This is an interesting and, I believe, important book. It attempts to define expertise, and account for its development and its influence in modern society. At a time where there is such rapid social, scientific and technological change, the general public is heavily dependent upon the information that can be gleaned from scientists and authorities about the utility, risks and safety of technological developments. How can the public establish the validity of the judgments that are made by scientific authorities? Further, at this time of economic dislocation, the veracity of the expertise of economists must be seriously challenged by the victims of the changes.
Collins and Evans define expertise as the acquisition of "tacit knowledge", deep understanding that arises from immersion in the practices of social groups. We are all immersed in social groups of various kinds and have amassed tacit knowledge in many domains; the examples of learning to speak a native language or to drive a motor vehicle competently are two examples. To go to the acquisition of tacit knowledge in broader, more esoteric areas, with the acquisition of scientific tacit knowledge we have the example of individuals immersing themselves in the practices of laboratories for long periods of time to be able to assimilate the very subtle practices that differentiate the expert from the learner.
The important point made by Collins and Evans is to distinguish between what they term "Contributory Expertise" from "Interactional Expertise". The former is what we normally think of the expert; the person who can make contributions to the advancement of a discipline and who, potentially, possesses the knowledge to pass on to later generations through teaching and example. The latter is a form of expertise which also comes from deep immersion with a discipline but does not come with the ready ability to make a contribution to the discipline or field. This is the role taken by someone like a lawyer who is able to probe the testimony of an expert witness in court and, perhaps, expose flaws in the argument or in the manner in which evidence has been gained. It is also the role of the sociologist of science, like Collins, who has, for example, analyzed the development of understanding in gravitational wave physics Gravity's Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Wavesor Malcolm Gladwell who has a deeper understanding of much of the discipline of social psychology than many social psychologists Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
The important question is, can we tell the difference between the "contributory" expert and the "interactional"? Collins and Evans conduct experiments in which such experts respond to questions about the area of study and their answers are judged by an expert who tries to identify which is which. Interestingly, expert judges often cannot tell the difference on the basis of verbal responses. Of course, when it comes to making a contribution to the understanding of gravity waves, Collins, the interactional expert, cannot take the next step, whereas the real expert possibly could. But the member of the public may not be able to tell them apart. And when the two appear in public to make statements about safety or risk, or make predictions of change, whom do we believe? Also, many "experts" in their fields contribute precious few real contributions to their discipline, largely regurgitating information provided by other "real" experts. And, after all, if the lawyer can expose the faulty thinking and the erroneous evidence of the "expert" witness on the stand, who is the "real" expert? This book alerts us to major and subtle problems in our understanding of the nature of understanding of complex issues in the modern world.
There is much to be drawn from this relatively slim volume. This review has only begun to present the tip of the arguments and the importance of the outcomes of the analysis. It is well worth reading and thinking about. Such careful analysis should change your views of "experts" for ever. It also raises significant questions about the nature of the training of experts, how we understand that training and how we assess successful outcomes. Those who train professionals in business and the social sciences can certainly learn a great deal from a reading of this book. The book is not complete. Collins and Evans, I think, do not draw out sufficiently the consequences of the problems of uncertainty of judgment about the nature of expertise. They refer at one point to the errors made by economists in making predictions about movements of the stock market, arguing, however, that such failures to predict do not undermine the essential nature of their expertise. In the light of the fundamental flaws investment decisions made by economist experts in the last year one has to question whether these "experts" were much more than verbally fluent "interactional experts" with little fundamental understanding of the dynamics of their discipline. A reading of some recent critics can only reinforce this suspicion.The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
There is one final thought on this. Isaac Asimov, Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories over half a century ago, wrote a short story, "The Distant Past" (1956), in which the major contributions to the advancement of science were made by the journalists who were the only people who could bring all the disparate fields together, essentially interactional experts. Asimov was far ahead of his time, as was also H.G. Wells, The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)cited in this book for his thoughts of the seeing man in the "country of the blind". A reading of a wider literature in order to understand the subtle nature of "expertise" would not go awry. We have a long way to go to understand expertise and its acquisition. This book is a great help.