Friday, 1 June 2012

Experts and Consensus (Bayreuth, 25-26 May 2012)

Another week, another conference! It will be the last foreign trip for a while, but was a good one to finish with.

The conference was a small workshop organised by Carlo Martini on the topic of Experts and Consensus in the Social Sciences. The meeting was held at Beyreuth University and consisted of 12 papers from a mixture or philosophers, sociologists and economists in which both the costs and benefits of consensus and different ways of reaching it were explored. The common themes that emerged across the presentations were the importance of institutions in hosting expert interactions, the value of pluralism and hence of not reaching consensus and the difficulty of devising procedural rules for combining different judgements from what appear to be ‘epistemic peers’.

The full programme, with abstracts, is available on-line. For what it is worth, the presentations that related most directly to my own interests and thus prompted me to re-consider my own views were as follows:

  • Maria Jiminez Buedo [] spoke about the difficulty of recognising legitimate expertise in times of controversy and began with the example of Alessio Rastani, who was interviewed by the BBC and prompted a barrage of complaint and speculation about whether he was a real expert or not. The interview is here: watch it and make your own mind up! The BBC news article about the controversy is here. The more general issue is, of course, even if you accept a realist theory of expertise, the problem of how to recognise these experts is only raised, not resolved.
  • Merel Lefevere presented a paper that responded to Heather Douglas’s claim that scientists (and presumably other experts) have a moral duty to contextualise their advice by making reference to limits and problems that can be reasonably foreseen. The difficulty is figuring out what can be reasonably foreseen and Lefevere and her co-author (Eric Schliesser) argued that a more pluralistic approach to expertise, particularly by those responsible for aggregating expert opinion or advice, was needed. I must confess that I think the argument just shifts the problem from defining what can be ‘reasonably’ foreseen to what counts as ‘reasonable’ pluralism (i.e. it doesn’t solve the Problem of Extension) though I am sympathetic to the general idea that advice should reflect the diversity of views available within the relevant expert community.
  • Frank den Butter who I first met 15 years ago at the 10th Anniversary Congress of the TinbergenInstitute, presented a paper that drew on his experiences of working with policy-makers in the Netherlands. The paper stressed the need for ‘compromise,’ rather than ‘consensus,’ and argued that this was a critical factor in reaching agreement about policy options. He illustrated the argument with examples of four consultation exercises based on ‘matching zones’ stakeholders and argued that seeing these events as a ‘game of trust’ – in which repeated face-to-face contact plays an important role – was crucial to their eventual success. In many ways, the these stakeholder exercises could be seen as ways of institutionalising the ‘political phase’ of a technological decision-making in the public domain.
  • Carlo Martini focused on the technical phase, rather than the political phase in a talk that compared the way expert groups were selected based on the nature of the task they had been set. In doing so he emphasised a theme that emerged several times over the two days, namely the importance of institutional design to the problem of expertise. In this case, the two contrasting examples were the Bank of England’s MonetaryPolicy Committee and the US Boskin Commission on CPI.
  •  Laszlo Kosolosky also raised issues that relate to the distinction between the technical and political phases. In arguing that consensus might be over-rated, in the sense that disagreements and their rationales might also be important, he distinguished between an academic consensus and an interface consensus. This struck me as particularly interesting as it provided a way of clarifying something about the SEE approach to expertise, namely that there is an expert community (scientific or otherwise) in a particular domain that might have reached a consensus about some topic. In Kosolosky’s terms this would be an academic consensus, though in old-fashioned SSK we might call this a core-group. In contrast, the interface consensus relates to the collective views of a diverse group of experts, each perhaps representing different core-groups who act as advisers (i.e. at the interface between between expert groups and policy-making). As such pluralistic groups are less likely to reach consensus, especially if the concept it taken to imply a greater degree of buy-in than simple agreement, then Kosolosky argues that what is important is not so much the outcome (consensus or not) but an agreement on the procedures to be followed when managing interactions at the interface. In other words, it is the institutional arrangements that are crucial rather than the achievement of consensus itself.

Of course, this is not to say that the other presentations were not interesting. They were but the ones listed above are the ones that raised questions that relate directly to the Studies in Expertise and Experience perspective.

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