On Expertise: Interview with Harry Collins

Current discussions – where are they? – of Palin’s inexperience and lack of knowledge of foreign policy and general national politics could be enlightened by a general question of expertise – do we require our politicians to experts or we vote simply for those we think are “like us”? While entrusting most of our daily tasks to experts – car mechanics, dentists, bus drivers, electricians, policemen, etc etc – we seems to be pretty happy, or at the very least willing to give the task of running a huge economy like US to relative amateurs without any executive experience, or so we are told:

In Rethinking Expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Cardiff University sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans consider these questions and offer a framework for exploring their import in science and in society. “Only this way,” they write, “can the social sciences and philosophy contribute something positive to the resolution of the dilemmas that face us here and now.”

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Collins by e-mail in March 2008.

[From the interview]:

If political decisions can’t be informed by careful science, does this spell trouble for democracy as the world grows more complex?

I do not think that there has to be any trouble for democracy, but we live in dangerous times. The argument goes back at least as far as Plato’s suggestion that the Republic should be controlled by “philosopher-kings.” We now know that cannot work—experts are too fallible, and too much power corrupts. In the last resort, all decisions have to be made through the machinery of democratic politics if we want to preserve a society like ours.