Tired of Experts!
Many of us no longer perceive science as extraordinary. Institutionalized, commodified, within a couple of clicks distance, one could argue that science is just another industry. Thrilling through its failures more often than through its successes, science is revealed as an enterprise prone to bias and fraud, often governed by personal interests and embedded in corporate power dynamics – profoundly human, according to some; profoundly flawed, according to others. Skepticism towards science, oversaturation with scientific produce, and the resulting growing confusion and exasperation of the public beg several captivating questions. First, are the aforementioned phenomena symptomatic of a downfall of the role of science in society? It may be the case, given the increasing number of people inhabiting “alternative” epistemological discourses, such as flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and climate change deniers. Since a vocal and significant part of society is adopting a nihilistic and relativistic stance in their understanding of reality, claiming to be tired of experts and of being patronized under the aegis of scientific truth, what should the relationship between experts and the public be? Lastly, one may wonder whether the demystification of science is an opportunity to grow as a society rather than take refuge in alternative truths, and, if so, what that would entail. These are the questions we tried to unravel within the last mindwise.debates event, titled Tired of experts!, which brought together two teams composed of students and staff members from RUG, and a delightfully inquisitive audience.
Márton Iritz, Rebeka Béres, and Lucy Avraamidou emphasized the dangers of confining science to the lab, the university, and the academic circle, arguing for an egalitarian relationship between experts and the public. Keeping the processes of science obscure from the general public may result in distrust and reactance; most often, however, it is disinterest that it generates. The mystified image of science, defined by jargon, status symbols, and de-contextualized facts, deters potentially interested and interesting members of the public from meaningfully engaging with and contributing to science. An egalitarian relationship would bring to the surface uncomfortable questions related to the limitations of research methods and the specificity of the reached conclusions, about moral responsibility, politics, and governmental interests related to various research agendas. Most importantly, the team argues, it would create a sense of shared responsibility and restore trust.
Defining this relationship as egalitarian doesn’t imply erasing the difference in expertise between scientists and the public. As argued by the team composed of Alin Rotaru-Segall, Marcela Fratescu, and Marteen Derksen, expertise is inherently hierarchical; we can’t all be experts on everything. Activating within a scientific field doesn’t only come with substantial explicit expertise, but also with a set of tacit skills that can’t be acquired otherwise. Thus, it is in terms of equally shared responsibility, and not expertise, that the relationship between scientists and the public may be egalitarian. This is where the issue of growing as a society comes in. What is the most wholesome way to distribute and exercise this responsibility?
Expertise is dynamic and situation-bound; one may find oneself being an expert in the lab, and a member of the public in a museum. While acknowledging that taking responsibility for one’s epistemic health is primarily an act of self-empowerment, discussing this question in the dichotomous context of experts and the public does prove enriching. In order to be in a position where epistemic growth is possible, those identifying as the public should be able to challenge and integrate the conclusions proposed by those identifying as experts. To that end, meta-expertise, knowledge about how science (or other endeavor, for that matter) works in practice, is necessary. The public should have basic knowledge of the empirical process and of the scientific method. Institutional accreditation of expertise should be more rigorous. Science should be more open and transparent, and access to its fruits – universal. Lastly, dialogue should be central – exciting, risky, engaged, and authentic dialogue not between experts and the public but between individuals searching for meaning.
The event series mindwise.debates comes as an acknowledgment of this titanic task we face as individuals and as a collective: reconciliating and creating nuanced, complex narratives that would allow us to thrive. We invite you to join us.