The Instituting Expert’s Political-Normative Power

In November 2019, a new, highly contagious infectious disease—Covid 19—appeared in the city of Wuhan, in central China. Very soon afterwards, it caused a number of lung-disease-related deaths, followed in turn by strict self-isolation directives. The WHO labeled this epidemic a pandemic in March 2020. Virtually every single country was subsequently affected. Over two million people were infected, with 180,000 resulting fatalities at the time of writing. Consequently, doctors and researchers are engaged in a worldwide quest to test, diagnose, treat, and/or conduct vaccine research. The result of this is that the age-old figure of the expert is, more than ever, central to the debate. What, however, does this entail exactly?

The expert is a renowned practitioner, an individual whose legitimacy is not self-induced, but rather derived from the authoritative body that appointed him. This is because whenever an expert is involved, expert advice has been previously required, necessarily implying the existence of a sponsor. The latter, in other words, takes a part in establishing the expert’s legitimacy: by commissioning the expert, the sponsoring body categorizes his subsequent appreciation, with his resulting subsequent endorsement as its reward. At stake, here, therefore, is whether the expert should be regarded as the incarnation of the ‘scientific power elite’ (D. K. Price).

His task is to carry out reviews, findings and verifications as required to provide his sponsors with material on which to base a judgment or a decision. Any such established practitioner will enjoy widespread credit to engage in ‘scientific advocacy’ (in the words of Ph. Roqueplo), owing to the knowledge base he can leverage, as well as to the prerequisite—and constantly indulged—image of neutrality that comes with his involvement. Because he embodies knowledge, he can effectively endorse his sponsors’ actions. His toolbox when acting in his capacity as an expert includes his know-how as well as the ability to understand what is at stake and combine the right material, thus empowering him to speak the language of truth.

The expert’s work involves the use of technical jargon, the application of measures and counter-measures, of quantified analysis, and engages in sophisticated reasoning. In this sense, his involvement is unquestionably legitimized by the ‘power of form’ 1Bourdieu, P. (1997). Les Usages sociaux de la science: pour une sociologie clinique du champ scientifique. Paris, INRA éditions, p. 28.. By using his own specific language and argumentative technique—which of course will vary depending on the field in which he works—the expert can design authentication methods by connecting his analysis to existing, legitimate knowledge blocks. This demonstrates how this key figure is a paramount illustration of the inextricable links between the scholar, on the one hand, and the politician, on the other 2Weber, M. (1919). The Vocation Lectures, Science as a Vocation, Politics as a Vocation, (1st ed.). Cambridge (Mass.): Hackett Publishing, 2004. Trans. Le Savant et la politique. Paris: 10/18, 2002.. The key to properly understand the relationship between these two actors lies in taking a brief look at the three potential conceptual approaches to modelizing their relationship.

Decisionist model

While the decisionist model is the most frequently-mentioned, it is too simplistic to fully encompass their interaction: it is too crude to assume the scholar merely provides assistance to the politician prior to the latter making a decision. This instrumentalist conception is especially irrelevant as nowadays, the dependency between the specialist and the politician appears to have gone into reverse, with the latter now appearing more as the effective enforcer of a scientific intelligentsia 3Habermas, J. (1968). Technik une Wissenschaft als “Ideologie”. 1st ed.: Suhrkamp. Trans. La Technique et la science comme idéologie. Paris: Denoël/Gonthier, 1973, p. 100..

Technocratic model

One should not, however, rest content with the technocratic model ushered in by Bacon and popularized by Saint-Simon. Admittedly, the politician is not in command of the scholar, yet neither is the latter’s expertise in control of the politician. The dialectic relationship between specialized scholarship and the political class cannot be accurately rendered by this scientist paradigm, since it underestimates the degree of autonomy that goes with being a professional politician. On the other hand, it overestimates the rationality principle, while simultaneously ignoring the demiurgic ambition that is part of pretty much any expert’s modus operandi. Worse still, it disregards his inclination to occasionally act as an oracle, with all the potential attenant prophetic risks that this entails 4Poche, B. (1985). “Le démiurge, l’expert, le créateur, le vivant”. In: Situations d’expertise et socialisation des savoirs: actes de la table ronde organisée les 14 et 15 mars 1985, 1st ed. Saint-Étienne: CRESAL, p. 171 sq.. Yet the expert often goes beyond the legitimization stage: he wight well position himself as defending a form of autonomous, absolute knowledge that is quite foreign to any uncertainty principle. Thus, whenever he anticipates the future, for instance, the expert will unfailingly pronounce a set of conclusions, and then turn them into absolute, overruling benchmarks.

Such manipulations, with their frequent assertions of authority, leave none of the room for error or uncertainty that ought to be part of any scientific endeavor 5Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1st ed.). New York: New Left Books; trans. Contre la méthode: esquisse d’une théorie anarchiste de la connaissance. Paris: Payet, 1979, pp. 79 sq.. As demonstrated by Karl Popper, a scientific construction can only be regarded as true if it is “falsifiable” 6Popper, K. (1935). Logik Der Forschung.. Vienna: J. Springer; trans. La logique de la découverte scientifique. Paris: Payet, 1990, p. 90.. In other words, a scholarly explanation cannot be regarded as true except insofar as it accounts for the greatest possible number of painstakingly-verified data. According to Popper, if, on the other hand, one waives this falsifiability test, one will have moved on from “conditional scientific predictions” to unconditional prophecies 7Popper, K (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge; trans. Misère de l’historicisme . Paris: Plon, 1960, p. 162..

A Covid-19 patient in Rhode Island
A Covid-19 patient in Rhode Island. Creator: Staff Sgt. John Vannucci. Credit: Joint Force Headquarters, Rhode Island National Guard. Copyright: Public Domain

Partnership model

The third theory is based on the complex interaction between rulers and experts, in a framework where the latter play a major role, acting as fully-fledged partners. When a government, an international organization or any other actor needs expert assistance, the stakes focus on controlling a source of knowledge that has morphed into a means of acquiring legitimacy, and thus into a fully-fledged political asset. Admittedly, in such a process, experts risk being exploited. Nonetheless, they remain sufficiently involved in the core decision-making process to escape operating in a mere advisory capacity. Indeed, they actually acquire, within their territory, a monopolistic power which they can then use to name, to validate or to invalidate. Their judgment, consequently, tends to be performance-oriented, potentially inducing, in due course, the enacting of regulatory standards 8For more detail on the concept of performative utterances, see Austin, J.L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Trans. Quand dire c’est faire. Paris: Seuil, 1970.. When experts certify, they do not merely describe something that meets a benchmark: they go further, becoming prescriptive and defining standards. 9Trépos, J.-Y. (1996). La Sociologie de l’expertise. 1st ed. Paris: PUF, p. 24 sq... In doing this, they adopt a categorical position that can cause them to occasionally stray from the path of epistemological caution. Far from being mere technicians at the beck and call of decision-makers, designated experts, or even the ruler’s private advisors, they act, rather, as instituting experts 10Castel, R. (1985). “L’Expert mandaté et l’expert instituant”. In: CRESAL, op. cit., pp. 81–92. . Being directly involved in the decision-making process, they often appear as the main inspiration of the doctrine enacted by governments. Their ability to significantly influence public policy occasionally leads them to act in an unofficial negotiating capacity, and to play decisive roles on planet-wide issues 11 As a reminder, in the health sector alone, one could mention AIDS, mad cow disease, Ebola, acid rain, and swine fever.. The current global Covid–19 pandemic provides yet another example of this.

Testing for the  Covid-19 virus
Testing for the Covid-19 virus, by @Tmaximumge, April 2020. CC0 Public Domain

Expert quarrelling

This instance has seen the emergence of a heavily-mediatized quarrel between experts, providing a demonstration that experts do not act in isolation. This is because their authority stems from interpersonal relationships that are part and parcel of a store of accumulated knowledge that binds them to a like-minded group. While their involvement cannot be set apart from what they engage in prior to, or subsequently to, the part that involves the group, neither can it be looked at separately from the epistemic community to which they belong. This expression was created by political scientist Peter M. Haas and used by him when referring to a transnational professional network (economists, lawyers, physicists, chemists, doctors, biologists, epidemiologists, etc.) whose expertise is acknowledged in a particular field 12Peter M. Haas, “Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination”, in: Peter M. Haas (Ed.), Knowledge, Power, and International Policy Coordination, International Organization, special issue, 46 (1), winter 1992, pp. 1–35.. This explains why experts and counter-experts multiply so easily, in mirror-like fashion, including even in contexts where they are at loggerheads with one another, thus making their expert advice all the more irreplaceable.

Our intention, here, is not to engage in any sort of disputatio. The current health crisis, however, has given rise to a form of trench warfare, opposing medical experts—whether they be doctors, microbiological researchers, infectiologists, virologists or epidemiologists. Despite holding identical or equivalent academic qualifications (whether as medical professors, research directors, holders of a wide range of scientific awards and authors published in countless world-class publications), they have engaged in a fierce battle over the treatment protocol developed by Professor Didier Raoult, as well as his methodology, the cohesiveness of his case, his diagnosis, and his results. Another ongoing dispute was started by the Nobel-prize winner Professor Luc Montagnier: it regards the sequencing of the Covid–19 virus (is its origin natural or due to human manipulation?). In this instance, one realizes that experts may at times revert to many of the epistemological obstacles evidenced by Bachelard 13Bachelard, G. (1938). La Formation de l’esprit scientifique. 1st ed. Paris: Vrin; reed. Paris: Vrin (1977), pp. 13 sq.. This, naturally, is due to competitive struggles such as are specific to every professional body, as well as to collective and individual career development logic, which often leads to bidding wars in which scientific authority is often instrumentalized to serve a variety of objectives. This, however, is also due to the expectations, indeed the prescriptive pressure put on sponsors. In this context, a consensus on both assessment and diagnosis can be constructed on an extra-scientific basis, influenced by certain schools of thought or by fashion; this sheds a particularly crude light on the issue of the social framework in which expert opinion is formed. In the present health crisis, for instance, this type of quarrel will turn out to be a corset for the politician, while politicizing the provision of expert opinion, eventually causing suspicion to fall on political decision sin the eyes of a significant part of public opinion.

The West Virginia National Guard disinfecting an office
The West Virginia National Guard disinfecting an office. Creator: Edwin Wriston. Credit: West Virginia National Guard. Copyright: Public Domain

A normative co-production process

These medical experts are engaged in drafting documents of a regulatory nature, in conjunction with the government departments concerned (ministries for health, the environment, agriculture, home affairs, defense, foreign affairs, etc.): the origin of these regulations is wrongly held to be entirely governmental, when in fact the scientists involved are fully-fledged participants in the health technostructure. They should therefore hardly be regarded as acting from the outside or as exercising influence or pressure. In reality, they have actively participated in all the regulatory drafting in which the various government departments and bodies concerned have been engaged.

It should be noted in that connection that the expert’s multipositional role is what provides strong validation for his action: it strengthens his legitimacy, while also providing fresh opportunities to contribute expertise. His institutional power rises in proportion to the number of eminent positions he holds in various scientific institutions (at the Nobel Foundation, or in medical or science academies, laboratory head offices, the chairmanships of scientific councils or commissions, or memberships of evaluation committees or prestigious scientific peer-review bodies, etc.). This institutional redundancy, however, is precisely what provides real added value to their contributions from a political and regulatory perspective.

The tangled web of connections between scholars on the one hand, and politicians on the other, provide the latter with an avenue for evading responsibility, with science brandished in support of every decision they take. Conversely, when they believe such a need arises, experts can always conceal their involvement by presenting themselves as mere advisors, and as utterly unconnected to the actual decision-making process. When a health crisis such as the one we are experiencing arises, this buck-passing game makes it especially difficult to identify any of the individuals who are actually politically responsible, let alone actually guilty  14The AIDS-related contaminated blood scandal, which had health, political and financial dimensions, hit several countries in the 1980s and 1990s. In France, several politicians were indicted and tried in criminal court, appellate court, as well as by the Cour de cassation and the Cour de justice de la République. On 9th November, 1991, Georgina Dufoix, who had been Minister for Social Affairs and National Solidarity, and was an accused party who had been a member of the Fabius government, made a famously-noted statement that she felt responsible, but not guilty.. The political-scientific partnership, however, remains the only determining factor, and must be taken into account. Because it causes them to be inextricably linked, it results in the public policy decision-making process becoming more incomprehensible, and more untraceable than ever before. Yet the structural impenetrability induced by these complex interactions exposes civil society to considerable risk, and therefore merits in-depth investigation.

Translated from the original French version (PDF) by Donald Jenkins.

References

1 Bourdieu, P. (1997). Les Usages sociaux de la science: pour une sociologie clinique du champ scientifique. Paris, INRA éditions, p. 28.
2 Weber, M. (1919). The Vocation Lectures, Science as a Vocation, Politics as a Vocation, (1st ed.). Cambridge (Mass.): Hackett Publishing, 2004. Trans. Le Savant et la politique. Paris: 10/18, 2002.
3 Habermas, J. (1968). Technik une Wissenschaft als “Ideologie”. 1st ed.: Suhrkamp. Trans. La Technique et la science comme idéologie. Paris: Denoël/Gonthier, 1973, p. 100.
4 Poche, B. (1985). “Le démiurge, l’expert, le créateur, le vivant”. In: Situations d’expertise et socialisation des savoirs: actes de la table ronde organisée les 14 et 15 mars 1985, 1st ed. Saint-Étienne: CRESAL, p. 171 sq.
5 Feyerabend, P. (1975). Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1st ed.). New York: New Left Books; trans. Contre la méthode: esquisse d’une théorie anarchiste de la connaissance. Paris: Payet, 1979, pp. 79 sq.
6 Popper, K. (1935). Logik Der Forschung.. Vienna: J. Springer; trans. La logique de la découverte scientifique. Paris: Payet, 1990, p. 90.
7 Popper, K (1957). The Poverty of Historicism. London: Routledge; trans. Misère de l’historicisme . Paris: Plon, 1960, p. 162.
8 For more detail on the concept of performative utterances, see Austin, J.L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Trans. Quand dire c’est faire. Paris: Seuil, 1970.
9 Trépos, J.-Y. (1996). La Sociologie de l’expertise. 1st ed. Paris: PUF, p. 24 sq..
10 Castel, R. (1985). “L’Expert mandaté et l’expert instituant”. In: CRESAL, op. cit., pp. 81–92.
11 As a reminder, in the health sector alone, one could mention AIDS, mad cow disease, Ebola, acid rain, and swine fever.
12 Peter M. Haas, “Epistemic Communities and International Policy Coordination”, in: Peter M. Haas (Ed.), Knowledge, Power, and International Policy Coordination, International Organization, special issue, 46 (1), winter 1992, pp. 1–35.
13 Bachelard, G. (1938). La Formation de l’esprit scientifique. 1st ed. Paris: Vrin; reed. Paris: Vrin (1977), pp. 13 sq.
14 The AIDS-related contaminated blood scandal, which had health, political and financial dimensions, hit several countries in the 1980s and 1990s. In France, several politicians were indicted and tried in criminal court, appellate court, as well as by the Cour de cassation and the Cour de justice de la République. On 9th November, 1991, Georgina Dufoix, who had been Minister for Social Affairs and National Solidarity, and was an accused party who had been a member of the Fabius government, made a famously-noted statement that she felt responsible, but not guilty.