What would it mean if we were all scientific experts? Since the Second World War the authority of science has fallen dramatically and lots of non-specialists now feel they can mount a challenge to it. Revolts against vaccination, such as the mumps, measles and rubella scare, are one symptom; resistance to the idea of global warming is another. People seem to think that invoking scientific authority is undemocratic, and the instinct of a parent for the wellbeing of their child – or the invocation of a conspiracy – can be just as sound a guide for action.
Science, along with everything else, began to lose its authority in the 1960s. A series of widely visible technological debacles reinforced the distrust. Academics fed on this shift and began to re-describe science as a mundane activity, if anything, reinforcing the public mood. Above all, we, the public, see experts disagreeing all the time and if the experts disagree, how do we know who to trust?
It seems that we might as well make our own judgements, but this is a dangerous illusion. Specialists are used to coping with disagreement and have ways of picking sides that are not available to those who are not immersed in the scientific community: an internet debate between scientists can be a counterfeit debate rather than a genuine disagreement among front-line scientists.
This is what fooled Thabo Mbekiinto saying that Anti-Retroviral drugs were not safe. One has to analyse the notion of expert and ask which kinds of expertise the public can access and which they cannot. It is impossible for the public to understandthe ins-and-outs of live scientific disagreements because that is a full-time job even for the specialists.
The public do have a crucial role as ‘whistle-blowers’, helping to keep the scientific community honest wherever they have local knowledge, but that is not the same as understanding unfamiliar frontier sciences. There is no clash between democracy and expertise so long as experts are called to account on a regular basis. On the other hand, a society in which the distinction between expert and non-expert faded away would be a ghastly dystopia.
Harry Collins is Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise and Science (KES) at Cardiff University. He is a Fellow of the British Academy. His latest book Are We All Scientific Experts Now was published in February 2014