Experts and Cultural Cognition

Dan Kahan‘s blog at the Cultural Cognition Project makes some conjectures about whether experts think in similar ways to non-experts. Specifically he wonders whether experts exhibit the kinds of cultural biases already demonstrated by non-experts. Do experts use cultural cognition?

My observation is that there would need to be care taken to avoid something like the fundamental attribution error. That is to say, being an ‘expert’ in a given field is strongly conditioned by situation. So the very choice of who the experts are may be conditioned by unacknowledged cultural bias. My conjecture is that experts therefore say what their audiences and sponsors expect them to, otherwise they would be unrecognizable as experts. In situations where the message is critiqued, so is the messenger’s status as an expert. In situations where the message is positively received, the messenger’s status as expert is regarded as obvious.

Three possible examples:

Who is an expert in local economic development? Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement, tends to have a strongly Egalitarian outlook on the world. He recently complained that the ‘growth as usual’ mindset of local council officers called into question their competence as expert in their own field. His position is that true economic development experts would take into account peak oil, economic crises and climate change and allow for the possibility that economic growth, as it has been understood, may be a thing of the past.

Second example: Climate science has its experts and it is an open question as to whether the geologist Ian Plimer is one of them. At one level he is not an expert in climate science since that is not his area of professional competence. However, he has written a book on the subject and since he is a ‘climate sceptic’, there are some people who wish to present him as an expert in climate change. His new book for students was launched by a former prime minister of Australia.

The third example is that of US judges, experts in legal deliberation, many of whom are appointed on specifically political grounds. Voters have a sense of the liberal and conservative candidates for office and they vote accordingly. To those of us living in places where the judiciary is appointed on merit rather than elected, this appears strange indeed. After all, what could be less political than judgements concerning the facts?

In these examples the kinds of statements made by ‘experts’ are received not on the basis of whether the person in question actually has qualifications or professional standing, but on whether their words fit with a particular cultural bias. That is to say, each cultural bias already has its own experts, who are brought into the argument in order to cast doubt on the competence of the other side’s supposed expertise.

So before we can identify how experts behave it’s necessary to create a definition of expert that is broadly acceptable across the conflicting cultural solidarities described by Cultural Theory. The three examples given above show that this may be quite difficult.

 

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The medium is the bias

Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...

Image via Wikipedia

We don’t carry cultural biases around in our heads so much as encounter them in our environments. Humans require the flexibility to be able to engage with different cultural biases in different contexts. A person who is acculturated to be biased in one particular way will either gravitate towards that way of working or be somewhat handicapped in contexts outside of their cultural comfort zone. Imagine a right handed person working with their left hand: they can do it but it isn’t comfortable. Unfortunately we mostly aren’t even aware that we are operating in culturally biased environments and our flexibility is unconscious rather than reflective. Cultural theory offers a heuristic approach to recognising, naming and making sense of these cultural biases so that we can operate on a more ambidextrous manner.

A case in point: email. Here’s an excerpt from Johnny Ryan’s book on social networking:

“E-mail stripped away the accumulated layers of formality that had been observed in correspondence of the ink age:

‘One could write tersely and type imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much more like the telephone.’

Strict hierarchies were flattened, and the barriers between individuals at different levels of an organization’s hierarchy were minimized. Staff at ARPA now found that they could easily contact the Director, Stephen Lukasik, by e-mail. Similarly, Lawrence Roberts used e-mail to bypass principal investigators and communicate directly with contractors below them.

As e-mail spread throughout facilities connected to ARPANET, the rapid-fire e-mail exchanges between people at different levels of the academic hierarchy established new conventions of expression.”

The point is that in the 1970s the new medium of email effectively forced an Egalitarian cultural bias to be adopted inside an otherwise strongly Hierarchical organization. In the terms of Cultural Theory, email is a Weak Grid medium.

The upshot of this is that if your organization relies heavily on one cultural bias or another (and nearly all do) it may be important to consider carefully the quality of match between the cultural bias of the medium and the cultural bias of the organization. For example it would probably be a bad idea for the monarch to use email, since the medium implicitly undermines the cultural power of the institution. It isn’t just that the medium risks trivialising the sender, The medium actually implies particular social relationships which may or may not be conducive to the sender’s institutional arrangements.

Note that the English monarchy has intuitively understood this. If you want to contact the Queen in 2011 you have to write a letter.

The official website says:

“If you wish to write a formal letter, you can open with ‘Madam’ and close the letter with the form ‘I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant’. This traditional approach is by no means obligatory. You should feel free to write in whatever style you feel comfortable.”

…as long as it’s snail mail. This is just as well, since if you tried to tweet the Queen (which you can’t) the formal closing would take up over half of your 140 character allowance.

Conversely, those seeking to change cultural biases could do worse than to ‘bring the war to the enemy’ by seeking to force them to use culturally inappropriate media to convey their messages.

Unlike the Queen, Prince William has a Twitter account. When I looked it had 27,387 followers. This figure contrasts rather sharply with the number of followers the monarchy is supposed to have (many millions in several Commonwealth countries). In other words the very use of a Weak-Grid medium such as Twitter undermines the Strong-Grid hierarchical rationale of its user.

For those who do not operate in Hierarchical institutions these examples of blue-bloods using the Internets may serve to illustrate the horror with which many who defend a Hierarchical worldview look at contemporary social change. This horror can be hard to understand – isn’t it an over-reaction? Well, no. While most of us just see Twitter and Facebook. For the Hierarchical worldview these are further evidence of the end of civilization as we know it – and they are not wrong.

Sources:

http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/03/from-the-first-email-through-the-well-and-usenet-a-pre-history-of-social-networking.ars/2

Johnny Ryan 2010 A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. London: Reaktion and Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

http://www.royal.gov.uk/HMTheQueen/ContactTheQueen/Overview.aspx