Does looking at Flint and DC give a limited view of expertise and the public?

We’ve been looking, over most of this semester, in great detail at what went wrong in Flint and DC during their lead water crisis, and at the flawed rules for lead in water safety.  We’re getting one model of expertise and interaction with the public, but is it a complete model?

Looking at the discussion of how Rachel Carson prepared “Silent Spring” was a revelation.   Here we have a technical expert who had a goal, and a clearly calculated model for sharing her knowledge of the subject with the public.  (I’ve realized that I really need to read “Silent Spring,” even if the scientific information is not as relevant anymore.)

The interesting thing is Ms. Carson might not be considered an expert in the scientific sense- she had no major discoveries.  She was, however, a skillful synthesizer of what was discovered by the scientific community.  Does that make her a truer “expert,” in the sense that she did not have an agenda of pushing her own work?  Are masterful science writers or science policy makers experts, publics, or somewhere in between?

There’s the case of climate scientists, who are at the opposite extreme from the experts we’ve been looking at.  Instead of scientists refusing to take knowledge from non-experts seriously, we’re dealing with non-scientists refusing to take “expert knowledge” seriously,   Are these just the result of a failure to message as effectively as Ms. Carson did?  Or is somehow the flip side of the expert/non-expert divide we’ve been working around?

4 Replies to “Does looking at Flint and DC give a limited view of expertise and the public?”

  1. Interesting questions about experts! It is clear that climate change science could have used a Rachel Carson like progenitor. From the beginning, global warming had many strikes against it. First was its name. Now we call it climate change, not global warming. What kind of expert changes the name of the thing they study? Second was its international nature. The conclusions were from a UN committee. American exceptionalism deplores being told what to do by foreigners. A foreign expert “aint no expert”, at least not in Texas. Further, we all know that remedies to climate change threatens the profits of the fossil fuel industry. They were not going to sit back idly and do nothing. They brought the merchants of doubt into action quickly and successfully. The scientific experts hardly knew what hit them. The norms of science and its inductive nature make scientific expert and their conclusions susceptible to skepticism.

    To be an expert on climate change, you will need a lot of power. That’s not going to be Al Gore. I think it will be the US Armed Forces. They will be the Rachel Carsons of climate change. As the military prepare for the change, big money will eventually start to flow into defense contractors hands. In order to justify the costs, the acceptance to the reality of climate change will have to take place. If anyone can defeat the fossil fuel industry, it is the military-industrial complex. The air conditioning repair contract for the Pentagon alone will make someone rich!

    1. I guess I had some serious concerns about parts of your comments. I’m a little concerned that you are using “aint no expert” as a shorthand for an individual who is automatically biased by their culture against accepting an idea of environmental hazards. We are in a course discussing how easily a “non-expert” view can be written out of the narrative, partially because of race, gender, or socio-economic background. And now we’re using language which seems to write anyone who speaks with a Southern accent out of a discussion on climate…

  2. Interesting and important reflection. I am curious about your definition of expertise as needing to involve major discoveries and/or having an agenda of pushing one’s own work. These expectations/norms strike me as perhaps dominant in academia (especially Research 1 institutions), but not necessarily in the scientific world at large. Aren’t there (many) scientists (e.g., medical professionals) who have extensive command of their field but have not made major discoveries or are not focused on promoting their work? Are these scientists not considered experts in their fields?

    Carson had an MA in zoology and did extensive research (involving lit reviews, interviews with scientists, and her own studies) on the relationship between pesticide exposure and health harm of humans, animals, and the environment. Would this background not qualify her as an expert?

    Your blog does, indeed, expose the ambiguity of the very concept of “expertise.” My training is in folklore/anthropology and yet, because of my work on lead in water, lawmakers and reporters often regard me as an expert in the field. I know others who are science writers or do other science-related work without prior training in science who are also accepted as experts in their areas. So what is “expertise” and what (diverse) sets of criteria do we use to accord it to people?

    The climate science question is interesting and, I believe, complicated. On the one hand, climate science involves a) uncertainties and speculations, b) judgment calls of all sorts, c) disagreements between respectable scientists, and d) high-stakes policy decisions. By its very nature then it is contestable. On the other hand, it involves non-experts (and some experts) refusing/questioning to differing degrees what’s accepted as officially sanctioned “expert” knowledge. How did this dynamic come about? Dr. Barbara Allen recently told me that the answer might be complex. For example some have wondered what would have happened if when the science started to show the warming trend, the scientific community in the US had invited farmers, ranchers, and others living close to the land into the research as partners of data collection and interpretation. Is it possible that such inclusion of stakeholder publics would have given partial “ownership” of the issue to groups that today may feel marginalized/voiceless? Is it possible that it would have left less room for climate change denying movements? Apparently, in Europe the public’s involvement with climate science has been more inclusive and the political dynamics quite different from here.

    1. We are getting into the distinction between “experts,” and “scientific experts,” and yes, my biases pointed me towards assessing Ms. Carson as a non-researcher…maybe an “expert” but not a “scientific expert.” But this is part of the tangle we get in to within the role of science and expertise. I’d argue that it isn’t just an academic issue, in that experts testifying before Congress would have their CVs evaluated in similar ways.

      And perhaps this “academic” issue is part of what feeds the lack of engagement with other relevant fields. The failure of the US scientific community to engage farmers, fishermen, and others who live near the land in climate has been a huge issue…

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