Why Experts still Matter

Robert Evans
School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University
E-mail: EvansRJ1@cardiff.ac.uk

The recent success of populist politicians poses some important questions for sociology in general and the sociology of science in particular. The reason is that, when dismissing the views of scientists and other experts with whom they disagree, these leaders often deploy a rhetoric that if not actually informed by sociology certainly mirrors many of its claims about the capture of science by elite institutions or the unique insights that outsider status can provide.
In this talk, I want to explore how sociologists can respond to these challenges in ways that are consistent with our understanding of knowledge as a cultural product but which go beyond the idea that the role of sociology is limited to documenting the way these discourses are produced. To do this I make three linked claims.
First, I reiterate and expand on the idea that knowledge is the product and property of social groups. This is important as it highlights the necessity of tacit knowledge in the sharing of expertise and, as a consequence, draws attention to the limitations of the digital technologies that are claimed to render more traditional forms of social interactional obsolete. Specifically, to the extent that these technologies permit only the sharing of explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge will not be transferred and only limited forms of shared understanding created.
Second, I argue that part of the tacit knowledge that makes scientific knowledge distinctive is the set of values to which scientists aspire. I do not claim that these values are unique to science – in other words, it is possible for non-scientists to act in a scientific way – but I do argue that are constitutive of science as a whole and that to routinely discard them is to give up on the idea of being a scientist. More importantly, these values provide a non-epistemic reason for preferring one set of knowledge claims over another.
Finally, I show that there is an affinity between scientific and democratic values and that, for this reason, scientific institutions – whether from the social or natural sciences – have two important roles to play in democratic societies. One the one hand, simply by continuing to cleave to scientific norms they provide a source of moral leadership in the sense that they actively reproduce key democratic values. On the other, to the extent that knowledge produced in accordance with scientific values is to be preferred over that this has not, this provides a defence against the populist agenda that downgrades science to ‘just another discourse’; on this view scientific institutions should be a central part of the network of checks and balances that characterise well-functioning democracies.