Rethinking expertise, following Collins and Evans

[An article in the blog of a historian of science Kenji Ito on 2009-11-16 (in Japanese)] introduced me to what Science-Technology-Society scholars Harry Collins and Richard Evans discussed about experts in science and society. Soon I found a book written by them (see Reference) (though not the exactly same piece as Ito referred to), and I read it.

They advocate for "the third wave" of science studies. In my simplified interpretation, the first wave put too much weight on experts, and the second wave, too little. The third wave wants to seek for good balance between them.

They start from the thesis that science requires tacit knowledge despite that it is an activity to produce systems of explicit knowledge. I have never read writings of Michael Polanyi and I am not sure whether the connotation I understand is the same as his. I am aware that any scientific discipline has its parcel of tacit knowledge which is needed to share its "lexicon" (system of concept) among the members. [See my previous post "A Popper-Kuhn hybrid theory of scientific knowledge].

Lay people also have some tacit knowledge, such as the skill to speak one's mother tongue language. In the terminology of Collins and Evans (2007), they (= we all) have "ubiquitous tacit knowledge". Then Collins and Evans say that people can have "ubiquitous expertise" based on the ubiquitous tacit knowledge. I think this term awkward, and want to refrain from using it. But we have to review what they want to refer to with this term. It includes

  • Such knowledge as is likely to be answers of short quizzes. (I think such things are usually called "trivia" though this is not a term of Collins and Evans.)
  • Such knowledge that can be obtained by reading popular scientific books.
  • Such knowledge that can be obtained by reading original scientific literature, but without specialist tacit knowledge.

It seems that real expertise is what the authors call "specialst expertise". It is based on "specialist tacit knowledge". This concept occupies logically the same position as what I mean by "disciplinary lexicon", though Collins and Evans do not limit speciality to scientific disciplines. People who engage in creation of knowledge in a discipline have expertise of that discipline. Collins and Evans call it "contributory expertise".

In addition, Collins and Evans suggests a concept called "interactional expertise". Interactional experts are, in my language, persons who can use the lexicon. There is small chance for a person to become a contributory expert of multiple disciplines, but there is much larger chance to become an interactional expert. And, I think, the world now needs many interactional experts of scientific disciplines.

In terms of examples, the book is not satisfactory. It relies too much on the fact that Collins can pretend to be a physicist who engage in the study of gravitational waves (Note: It is not "gravity waves" which atmospheric and oceanic physicists are familiar with) as a demonstration that an interactional expert exists. But I think that the book contains a group of concepts useful for thinking about how scientists should work in the society.