‘”Trust me, I’m an expert”: weighing expert opinion in a transdisciplinary space

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By: Jessica Lee (Cape Town embedded researcher)

“Oh dear, they are probably going to tear it apart.”

We’ve just finished the first draft of our new tool developed as part of the Small Opportunity Grant (SOG) project: Developing a Common Language for Climate Change. It’s a game aimed at helping city officials understand the different ways in which the term ‘resilience’ is interpreted. Designed in the safety of a small trusting brainstorming group of academics who all cheered and back-patted each other upon its conception we cling tightly to our idea, like a mother clings to a child about to be released into the big bad world, where she knows the real learning is going to happen.  It’s time to present the tool to our CSAG colleagues for critique. We rightfully shudder.  Sharing your ideas with your fellow academics is both necessary and terrifying. We are trained to have a critical eye, question assumptions, and well, basically interrogate any claim made by anyone, in the name of Devil’s Advocacy! (Especially if it is in the safety of your own research group).

We played the game using the scientists as mock participants before opening the floor to them for comment. Criticisms came flying in: the analogy didn’t make sense, we should use food security as the game context instead of water, we should use big spoons, we should have different sized spoons, we shouldn’t have slides, the game was too long, the game was too short, we shouldn’t have a game at all. They didn’t even bother doing a compliment sandwich! (a criticism strategically delivered between two positive comments aimed to soften the blow – a technique I was taught when tutoring undergraduates) Oh no! These academics just fired bullets – one after the other. We did our best to defend what needed defending, agree with what we thought needed agreeing and revised the game suitably.  Our next task is to present the tools to the city officials, for further critique. We feel even more nervous.

Peer review forms one of the pillars of academic rigour. It is the common sense view that rational dialogue between two or more individuals improves reasoning that would otherwise be limited by individuals working alone. Humans are not endowed with ideal mental processors, we fall prey to cognitive errors and psychological biases that undermine the fidelity of our judgements. Peer review is a step toward the unattainable ideal of objectivity. Of course it is not simply any opinion that we would take into serious consideration. For the most part, we elicit opinions from experts – specialists in the relevant field who – through research, experience, and talent – have insight into the particular topic in question in a way that many of us do not.  This seems intuitive.  Yet it raises two interesting questions worth considering:  1) Who are the experts? 2) How do you weigh their opinions?

According to the philosopher Heather Douglas expertise involves fluency of judgement in a particular domain, awareness of what the key aspects of the domain are and the ability to ask crucial questions. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it captures some key features. Assessing expertise is relatively straightforward and recognisable in many cases. An expert chess player carries out a game efficiently, defeating his opponent without losing many of his pieces, while an athlete runs faster than his opponents.  In other professions, such as climate modellers, field biologists and toxicologists, using this kind of criteria of success is not so simple. One reason for this is because their profession is quite obscure to the non-expert making it hard to determine what success in the relevant field is. Another reason is because it is not always possible to assess success itself. For instance, how do you measure the success of a climate modeller in making claims about the future climate when the future has not come about yet? The ability to explain or justify a particular claim or judgment is one logical substitute to determining expertise fitting in nicely with Douglas’ criteria of ‘awareness of key aspects’.  Of course eliciting expert opinion can become difficult when there are many experts each with their own opinion and justifications attached.

The notion of expertise in the transdisciplinary space becomes even more important. Transdisciplinarity holds that understanding and addressing the complex issues in today’s society requires bringing together a range of knowledge both across disciplines within and outside of the academic space.  It necessitates that we consult a range of experts, casting our net far wider than traditional top-down approaches have done in the past. This framework thankfully unearthed expertise as something found not only in the ivory towers of a university, or in the rooms of a consultancy, but also in the experiential, tacit and far too often unrecognized knowledge and skill of the “end user” or “stakeholder”.

While this paradigm shift is absolutely necessary, an undeniable a challenge in this work is found in that it increases the range of views and opinions to be considered. Here you have a vast range of expertise holding different criteria that are often incommensurable, and can be even more obscure. While it is difficult for a layman to understand the technicalities of downscaling, it is equally difficult for a white coat to understand the ins and outs of governance in city processes or the dynamics of a local community.  The challenge lies in determining how to take into account and weigh a range of options across a vast spectrum of expertise in transdisciplinary work. While we can and should take into consideration all points of view, it is often logically impossible to agree with or adhere to all of them. We cannot both make the game shorter and longer at the same time. Despite our dearest wishes to uphold the parity of esteem, sometimes we simply have to use our own judgment and choose. Sometimes we need to take a stand and defend our positions, while at other times we need to acknowledge the argument of another as a stronger than ours, their explanation more robust, and finally when we are unable to do any of these, because we are not trained in that field we need to recognise their expertise and appeal to their authority on the matter.

Developing ideas in a shared space is a delicate dance between confidence and humility. Working in the climate change field is the tango of transdisciplinarity: when to lead and when to be lead. When to speak up and when to listen up. You cannot be THE expert in climate change. You can be an expert in statistical downscaling or in storm water management in your city, or in maximising crop yields in your village during a drought. But battling the wicked problem posed by climate change asks us to weigh up a wide range of expert opinion, and while at times this will make our work easier, we will constantly put ourselves in the firing lines of critique, demanding that we question our assumptions, justify our claims, stick by our guns, and at time reject our own ideas of the way things should be done.

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