really? Just one crisis? Perhaps there’s too much at stake here to be satisfactorily encompassed by a singular definite article.
That said, the book is hugely helpful in corralling the topic and organizing a wide array of theoretical resources and empirical studies of expertise. What Eyal means by “the crisis” is clear enough: our society is pulled in two directions at once by our profound suspicion of an enterprise that we do not even pretend to be able to do without. Eyal does a marvelous job of decomposing this crisis, taking up the various proposed solutions in turn, and locating them all in social space in relation to one another. This analysis alone would justify the book, but Eyal gives us more, including suggestions about the historical rise of the crisis, and careful consideration of the entwined fates of concepts related to expertise, such as trust and risk. He does all this in lively prose that not only is powered by great examples but also is much more fun to read than the idea of “crisis” would seem to authorize. In other words, this is a splendid book that, in 149 pages, accomplishes a great deal.
“Regulatory politics concerns weighty political matters of immediate practical importance, from the safety of the medications we consume to the cleanliness of the air we breathe. But it does not exhaust the ways in which crises of expertise infuse everyday life”
I would like to say a word about where the book does not really tread, before turning to the vexed question of “what is to be done” that Eyal takes up in its final pages. I think that because of his close focus on the politics of regulatory science, Eyal misses the chance to paint the crisis (or crises) of expertise as broadly cultural phenomena. Regulatory politics concerns weighty political matters of immediate practical importance, from the safety of the medications we consume to the cleanliness of the air we breathe. But it does not exhaust the ways in which crises of expertise infuse everyday life.
But let me take the book on its own terms and say a few words about how Eyal wraps things up. The conclusion to the book is short, and Eyal begins it with a clear disclaimer: “I did not write this book to offer a solution to the crisis of expertise. I do not have one” (p. 142). Fair enough: Personally, I have no problem with a book that is diagnostic rather than prescriptive. Eyal’s emphasis, in these final pages, is appropriately on the virtues of critical scholarship in driving home the inconvenient truths that make the expertise crisis so very difficult to resolve. Indeed, Eyal uses these pages in large part to summarize why every known position in the expertise wars founders on the shoals of one inconveniently placed rock formation or another. Those who put their faith in a Weberian separation of facts and values confront the problem that, in the domain of expertise, the two are necessarily blurred. Yet those who reject the Weberian distinction and who seek instead a more democratic and inclusive mode of participatory science should acknowledge that such forums—precisely because they throw open the closed doors of science—lack mechanisms to end debate and are “poor machineries for producing legitimacy” (p. 148). Indeed, they are easily exploited by self-interested “merchants of doubt.”
Well, frankly, the potential for exploitation is everywhere in this story, as suggested by my opening anecdote concerning the top administrator of the EPA. So, how do we then respond? I agree with Eyal that the answer cannot be to suggest that the orchestration of expertise should “be modeled on the open agora” (p. 148). What should it be like, then? Eyal briefly allows us to glimpse his cards (and perhaps lays them right on the table) when he proposes on the final page that the field of decisionmaking should be “composed of the relations of trust and mutual support between the repeat players, though every effort should be made to expand their ranks.” Moreover, “at the core of this network there should be…a dedicated and autonomous state agency,” staffed by “a revalued, rededicated, professionalized and emboldened civil service” (p. 149).
“If we have to choose our devils, I’ll stick with a more participatory politics of expertise, myself...”
If we have to choose our devils, I’ll stick with a more participatory politics of expertise, myself—though I agree with Eyal that the trick is to imagine the kinds of institutional supports that might keep it honest. I continue to find lessons, however ambiguous, in the work of the AIDS treatment activists that I studied some decades ago. AIDS activists were deeply invested in the scientific process at the same time as they mounted their critiques of specific practices and practitioners. For obvious reasons committed to the goal of advancing knowledge about AIDS and producing effective treatments, treatment activists could not afford the luxury of endorsing scientific arguments just because they found those arguments politically useful. To the contrary, practical necessities generally (though of course not always) worked to ensure that activist interventions with regard to clinical trials would be based on scrupulous self-education, careful assessments, and sincere concerns with validity, reliability, and efficacy—not on an opportunistic endorsement of whatever seemed consistent with predetermined political stances. To be sure, this example suggests that only in particular circumstances will “lay expertise” help bring about better science. Yet, perhaps it’s possible to extract, from this example and others, some ideas about institutional mechanisms that could promote virtuous examples of participatory forms of expert decisionmaking. I’ll continue to place my hopes there. If we have to choose our devils, I’ll stick with a more participatory politics of expertise, myself—though I agree with Eyal that the trick is to imagine the kinds of institutional supports that might keep it honest. I continue to find lessons, however ambiguous, in the work of the AIDS treatment activists that I studied some decades ago. AIDS activists were deeply invested in the scientific process at the same time as they mounted their critiques of specific practices and practitioners. For obvious reasons committed to the goal of advancing knowledge about AIDS and producing effective treatments, treatment activists could not afford the luxury of endorsing scientific arguments just because they found those arguments politically useful. To the contrary, practical necessities generally (though of course not always) worked to ensure that activist interventions with regard to clinical trials would be based on scrupulous self-education, careful assessments, and sincere concerns with validity, reliability, and efficacy—not on an opportunistic endorsement of whatever seemed consistent with predetermined political stances. To be sure, this example suggests that only in particular circumstances will “lay expertise” help bring about better science. Yet, perhaps it’s possible to extract, from this example and others, some ideas about institutional mechanisms that could promote virtuous examples of participatory forms of expert decisionmaking. I’ll continue to place my hopes there.
 Lisa Friedman, “E.P.A. to Limit Science Used to Write Public Health Rules,” New York Times, 11 November 2019.
 McGowan, Emma. “How to Tell If a Sexual Health Resource Is Legit, According to a Sex Educator.” Bustle, 31 July 2019, https://www.bustle.com/p/how-to-tell-if-a-sexual-health-resource-is-legit-according-to-a-sex-educator-18367105 (accessed 23 October 2019).
 Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010).
 Steven Epstein, Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
Gianpaolo Baiocchi - New York University
Gil Eyal has written a tremendously insightful and useful book.
I, like many others, have been following Gil’s work and the series of important empirical and theoretical interventions into the nature of expertise. This book steps back a bit to offer a view of the discussion and its stakes as a way to address the central issue of expertise in crisis. All intellectual mapping exercises are motivated, but not all are as equally useful. There are brilliant mappings that are completely paralyzing unless you adopt the entire package - think Re-Assembling the Social. And then there are mappings that are equally insightful but are also useful, which is the case here. The Crisis of Expertise, among other virtues, is a book that remains an open text - because of certain refusals, because of its accessible language, and even because of its occasional irony. For these reasons it is as useful to think with and think against. I suspect this book will find its way to wide course adoption, dissertation and grant proposals, and will play an important infrastructural role to many a project.
The book, of course, comes at the right time. SSHA meetings are only one indicator of a broader trend of interest in experts, and expert knowledge. Whether we are talking of neoliberalism, the power of professional communities, forms of rational calculation and assessing risk, or kinds of measurement, a rich interdisciplinary discussion has emerged on the power of expertise to shape social life. The program this year includes studies of development projects, consultancies, algorithmic governance, economic expertise, legal expertise, environmental expertise, among many others. Across disciplines there are today analyses of algorithms, evaluations, economic paradigms, audits, financial instruments, blueprints, censuses, and policy instruments, much of it predicated on what Timothy Mitchell described in 2002 as the “rule of experts.”
But, what if experts don’t quite rule? And what if expertise itself is in a kind of crisis of legitimacy, despite the fact that everyday life depends, so much, on expertise? In this tehcnified and risk-managed world, what are we to make of the so-called Merchants of Doubt, not to mention Vaxxers or Fake News. This is our predicament, and this is what the book helps us grapple with as social scientists, not so much giving us one answer or a way out, but a set of orientations of how to approach the problem and the stakes of doing so in one way or another. The book, in addition to sorting debates around expertise, offers us a framework to think about its crisis. As Gil writes, efforts to improve expertise (“attempts to organize, pluralize, mechanize, or outsource expertise”), wind up in a “self-reinforcing vortex of mutual pollution and mutual undermining.”
“...there is a relationship between scientific re-presentation and democratic re-presentation as profoundly political acts, which present themselves as a-political in different ways...”
And as compelling as the descriptions of these dynamics are, I could not help but wonder if these are not features of something broader. There is a fundamental STS insight that there is a relationship between scientific re-presentation and democratic re-presentation as profoundly political acts, which present themselves as a-political in different ways. What might thinking of them together look like? And while the book, particularly in the earlier parts, connects these dynamics to a crisis of legitimacy of the state, the foregrounding of expertise eventually blurs the background of democracy.
The arguments about this crisis are well-known. Three decades into neoliberalism, liberal democracy and political parties working within its framework have reached a limit in terms of their ability to represent large swaths of the world’s majority. Take Europe or North America in the last three decades and the conditions of the majority of the population of the continent: increased inequality, insecurity, lessened social mobility, and existential threats like climate change. In response, increasingly rigid social democratic and labor parties have tilted right in an attempt to capture an electoral “center” only to have their social base taken from them in many countries, where right-wing movements have been better able to give expression, however distortedly, to discontentment and existential fears. In response to the Right’s organizing and full-throated political talk of the “people,” (however narrow) these parties have responded with arid and pro-market policies, in an odd way becoming defenders of an establishment that has not worked for so many.
To recast this in terms of expertise: some of the dynamics Gil describes have neat parallels here. The logic of inclusion and pluralizing, which were seen as ways to democratize democracy, are now used against it (when chauvinistic politicians and movements decry the excesses of multiculturalism in Europe, say), or used perversely (when right-wing movements use the language of multiculturalism and inclusion to demand white identity politics and white representation). One of the undertones of The Crisis of Expertise, that tools and logics that belonged to progressives have now switched sides, has clear resonance when we think of democracy. And I think one of the virtues of participatory democracy and participatory science the book underplays is the potential for rescuing common projects.
It’s hard to know the boundaries of the crisis of expertise. For sure, the book offers, in addition to an extremely useful guide to debates about expertise, a compelling account of the dynamics of its undoing. But it invites questions, for me anyway, about the institutions around expertise, particularly democracy and the mechanisms linking popular will to popular rule. For me the solutions to the crisis necessarily have to do with these. These, of course, are empirical and theoretical questions that we need to work on. Thank you for getting us started.
 I rehearse these in my book, We The Sovereign (2018). Sorry for the shameless plug!
Baiocchi, Gianpaolo. 2018. We, the sovereign. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 2008.
Mitchell, Timothy. Rule of experts: Egypt, techno-politics, modernity. Univ of California Press, 2002.
Conway, Erik M., and Naomi Oreskes.. Merchants of doubt. Loading: Bloomsbury 2014.
There is a certain emotional ambivalence that a panel of this sort holds for me, the author of the book. What’s the point of “author-meets-critics” panels? Why do we hold them? There is, obviously, a substantive interest. The topic is important, we’d like to debate it and we will. Undeniably, there is also a promotional (and self-promotional) dimension. And of course, it is also a ritual, designed to “honor” the author. Why, then, the ambivalence?
Well, what kind of ritual is it? This is a “rite of passage” for the book. It now leaves my own small circle, where it was protected, and becomes a public personage. The author-meets-critics panel is a ritual by which the message is imparted to me, politely but firmly, that I no longer have sole jurisdiction; that the book is no longer a child, a minor whose parents (namely me) have the right to say the last word about them. It is a young adult, self-reliant and entitled to live an independent life, to socialize with whoever they want, to say whatever they want, perhaps even to contradict me.
Hence, this is a bitter-sweet moment, a moment of farewell tinged with anxiety – what will happen to the book out there, in the big, wide world? Will it disappear? Will it associate with the wrong sort? Will it come back, like the prodigal son, and ask for money?
I take comfort, however, in knowing that I entrust the book in good hands. This rite of passage has the added meaning of appointing godparents and guardians, who hereby promise to check on the youngster and make sure it doesn’t stray beyond the bounds of reason and good taste. Panelists – I’d like to thank you in advance for keeping an eye and sometimes lending a hand to guide the book and prevent it from making easily foreseen mistakes.
I would like to thank Steve Epstein – for whom this is the second time around, as he already played this role for my previous book, The Autism Matrix. Certain passages in the book are better read as picking up a conversation, a friendly debate with Steve, from where we left off last time. For Beth Popp Berman, as well, this is an ongoing conversation, began when she was a PhD student at Berkeley and I was junior faculty. Already then, she was the one to ask the hard questions and never pull her punches. I’d like to thank Stephanie Mudge and Gianpaolo Baiocchi as well for their incisive yet generous comments.
Given the short time, I cannot deal with all the issues raised by the panelists. I will limit my comments to two issues, that seem to be raised by all or most panelists. Very briefly, they all seem to be asking, albeit in different ways: Is that it? Is that all there is to it? And then they also ask: ok, then what shall we do about it?
To begin with the first question, Steve Epstein asks: Is there one crisis of expertise or many? By focusing on regulatory science, am I not missing the big picture of the broader cultural phenomena that constitute these multiple crises of expertise? Beth Popp Berman asks: isn’t the crisis of expertise merely a special case of a much more general breakdown in the legitimacy of knowledge-producing practices, among which she includes also academic science and the media? Stephanie Mudge asks, can we really say that the locus of the ‘crisis of expertise’ is internal to expertise and its forms? Don’t we have to locate the crisis in the broader context of politics, partisan institutions, states, and their relations to experts and expertise? Can we explain a crisis of truth-claiming without an analysis of politics and democratic representation? This question of Stephanie intersects with another question of Beth’s: qui bono? What about power and interests? Isn’t it all about partisanship? After all, even the “neutrality” of regulatory agencies or Congressional oversight bodies is itself only possible on the basis of power relations.
These are not exactly the same questions, but they do circle around the same apparent flaw in the book, which is the narrow focus on the interface between science and the state. I should say in my defense that I did not start out intending to write a book so focused on regulatory science. The problem imposed itself on me, so to speak, with every news cycle.
I began with an examination of the history of the word “expertise” itself, a historical pragmatics of how and when the word was used. I tried to show that we only began to use it in contexts when it was no longer clear who the experts were; in contexts when claims were made on behalf of entities radically different than the prototypical expert of the time (such as government agencies, computers or laypersons); in contexts where it was no longer clear how to decide between competing claims to expertise; in short, we began speaking in terms of “expertise” not as a function of the growth of expert society, but of its crisis, when there was “increasing instability and doubt regarding the established professions, regulatory science and other authorities.”
The interface between science and the state was only one such context. In the book, I may perhaps focus on it overmuch, but I mention also the context of scientific expert testimony, just as often in private litigation, as well as the rise of expert systems, algorithms, lay expertise, etc.
So, my answer is yes, the book’s focus on regulatory science, especially in the last few chapters, is too narrow and should be broadened; but also no, I don’t think there is a more general breakdown of the legitimacy of knowledge-producing practices. I see no evidence, for example, that basic science, i.e. the sort of science that pursues knowledge without any link to legal, regulatory or policy decisions, is in crisis. I do not think the reproducibility project represents such a crisis, unless it is linked to research about the efficacy of medications or the advisability of certain nutritional guidelines, or what have you. The surveys about trust in science, whatever their problems, certainly do not bear out this diagnosis.
I am similarly skeptical of the claims that we are now in a “post-truth” era. This would imply that there was a time, back in the past, when we lived “in truth” and we all agreed on “basic empirical facts.” There was never such a time, especially not in this country built by millenarian sects. “Fake news” too are not new. What’s new is that this Russian export product is now marketed here as well, faster than before, and in greater bulk. And yes, there are more customers for this merchandise because, as you say, the media ecosystem is fractured, but this fracturing has begun much earlier and is related to the intensification of jurisdictional struggles. Ten years ago, before anyone mentioned “post-truth,” media scholars were writing about the pluralization of forms of journalistic expertise, and the competition that a new breed of bloggers and news sites posed to traditional journalists.
“I am similarly skeptical of the claims that we are now in a ‘post-truth’ era. This would imply that there was a time, back in the past, when we lived ‘in truth’ and we all agreed on ‘basic empirical facts’”
But yes, the book’s focus should be broadened, as Steve says. I would argue that the underlying framework is broader than the substantive topic or the definite article in the book’s title would make it seem. While I speak of “the crisis” in the singular, I also speak about “engines of crisis” in the plural. I mention several. I begin indeed with “the ever-closer entanglement and blurring of boundaries represented by regulatory and policy science,” but then I speak also of other engines, namely “the intensifying of jurisdictional struggles, exacerbating the uncertainty as to who are the relevant experts for the problems at hand,” as well as “the constant dynamic of “overflowing” by which technical or organizational solutions to existing problems generate a new set of unforeseen problems and create new publics composed of stakeholders and lay experts.” While I push back against the all-too-easy story that it is all “because internet” (to borrow Gretchen McCulloch’s clever title), I also include the rise of the internet in the analysis (albeit all too briefly) as “the great multiplier” and “great accelerator”.
The underlying framework, therefore, is of multiple currents that flow into and amplify one another. I think that the cultural phenomena of which Steve is speaking fit within this framework. I would add a fourth engine, which was always there for me in the background, but for which I could not find analytical use in the context of this book, unfortunately limited by its scope and substantive focus. This fourth engine would be the resistances to pastoral power. Foucault speaks of the 1960s as a time of great upheaval, akin to the Protestant Reformation, in the sense that one saw multiple struggles, multiple movements, all challenging the authority of pastors of various kinds – doctors, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, sexologists, criminologists, judges and wardens, social workers, the list can be extended. Just as the Catholic priest dispenses grace and salvation to each individual member of the flock, on condition that they accept the priest’s authority as an examiner of souls, so pastoral power demands voluntary obedience in the name of taking care of the flock, each and all.
What the various resistances to pastoral power had in common is that they rejected this power that promised to take care of them, on condition that they make themselves legible to it. Instead, they valorized practices of the “care of self”. One finds this articulated forcefully in one of the Ur-texts of the time, Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter-Culture, especially in the chapter about “Technocracy’s Children”. Technocracy rules by raising the standard of living, making life more comfortable, taking care of you. But this is a trap. The younger generation rejects the authority of technocratic experts in the name of “care of self.” As Fred Turner argued, a straight line leads from the counter-culture to the cyber-culture. The internet did not invent lay experts or self-advocates or other self-appointed pastors. The ideals of self-care, self-nomination, speaking for oneself, being the expert on oneself or on one’s children; the perception of pastoral authority as polluting because of the dependency and co-dependency it creates; these long predated the internet. But it definitely multiplied them a thousandth-fold, pluralized their provenance, and even more importantly, speeded up immeasurably the ability to solicit pastoral advice. This is another engine of crisis, intertwined with all the others. Expertise, legitimacy, trust, are simply a good way to talk about what these different processes have in common, and how they intertwine and reinforce one another.
The contemporary struggles over vaccination illustrate what I mean by the intertwining of these engines of crisis. The problematization of vaccination, the doubts about it – which do not necessarily rise to the level of being “anti-vaxxers,” just as often it is “vaccine hesitancy” – arise from all the four engines I discussed, and are certainly amplified by their intertwining. First of all, vaccination is mandated in various ways, especially as a condition for attending schools. This mandate relies on the regulatory science of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the CDC, which makes recommendations about what immunizations to include, how many, in what schedule, etc. Vaccination, ultimately, is egalitarian redistributive politics, so we should not be surprised that the regulatory science involved also becomes infected and politicized. We all pay “premiums,” so to speak, to create pooled resources (“herd immunity”), and we all assume a certain risk of injury thereby. Hence the national childhood vaccine injury act which sets up a special legal process to determine no-fault liability and compensation. These can appear as forms of “state capture,” rigged in favor of the manufacturers. The language of risk attempts to depoliticize the whole process, but ultimately it is all about trust. “Overflowing” is also relevant. Not just the matter of possible injury, but the idea of “body burden” created by loading too many immunizations together, as well as the question of preservatives, etc. Since nobody knew what are the effects of ethyl mercury, the response of the advisory committee was clumsy and protracted. You might find this surprising, but there are jurisdictional struggles here as well. Not only is vaccine hesitancy supported by alternative medicine practitioners of various kinds, naturopaths, homeopaths, etc., but if you examine the membership of anti-vaccination organizations, as Catherine Tan did, you will find there quite a few family doctors and nurse practitioners. They are protecting their jurisdiction over advice to the patient as against the mandates devised by public health experts. Finally, the ideals of self-care, of being the expert on one’s children; the perception of pastoral authority as polluting because of the dependency it creates; these animate the resistance to vaccination. As Jennifer Reich shows, it is suffused with the ethos of individual responsibility for one’s health and one’s children health, and shot through with suspicion of compulsory vaccination as blind dependency on the technocracy. That said, we would not be where we are today if only one of these engines was operative. It is their intertwining that amplifies one another and translates the anxieties and fears that have always attended vaccination, since Edward Jenner, into the sort of crisis of legitimacy we face today.
Finally, I’d like to respond briefly to the question raised by Steve and Gianpaolo regarding what to do about the current crisis, and regarding my - as Steve puts it delicately – “interesting choice of gauntlet to throw down.” Steve says that he would rather “stick with the participatory politics of expertise,” though he recognizes that “the trick is to imagine the kind of institutional supports that might keep it honest.” He makes a convincing case that lay participation in regulatory science is not just ethically desirable, nor even just for the purpose of legitimacy; it can make for better science. I agree. The book makes a somewhat different point, but to the same effect. It says that from the point of view of legitimacy, inclusion and participation are a one-way road. “Once inclusion has been institutionalized, it represents an irreversible barrier and it becomes impossible to revert to full-blown exclusion strategies.”
But I’d like to double down on my endorsement of Justice Breyer’s call for a new administrative agency overseeing the regulation of risk. Just as participation makes for better regulatory science, I’d like to suggest that a dedicated civil service agency would make for better activism and better lay expertise. It would provide them with a solid target, not a slippery opponent that morphs before you can land a punch. The two need one another. ACT-UP activists spilling fake blood on the steps of the FDA are like prophets, carrying their message to the temple of regulatory science. Religion is renewed and rationalized, we learned from Weber, neither by prophets nor by priests alone, but from their interplay.