Expertise and its Interfaces -
The Tense Relationship of Science and Politics

Gotthard Bechmann, Imre Hronsky (eds.)
Berlin: edition sigma, 2003 (Gesellschaft - Technik - Umwelt, Neue Folge 4), ISBN: 3-89404-934-0, 295 Seiten, 19,90 Euro


Expertise as a specialised activity, even as a type of activity consolidated into a social role, can be traced back to Prehistory. It is a role which comprises a service of a certain sort: competence is employed by experts either to realise some plan or intention, or as knowledge for advising someone how to realise an idea or project competently. We do not intend to solve the problem of defining expertise (if this, in reality, would mean setting normative postulates in the form of a definition). As is true of any complex subject with a long and extensive history, expertise also resists concrete definitory attempts, if an universally valid definition is the goal. In this volume, we discuss activities that are perceived as expertise because they share a sort of "family resemblance". Practice shows that we can treat complex issues meaningfully in this manner. For example, it can be demonstrated that historical social dynamics have moved toward a social structure based on the mutual exchange of expert activities. Modernisation seems to be based on co-operation and the mutual exchange of expertise. This move toward founding social development on expertise is, for many, a trait which contributes to well-being and to consensus in society. Other observers have more fundamental problems with it. When, for example, the relationship between expertise and the lifeworld is analysed, authors like J. Habermas or Z. Baumann point to the social production of dependency for laypeople.

Expertise is a relational category. One defines it in respect to non-expertise: experts as against non-experts. These non-experts can be laypeople, as abovementioned, consumers of some product or service, politicians, etc. Experts stand in a relationship to their clients. There is a certain divide between them, at least in the sense of a proprietary relationship to certain resources, or, normally, in the type of service offered. At first glance, the experts are the active party: they provide a service for others. From the epistemological point of view, it is sensible to enter into an advisory relationship if, in this special relationship, there is a significant difference in cognitive abilities and possibilities between the parties. As it is often expressed, expertise is a relationship between a party with specialized knowledge and one lacking it. In the course of modernisation, expertise has differentiated. With the utilisation of scientific and engineering knowledge, a higher level of expertise has also emerged. From a cognitive point of view, it is usual to compare and contrast experts with laypeople (inexpert at least in the issue concerned). Laypeople are characterised by a lack of the knowledge they need for some purpose. In some cases, and as emphasised by some analyses, the expert-client relationship consists of both sides of a strict divide, and, between them, there is no interaction on an equal footing in the cognitive process of expertise. Characteristic for modern society is the assumption that expertise displaces any "non-professional" activity in society. And expertise, in the extreme, scientistic form of this notion, progressively provides us with calculable formulations of the problems emerging in society, as well as with their calculated "single best solution". This provides a new method of solving social problems - by expertocracy instead of democracy.

We have already begun to live in a "knowledge society" of sorts. Just as in the case of expertise, it is nearly impossible to give any definition of the "knowledge society". An acceptable indicator for the "knowledge society" would seem to be a rapidly growing importance of knowledge, through which the lion's share of economic value is created. One could postulate that the knowledge society realises the full development of modernisation through a progressive differentiation of social activity. Expertise penetrates every field of activity, and is realised through the emergence of new, and the extinction of old types of expertise. This also changes expertise's typical relationships to the rest of society. For its proponents, this would be an undeniable advance; pessimists could perhaps say that, with the emerging "knowledge society", all of the possibilities and dangers of the spread of expertise increase. It at least seems that the problem of expertise is moving into the centre of attention, and the real question may be, which new types of expertise would emerge, and which would be the nature of their societal relationships in the knowledge society.

One form of expertise is giving expert advice: advice to clients, to politicians, etc. A special discussion on expertise developed around the role of experts in politics. It sets expertise in relation to political democracy. One of the fears first formulated was that of expertocracy and technocracy, in the sense of the assumption that expertocracy is self-reproducing, and, in time, experts could usurp executive powers. Few authors would uphold this early "technocracy thesis", but more and more see danger on a less immediate, but much deeper level: the purely technocratic mentality.

We have addressed expertise as advice. If one delves deeper and analyses which sort of knowledge is provided by expertise, it becomes possible to differentiate between assessment in terms of the identification and analysis or evaluation of things or situations; one can distinguish, say, political expertise, restricted to policy assessment or advice, including suggesting and evaluating policy perspectives. For certain types of policies, it is, in some countries, even legally prescibed that expertise should be both neutral regarding the issues in question and independent. For others, it is quite natural that expertise be advocatory. Further, many analysts point up the problem that completely neutral expertise would be quite impossible. While the positivistic ideal conceptualised expertise in general as a neutral cognitive activity - at the extreme, being nothing more than self-restraining, descriptive-analytical cognitive activity - that is to say, in the ideal case, an exclusive capacity of specially educated people with practical experience, the real world proved to be much more complex. From one point of view, for example, we observe both the utilisation of extremely specialised expertise in society, and simultaneously, a very rapidly growing and widespread need for participation in expertise, or at least in the framing of expertise. The tension actually seems to be increasing.

Seen from the epistemological viewpoint, investigation into expertise offers multdimensional possibilities. One can, for example, discuss expertise based on codified knowledge. It could even be taken as a criterion that expertise must be based on codified knowledge. But we are already well acquainted with the essential role of the so-called "expert opinion", or, by another name, of the so-called "expert judgement" - that is, experiential, not necessarily codified knowledge. In contrast to the earlier scientistic approach to the epistemological problems of expertise, there has recently been a change in the investigation of the epistemic nature of expertise in at least two new directions. One of them is to explore the role and nature of expert judgement as something primarily based on tacit knowledge, long practical experience, and familiarity with the subject of the expertise, which adds a further dimension even to the most highly developed expertise based on codified scientific knowledge. Expertise differs from scientific research in that it is immediately related to practical action. It is not only due to its obvious contractor relationship that it has to be prepared according to external schedules, and has to be presented at a fixed deadline, if it isn't to become worthless; but it also differs from scientific research in that the methods and results of the latter can be only one input for expertise. Besides scientific knowledge, practical familiarity with the issue in question should lead to the wisdom required to make an expert not outstanding, but, in many cases, to be acknowledged as an expert at all. This practical wisdom helps the expert to recognize the shortcomings of scientific modelling of the issue, and to revise them in the interest of better practice. In contrast to scientific research, scientific expertise also includes a certain subjective element. (The attempt to objectify the anticipatory evaluation of this subjectivity in expertise leads to - for many, facetious - approaches such as the "codification of experts" above and beyond the codification of expert knowledge.)

The second direction integrates particular types of non-codified expertise into acknowledged expertise and lets them interact. In the knowledge society, it will increasingly be recognised that knowledge is disseminated (and not only concentrated), and that this dissemination is multiplied. Scientific experts, who don't enter into fruitful cognitive relationships with all of the competent cognitive capacities distributed throughout society, risk producing "remote expertise" - valid within the narrow limits of the scientific model, but not in actual practice. One could draw two conclusions from experiencing the danger of "remote" scientific expertise. The first would be to encourage further scientification; the second would be to utilise the experiential knowledge available at the time, if possible, of laypeople engaged in practical work. This is one aspect of the growing demand for participation in and co-operation with expertise. Expertise in the knowledge society seems to tend toward this type of problem-oriented research which, if necessary, is able to integrate all of the possible bits and pieces of knowledge relevant to the practical question.

One could say, to take up a catchword, that we already live in the knowledge society. Another catchword would be "risk society". (In the "innovation society", we not only unavoidably produce uncertainty and risks by the progressive human re-production of nature - we even intentionally produce risky situations.) Expertise in the risk society not only has to do with calculable risk, even when spectacular progress in the calculability of risky issues is identifiable, but also with the "genuine uncertainty", that essential issues are not foreseeable. Expertise for the knowledge society has to include intelligent reflection on this situation. Genuinely modern expert advice takes anticipatory action as intelligent reflection to "genuine uncertainty" into account.

Scientific expertise in the knowledge society essentially seems to interact with any type of (locally) competent knowledge, or to be an historical type of expertise which integrates an estimation of "genuine uncertainty". And, thirdly, it is democratic, adequately reflecting on peoples' values. All of its interactions notwithstanding, expertise nevertheless remains a relatively differentiated activity - differentiated through the interaction of different types of expertise, through interaction with everyday life, and with the different types of differentiated activities in society. All of this can lead to various forms of mutual dependence. And this mutual dependence can be a resource for freedom as well as constraint. This ambivalence gives immense weight to expertise's trustworthiness.

It is not our intention to pretend that the complex issue of providing reliable expertise for the needs of the knowledge society could and should in any manner be reduced to the question of responsibility, and, in particular, be further reduced to a question of ethics for expertise. Nevertheless, expertise ethics is being heatedly discussed at present, and this discussion merits some reflection. It is still the case that ethics is conceptualised as an opposing force against the allegedly autonomous dynamics of science and technology. Ethics in general is no value-rational control of purpose rationality, nor is the ethics of expertise in particular. At least two points have to be considered. One is that ethical research concentrates increasingly on the procedural preconditions of ethical judgement. This should apply for study of the ethics of expertise as well. The second point is that ethics can't decide from "above" what the truth is for expertise, but has to enter into expertise, in order to be able to build up a state-of-the-art, co-evolutionary relationship to it. This co-evolutionary relationship should be founded on a basic understanding that expertise is always produced in a complex milieu in which its impacts will be developed in interaction with other actors in the environment, under the special conditions of the respective, concrete milieu. This means that responsibility for expertise should be placed on different shoulders in the present knowledge society than in a society based on the schematic division of labour, including a schematic division between expertise and its impacts. The ethical responsibility of expertise should be related to advice for preventive action in an insecure, complex world. Here, action should be proactive and oriented on the long run. Hence, expertise should be interactive, transdisciplinary, and participative. We feel obliged to remark on expectations on the role of expertise in technological controversies. Originally, striving for the calculability of probability of event was fostered by the hope of attaining consensus, because no one is justified in casting doubt on calculated scientific statements. Surely, this approach proved in most cases to be quite naive, even when such calculations can actually settle many controversies. There are at least two reasons for this situation. One is the problem of uncertainty, and closely connected with it in many issues is the problem of the choice of values for the topic treated. Concerning the latter relation, it is important to note that different value framings can fix the perspective on the "same issue" differently, and hence lead to different modellings - even in cases in which exact calculation is possible. Expertise, except in simple issues, doesn't exonerate us of the responsibility for decision-making, but "only" makes it more intelligent.

All that has been written in this foreword up to this point has pursued the sole aim of preparing the reader for two justificatory pleas on the part of the editors (together with Pál Tamás, the organizers of the workshop which served as a source for the present book). The first is the defense of publishing yet another book on expertise. Particularly in Germany, analysis of expertise is manifold, and has greatly increased our knowledge of the subject. The workshop, which took place in early October 2001 in Budapest, with the co-operation of ITAS/Karlsruhe and two Hungarian institutes - the Department of Innovation Studies and History of Technology at the Budapest University of Technology and the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences -, selected several special topics. This volume takes up the debate from four different perspectives, and - in a certain sense - pursues the aim of continuing it.

In the first part, the question of the societal role of expertise in a developing knowledge society is discussed.

By analyzing the particular difficulties of a science-based expert culture, Gotthard Bechmann elaborates the social-structural conditions for a profession of experts organizing itself throughout society. Nico Stehr sets the relationship between knowledge and action in the center of his work, and demonstrates how - by means of knowledge - constantly new options for and objects of action are produced.

Frank Fischer compares two types of expertise: a technocratic, and a problem-oriented type, whereby the problem-oriented type of expertise also includes the "user" in the learning process, in which manner it presents itself as the adequate form for a democratic society.

Peter Weingart investigates the interweaving of science and politics, and sees in institutionalized expertise an expression of the recursive coupling of science and politics in democratic and highly industrialized societies. Paradoxical effects are the result of this close connection. Because science is integrated into the political process, it gains in societal relevance, but loses its neutrality and value-freedom. Knowledge contributes, on the one hand, to informing the public, but through the use of knowledge in the political arena, room for the nonpolitical is increasingly diminished, it loses its quality of independence, and - not least - science de-legitimizes itself as an instance which provides reliable knowledge, because it has entered into the societal conflict of interests.

The second part is concerned with the specifically ethical aspects of expertise.

Rachelle D. Hollander illustrates on the example of the National Science Foundation how, by evaluation of research, the - in society - newly-arisen need for responsibility in science is taken into consideration.

Armin Grunwald poses in his contribution the question on the structure of ethical advice. On the basis of a methodological analysis, he shows that "there is no competition between ethics and value research: they are much rather complementary; they concern themselves with different subjects, and can make different contributions to societal demands for decision-making".

László Molnár discusses, on the example of the climate change controversy, how expertise has been transformed from purely scientific research into a political issue by providing a necessary contribution to decision-making within the framework of the process of regulation. The third stage of the transformation process is a new synthesis of economic, scientific, and political aspects, which Molnar calls "ethical expertise".

In the third part, expertise is seen within the context of its application in society.

Imre Hronszky investigates how the normal citizen can be integrated into the process of discussion, and in which manner lifeworld- and scientific rationality can learn from one another. Both perspectives have to be brought into balance in a concrete process of decision-making. He sees a co-evolution of common-sense knowledge and expert knowledge as a solution.

Lesley Kuhn outlines the development of environmental science, which she divides into three phases: the environment as a new paradigm, the discovery of the environment as a complex subject of research, and the environment as a comprehensive system. Ecological expertise had made use of these perspectives. In a subsequent phase, scientific expertise is integrated into a public ecological discourse which is characterized by the cooperation of scientists, non-professionals, and popularizers. She arrives at the conclusion that, "to enhance the robustness of ecological knowledge and hence expertise, it is important that the observer, the observed, and the nature of observation be considered together through critical and reflexive exploration."

Michael Decker and Eva Neumann-Held present the TA concept proposed by the European Academy Bad Neuenahr, and show how applied interdisciplinary science, which can simultaneously combine analysis and evaluation according to rational standards, could be organized.

Taking Plato's ideas on science and politics as his starting-point, Jiri Loudin analyzes the relationship between experts and counter-experts. This dispute led in the twentieth century, the century in which science celebrated its triumphs, to a paradoxical result. Just at the moment when it becomes societally relevant, science loses its innocence and its credibility by turning its potential for enlightenment against itself. Knowledge degenerates to "information", and can hardly be distinguished from esoterics. Science loses its power of definition to other knowledge actors.

In the fourth part, three case studies are presented.

Both of the studies by Pál Tamás and Janos Farkas show on two examples which role expertise had played in socialist states, as well as in their post-socialist phase. Expertise was etatistic. Both authors come to the conclusion that knowledge is a necessary component of political decision-making, and that this fact actually demands the participation of the lay public, because knowledge is never complete. In post-socialist governments, the etatist function of experts has to be abandoned in favor of the pluralization of expertise, so that not only lay people, but also NGO's or private enterprises can participate in the political process of decision-making.

Gilbert Fayl provides insight into the EU consultation process, and demonstrates on the example of the European Rand Project which complex relationship exists between expertise and other institutions in the decision-making process in the Commission of Europe.

The work on this volume was completed in February 2003. We are deeply indebted to Mrs. Kaufmann, who has prepared the publication of this book with great care and with never-failing meticulousness.

Gotthard Bechmann
Imre Hronszky

Last update: 12.08.2003 - Comments to:     Gotthard Bechmann