The Ethics of Expertise

expertLast week I wrote about the ethics of research evidence, in which I cited Charles Knight’s contention that evidence should be used by people with expertise. Knight also questions how we can identify people with expertise. He suggests they would ‘have to do the sorts of things experts do – read the literature, do research, have satisfied clients, mentor novices, and so on’. He adds, ‘This approach is not likely to concentrate expertise in a few hands.’ (Knight 2004:2)

I like Knight’s attempts to widen the pool of acknowledged experts. He is evidently aware of the scope for tension between expert privilege and democracy. Conventionally, experts are few in number, specialists, and revered or at least respected for their expertise. However, this can also be viewed as exclusionary, particularly as most experts of this kind are older white men. Also, I’m not sure Knight goes far enough.

Knight was writing at the start of the century and, more recently, different definitions of ‘expert’ have begun to creep into the lexicon. For example, the UK’s Care Quality Commission (CQC), which inspects and regulates health and social care services, has defined ‘experts by experience‘. These are people with personal experience of using, or caring for someone who uses, services that the CQC oversees. Experts by experience take an active part in service inspections, and their findings are used to support the work of the CQC’s professional inspectors.

In research, there is a specific participatory approach known as critical communicative methodology (CCM) which was developed around 10 years ago. CCM takes the view that everyone is an expert in something, everyone has something to teach others, and everyone is capable of critical analysis. This is a fully egalitarian methodology which uses respectful dialogue as its main method.

However, in most of research and science, experts are still viewed as those rare beings who have developed enough knowledge of a specialist area to be able to claim mastery of their subject. There is a myth that experts are infallible, which of course they’re not; they are human, with all the associated incentives and pressures that implies. It seems that experts are falling from grace daily at present for committing social sins from fraud to sexual harassment (and getting caught).

Perhaps more worryingly, the work of scientific experts is also falling from grace, in the form of the replication crisis. This refers to the finding that scientific discoveries are not as easy to replicate as was once supposed. As replication is one of the key criteria scientists use to validate the quality of each other’s work, this is a Big Problem. There is an excellent explanation of the replication crisis, in graphic form, online here.

My own view is that replication is associated with positivism, objectivity, the neutrality of the researcher, and associated ideas which have now been fairly thoroughly discredited. I think this ‘crisis’ could be a really good moment for science, as it may lead more people to understand that realities are multiple, researchers influence and are influenced by their work, and the wider context inevitably plays a supporting and sometimes a starring role.

As a result of various factors, including the replication crisis, it seems that the conventional concept of an expert is under threat. This too may be no bad thing, if it leads us to value everyone’s expertise. Perhaps it could also help to overturn the ‘deficit model’ which still prevails in so much social science, where (expert) researchers focus on people’s deficits – their poverty, ill-health, low educational attainment, unemployment, inadequate housing, and so on – rather than on their strengths and the positive contributions they make to our society. The main argument in favour of the deficit model is that these are problems research can help to solve, but if that were true, I think they would have been solved long since.

For sure, at times you need an expert you can trust. For example, if your car goes wrong, you’ll want to take it to an expert mechanic; if you develop a health problem, you’ll want to seek advice from an expert medic. It doesn’t seem either ethical or sensible, to me, to try to discard the conventional role of the expert altogether. But it does seem sensible to attack the links between expertise and privilege. After all, experts can’t exercise their expertise without input from others. At its simplest, the mechanic needs you to tell them what kind of a funny noise your car is making, and under what circumstances; the medic needs you to explain where and when you feel pain. Also, it doesn’t seem sensible to restrict conventional experts to a single area of expertise. That mechanic may also be an expert bassoon player; the medic may know more about antique jewellery than you ever thought possible.

In my view, the ethical approach to expertise is to treat everyone as an expert in matters relating to their own life, and beyond that, as someone who has a positive contribution to make to a specific task at hand and/or wider society in general. Imagine a world in which we all acknowledged and valued each other’s knowledge, experience, and skills. You may say I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one.

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