Of foxes and hedgehogs: experts on expertise

Last week’s relaunch of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight has been a mess (see: ThinkProgress, Lawyers Guns MoneyKrugman, Noahpinion).

Doubling down on a theme from his book The Signal and the Noise, Silver branded himself with the sign of the fox — the fox that knows many things, and spurns the hedgehog’s one big thing.

I’d complexify the fox-hedgehog metaphor by taking each animal to represent an endpoint for a spectrum of views on the role of expertise in society. Whether you accept Silver’s foxy pretensions, or perhaps see him more hedgehoggy than he’d like to admit, the result has been a round of critical examination on the nature of expertise. And that’s a good thing.

“For complex systems, we want foxes rather than hedgehogs,” declared Harold Linstone in 1994’s The Challenge of the 21st Century. In the intervening years, many have expressed similar sentiments. But the challenges of engaging in complex systems aren’t so clear cut. Expertise still matters, as many wrote in response to Silver. Meanwhile, on public policy questions — inevitably contested — expertise provides no easy answers. This is the lesson of the 1973 “wicked problems” paper by Rittel and Webber (pdf).

Much discussion has naturally focused on expertise in journalism, on journalists with varying degrees of foxiness or hedgehogginess, and particularly on the view-from-nowhere journalism, with its pretense of objectivity, that Silver seems to espouse.

My own thoughts turn to climate and, broadly, to scientific expertise.

There are of course people who’ve examined and written about this topic, about the role of science in society. But for all the recent punditry on the value of expertise, I don’t think I’ve seen any cited.

Needless to say, the topic of science-in-society gets complex pretty quickly. Easier to just point to ThinkProgress, where climate scientists rebutted the FiveThirtyEight foray into climate science. But the science represents only the tame side of this story. The wicked side is where science meets interpretation: In the face of such challenges, what might constitute effective action? (And might such challenges help us better understand the nature of humanity itself?)

Here are a few voices on science-in-society, experts on expertise.

Naomi Oreskes, from a talk at University of Rhode Island (and my post of August 2010):

We think that science provides certainty. And if we lack certainty, we think that something is wrong with the science. This view that science could provide certainty is an old one, but it was most clearly articulated by the late 19th-century positivists, who held out a dream of a positive knowledge, in the familiar sense of absolutely, positively true. But if we’ve learned anything since the 19th century, it’s that the positivists’ dream was exactly that, a dream.

History shows us clearly that science does not provide certainty. It does not provide truth. What it provides us with is the consensus of experts, based on the organized accumulation and scrutiny of evidence.

Brian Wynne, from “Strange Weather, Again: Climate Science as Political Art” (and my post of July 2010):

After the previous political impasse for a decade or more over the very acceptance of the established and increasingly urgent IPCC scientific knowledge of anthropogenic climate change, it has become more sharply evident that there are many other profound and ill-understood obstacles to relating scientific knowledge, and abstract belief in principle, to real grounded practice consistent with that scientific knowledge. I will suggest here that the usual understanding of this as a problem of ‘translation’ of that knowledge is itself a key part of the problem. …

[I]t becomes important to ask what kind of knowledge we understand ourselves to have … [and] whether the intensely scientific primary framing of the issue, combined as this is with an intensely economistic imagination and framing of the appropriate responses, may engender profound alienation of ordinary human subjects around the globe from ‘owning the issue’ and thus from taking responsibility for it.

Sheila Jasanoff, from “A New Climate for Society” (and my posts of June 2010, July 2010, Dec 2010):

Climate change … is problematic because it tends to separate the epistemic from the normative, divorcing is from ought. Crudely put, it detaches global fact from local value, projecting a new, totalizing image of the world as it is, without regard for the layered investments that societies have made in worlds as they wish them to be. It therefore destabilizes knowledge at the same time as it seeks to stabilize it. To know climate change as science wishes it to be known, societies must let go of their familiar, comfortable modes of living with nature.

Climate change confronts us with facts that matter crucially to the universal human destiny but that have not passed through complex processes of social accreditation on a global scale. The institutions through which climate knowledge is produced and validated (most notably, the IPCC) have operated in largely uncharted territory, in accordance with no shared, pre-articulated commitments about the right ways to interpret or act upon nature. The resulting representations of the climate have become decoupled from most modern systems of experience and understanding. …

[T]he interpretive social sciences have a very particular role to play in relation to climate change. It is to restore to public view, and offer a framework in which to think about, the human and the social in a climate that renders obsolete important prior categories of solidarity and experience. It is to make us more aware, less comfortable, and hence more reflective about how we intervene, in word or deed, in the changing order of things.

Anthony Giddens, from a talk at the International Institute for European Affairs (and my post of August 2010):

We’ve got to find a way back to the politics of the long term. … You’re talking, to me, about a return to planning. Planning, of course, went out of vogue. … Planning was not effective in Soviet-style situations, and not very effective in this country either. But you can’t have a 20-30 year perspective on politics without planning in some sense. Therefore, you’ve got to find a way of producing effective policy over the long term, which will somehow cope with the fact that technological innovation is not predictable, by and large.

Harry Collins and Robert Evans, from Rethinking Expertise (and my post of April 2010):

[W]e return to the larger problem that we began with: Who should contribute to which aspects of technological debate in the public domain? At the start of the twenty-first century it is well established that the public should contribute to some aspects of these debates. The public have the political right to contribute, and without their contribution technological developments will be distrusted and perhaps resisted. This is what we called the ‘Problem of Legitimacy.’ Our complaint is that the social sciences of the last decades have concentrated too hard on the Problem of Legitimacy to the exclusion of other questions. As explained, our principal aim is to offer some way into what we call the ‘Problem of Extension.’ The Problem of Extension is concerned with how we set boundaries around the legitimate contribution of the general public to the technical part of technical debates.

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