What is an expert?

Gregg Ross interviews Harry Collins in American Scientist:

2004122393829_306As science and technology inform our society, we find ourselves increasingly reliant on experts. But what is an expert? How can we—professionals, policymakers, voters—assess the advice of others whose competence we don’t share? And what does this mean for the enterprise of science and for our society in general?

In Rethinking Expertise (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Cardiff University sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans consider these questions and offer a framework for exploring their import in science and in society. “Only this way,” they write, “can the social sciences and philosophy contribute something positive to the resolution of the dilemmas that face us here and now.”

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Collins by e-mail in March 2008.

What led you to this topic?

The idea of analyzing expertise grew out of my long study of the sociology of gravitational wave detection. I’ve slowly become a quasi-member of the gravitational wave community. This means I chat with my new colleagues in restaurants, cafeterias and coffee bars. I began to find I was talking physics—just the normal to-and-fro of science chat. Sometimes I would recommend that they try something different in the experiments and my remarks weren’t just shrugged off; for instance, I might be putting a case that had been considered and rejected for physics reasons that I could follow, or, rarely, I might even get something right.

More here.