C! Interview with Lisa Herzog

The coronacrisis has put expert knowledge into the spotlight of public policy making. Convoco talked to philosopher Prof. Lisa Herzog of the University of Groningen about the role of expert knowledge in today’s world.

"Experts have a moral responsibility [...] they need to communicate, as clearly as possible, about what is currently known, but also about the limits of the current state of knowledge"

Convoco: Prof. Herzog, you are working on the role of expertise in our society. In the current coronavirus crisis, experts take the lead in politics. This is new in German and English politics. What are your thoughts on this? Can you briefly explain your understanding of expertise, please?

Lisa Herzog: I’m not sure whether the collaboration between experts and politicians is completely new, but of course it is happening much more rapidly and is more in the public eye right now. Modern societies are differentiated societies, in which different groups acquire and preserve knowledge about different subject matters. In many cases—and definitely in the social sphere we call “science”—this happens in turn through divided labor, with lots of individuals involved in various roles, e.g. as technicians, researchers, or reviewers. In the current situation, there are a few very visible faces of science, but they rely on the work of many others. So it’s a whole social system of expertise that we’re relying on when we rely on “science.” What I would warn against is an understanding of “expertise” that sees it as a purely technical, maybe even “technocratic” affair. First, even in this situation of crisis, the decisions that are taken remain political decisions, in the sense that they are not reducible to the input from scientific experts, but express certain value judgments. But these value judgments are currently quite clear, with so many lives at stake, which may create the impression that it’s only the scientific input that matters. Second, experts have a moral responsibility, which becomes particularly visible in situations such as the current crisis: they need to communicate, as clearly as possible, about what is currently known, but also about the limits of the current state of knowledge and, where applicable, about the need to reject previous hypotheses when new evidence becomes available. And politicians and the broader public need to understand that scientific knowledge sometimes needs to be revised; they can’t expect 100-percent certain answers where the best scientific methods do not allow for such certainty.

C: Will the increased trust in experts accelerate global cooperative action?

LH: Trust in experts is a double-edged sword, in that respect. On the one hand, it often seems preferable to mere interest-group politics—at least if the experts are truly independent and can speak for the public good. But there are at least two caveats. One is that the notion of expertise is often understood too narrowly: for example, preference is given to academic forms of knowledge, and to quantitative over qualitative forms of evidence (interestingly, this seems tied to certain gender stereotypes, because quantitative forms of knowledge are often coded as male). But depending on what the subject matter in question is, we need very different forms of expertise to come together. For example, in the area of biodiversity conservation, there have long been efforts to take into account “indigenous” knowledge, which is not written down in academic journals but which may embody the observations and experiences of many generations. The other caveat is that trust in experts should not come at the cost of democratic participation where that is the more appropriate mechanism. Many international organizations are already perceived as “technocratic” or “expertocratic,” and it is hard to dismiss these complaints if both public participation or accountability to elected politicians is hardly ever available.

C: Let’s talk a bit more about expert advice. In your work, you have warned of an expansion of market logic operating in knowledge. What do you mean by that? And what is the alternative?

LH: Knowledge has a multifaceted character: it can be an input for economic activities, but often it is also needed as a basis for democratic self-governance, and there can be moral responsibilities that come with knowledge. These different logics can be in tension with each other, and what is often needed is a careful balance. But in recent decades, priority has frequently been given to market logic. Knowledge has been reduced to its economic dimension, as can be seen, for example, in the massive expansion of intellectual property rights that allow the private appropriation of knowledge. At the same time, markets were understood as almighty aggregators of knowledge—as if financial markets were a kind of permanent Last Judgment that tells us everything we need to know about the state of our societies! But markets can only grasp certain forms of knowledge, and if they are not well regulated—e.g. with regard to environmental externalities—there can be massive distortions in the picture they paint. What alternatives are there? Knowledge has many features of a “public good,” in the sense that it does not get less when shared. So why not make far more forms of knowledge publicly available? Of course, this still requires individuals and organizations that create and administer such knowledge. But they can follow a logic of guardianship, as it is expressed in the old ideal of “professionalism.” This ideal comes with a moral responsibility not to abuse one’s position as a knower, but to act in the best interest of those who need the specific forms of knowledge. We all know this model from medicine, where it is expressed in the Hippocratic Oath. It’s no accident that nowadays there is a call for a Hippocratic Oath for data scientists, for example!

"I am convinced that in the governance of large institutions, much more attention needs to be paid to their epistemic dimension: who knows what, whose knowledge counts, who can speak up?"

C: This year, Convoco is talking about New Global Alliances: Institutions, Alignments, and Legitimacy. What insights does your work provide for the management of large institutions?

LH: Organizational knowledge is often decentralized, and in order to elicit it from all members of an organization, you need to treat them with respect and provide opportunities for participation. Many management theories seem to be based on an illusion of control from above that is simply unrealistic, and this has a lot to do with all the knowledge that the members of organizations have, and which reaches managers only in abbreviated and condensed forms. When I conducted interviews with practitioners for my book, Reclaiming the System, all of my interviewees confirmed that they could, if they wanted to, manipulate their bosses’ opinions with regard to certain areas of knowledge. Many organizations are aware of this problem, and there is often a rhetoric of participation and knowledge-sharing. But where is it a reality? If you want individuals to share their knowledge, you also need to share knowledge with them, and you need to make sure that they do not get punished for being open and honest. Many organizations seem to fail in this respect, they are trapped in a culture of hypocrisy and doublespeak, where “the boss only gets the good news.” I am convinced that in the governance of large institutions, much more attention needs to be paid to their epistemic dimension: who knows what, whose knowledge counts, who can speak up? Organizations that are more democratic and that take participation seriously have epistemic advantages: they can tap the knowledge of their members much better than more hierarchical organizations.

C: How can rethinking the role of expertise increase the accountability of institutions?

LH: Meaningful accountability requires eye-level expertise from independent experts. It is very difficult to hold institutions accountable if the knowledge about their activities is concentrated within them. We saw this in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008: very few outsiders understood the complex financial derivatives that were constructed within banks, and the predominant ideology—that “financial deepening” is always beneficial—did not support independent scrutiny of the banks’ activities. In order for expert communities to play a role in holding institutions accountable, they need to be independent, and they need to be internally sufficiently diverse, to prevent groupthink and ideological capture.

C: How do you think society will change following the coronavirus crisis? What is your greatest fear?

LH: Right now, my greatest worry is about countries without health care for their poorer members. Sadly, this concerns not only countries that are poor overall, but also rich countries in which health care has been left to market forces alone. I am also worried about Europe: will there be enough solidarity, or will the selfishness of the richer countries lead to enduring damage or even a breakup?

C: And what is your greatest hope?

LH: I hope that our societies will take some lessons of the crisis seriously—that we all depend on each other, and that we depend in particular on health-care workers, supermarket cashiers, etc.—and make sure that these groups receive more recognition, and higher pay, after the crisis. The crisis is an opportunity to fundamentally rethink the role of work in society: who contributes what, how much wage inequality is justified? And how can we protect the most vulnerable members of society from exploitation and bad working conditions, not only during the current crisis, but permanently?

C: Thank you very much Prof. Herzog.

Lisa Herzog works at the intersection of political philosophy and economic thought. Between 2016 and 2019, she was professor for political philosophy and theory at the Technical University of Munich, since 2019 she works at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Center for Philosophy, Politics and Economics of the University of Groningen. In 2019, she received the Tractatus-Preis and the German Award for Philosophy and Social Ethics. Herzog has published on the philosophical dimensions of markets (both historically and systemically), liberalism and social justice, ethics in organizations and the future of work. The current focus of her work are workplace democracy, professional ethics, and the role of knowledge in democracies.

Previous C! Interview with Wolfgang Schön


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