Unreal Nature

August 26, 2008

Inter Action

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:15 am

… once you “cotton on” to the idea you realize that science, and indeed life in general, would be impossible without interactional expertise. Take a big project like LIGO or the TMT—such projects are made up of many small groups of experts with the hands-on ability to do narrowly specified things such as polish mirrors, design suspension systems, calculate waveforms or work out multi-adaptive optics. The point is that they cannot do each others’ jobs. But to make something into a project rather than a collection of isolated specialists, the different sub-groups have to be able to talk knowledgeably to each others’ jobs. Extend the idea and you can see that there could be no division of labor—no teamwork and no society—if there was no interactional expertise. Interactional expertise is everywhere. The strange thing is that no one has noticed until now.

Though maybe it is not so strange. There is a perpetual battle in life between the doers and the talkers. We are always disdaining those who can “talk the talk” but cannot “walk the walk,” and mostly we are right to do so. Interactional expertise is not simply “talking the talk,” however. It isn’t a matter of bluff or passing yourself off as something that you are not. It is really hard to acquire interactional expertise, and if it can be acquired it takes its place alongside the other practical capacities. Someone with interactional expertise does more than talk the talk, they “walk the talk.” That interactional expertise has not been given credit until now is probably because it sits “between the lines” in the old battle between the mouth and the hand.

That’s from an interview with Harry Collins in The American Scientist magazine. I’ll give you their intro to explain what it’s about:

As science and technology inform our society, we find ourselves increasingly reliant on experts. But what is an expert? How can we—professionals, policymakers, voters—assess the advice of others whose competence we don’t share? And what does this mean for the enterprise of science and for our society in general?

In Rethinking Expertise  (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Cardiff University sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans consider these questions and offer a framework for exploring their import in science and in society. “Only this way,” they write, “can the social sciences and philosophy contribute something positive to the resolution of the dilemmas that face us here and now.”

American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed Collins by e-mail in March 2008.

Read the full interview. [ link ]

On the subject of social interactions (trying to cleverly shoehorn it in here …), this is from the middle of an article, Going Off the Rawls: Libertarians have adopted the Left’s favorite modern philospher   by David Gordon in The American Conservative. It’s discussing political philosopher John Rawls:

… Rawls argues that people do not deserve to reap the rewards of these talents. Tiger Woods earns millions of dollars because he is superlatively good at golf. Yet his abilities do not stem from any special virtue on his part. He was just lucky that, by some combination of heredity and environment, he ended up with superior skills. He is lucky in another respect: market demand for golf enables his talent to achieve vast returns. Because market demand for checkers players is much less, the late Marion Tinsley, whose skill at checkers was comparable to that of Woods in golf, did not earn comparable returns on his talent.

One might object that luck is not the full story. However talented he may be, Woods had to practice countless hours from his early youth to get where he is today. Does he not deserve to benefit from his hard work? Rawls has an answer that I suspect readers will find surprising. He thinks that if you have the personality trait of working hard, this too is a matter of luck. Even though Woods practiced strenuously, he does not deserve to benefit from this trait.

It’s a well-written piece (which is not to say that I agree with it). Read it if you have the time. [ link ]



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