…By Asking the Right People

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The man who wears the shoe knows best that it pinches and where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.
John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

The project of designing and building a road is complex, and the various technical decisions to be made about terrain, materials, road geometry and construction materials are only the beginning. There are legal knots to be untied regarding ownership and rights of way. There are regulatory hurdles to be overcome for everything from endangered species protection to worker safety, many of which will require the identification and assessment of risks. Then there are the confounding variables of public reaction, political maneuvering, and uncertainty about funding.

There is a strong temptation, when confronted with a project of such daunting complexity, to put our trust entirely in technical experts. If you want a road designed for optimal efficiency, safety, and cost, ask an engineer. If you want to know the road’s impact on wetlands and other natural systems, consult an ecologist. If you want to know how the road will impact public well-being, an economist is the one you should be talking to. If you need to deal with adverse reaction from members of the public who disagree with the economist, turn to a public relations specialist.

What lies behind this temptation is a longstanding view that those who have acquired specialized knowledge have thereby acquired the most reliable basis for sound judgment. We may trust them to decide what to do in situations about which they have expertise. In truth, it may well be that many of the decisions involved in road building really are best left to the relevant experts.

But what about the decision to build the road in the first place? Who is in the best position to decide whether a road just here would be good, and whether it ought to be built, or whether one way of building it would be better than another?

Economists are likely to pipe up at this point, of course, but some environmental ethicists would insist on putting in a word for their own expertise. Surely, those who have thought deeply about values in natural landscapes, those indeed who have thought deeply about what it means for anything to have value in the first place, are uniquely positioned to assess and pass judgment on the building of a road.  At the very least, any number of environmental ethicists would want to weigh on the question of which values ought to be taken into account, and on what basis the decision ought to be made.

There are limits to expertise, however.  Specialization, abstraction, paternalism, ideology and arrogance can, in various combinations, serve to undermine both the effectiveness and the legitimacy of expert judgment.

In a democratic context, the temptation to leave important decisions to experts is countered by the presumption that important decisions ought to be determined by, or at least be accountable to, the people themselves. The democratic impulse seems to be inherently skeptical of the claims of expertise: the idealized citizen of a free republic is unwilling simply to trust those who claim to know what is good for us. So, in ostensibly democratic political systems, it has become common practice to tie the work of experts to a requirement for some form of public consultation.

But there seems to be a split in what is meant by “the public.” On the one hand, and to exaggerate only a little, individual members of the public may be taken as mere ciphers, entities that elicit particular behaviors that may be predicted and, in some cases, manipulated to fit the experts’ plans. At their most paternalistic, experts might even come to regard the public as consisting largely of ignorant, craven beings, mindlessly pursuing their own short-term satisfaction in spite of the best expert advice.

On the other hand, and again exaggerating only a little, citizens may be taken as free moral beings, capable of reasoned deliberation, growth, and learning.  They are presumed to have expertise of their own, authoritative judgment about matters of value and obligation on their own account, and not merely as matters of taste or preference. On this view, it is understood that citizens may, rightfully and in good conscience, disagree with one another; they may even disagree with the experts on the question of whether a particular plan or project is a good idea.

It would be fair to say that our current policy process is caught in the tension between these two ways of understanding the public, and so between two notions of what it means for expert decision makers to act in the public interest. On the one side, public interest is taken to be an aggregation of preferences, to be determined—by another cadre of experts!—through cost-benefit analysis, opinion polls, or plebicites. On the other side, public interest is taken to be a dynamic process of social learning and will formation in which experts and citizens engage together in reasoned deliberation.

There are good reasons to lean toward democratic deliberation in deciding whether and how to build a particular road. There is a wealth of particular, local knowledge held by individual citizens; that experts do not include such knowledge in their specialized forms of inquiry is not in itself grounds for ignoring it.  Likewise, there are myriad ways of caring for the landscape, of telling its story, of weaving lives and projects through it; that some experts might disapprove of some of those ways is not a reason to dismiss or neglect them.  These ways of knowing and ways of caring and living constitute the particular expertise of citizens, the particular knowledge of places and their values, an expertise that may be drawn out and refined through open, deliberative processes. The challenge is to work toward a reconciliation of values and visions, a shared understanding of what would be good for the community and for its members.

Democratic deliberation can and should be informed—but not dominated or supplanted—by the knowledge and judgment of technical experts, especially when the proposed project is as complex as the building of a road. Technical experts can contribute tools for analyzing the complex intertwining of natural, social, and technological systems, the various opportunities and constraints that bear on the project, and the consequences and confounding variables that ought to be taken into account.

But we should place in a democratically engaged public the kind of trust that is due to those with relevant expertise.

Featured image credit: 19681109 01 Dan Ryan L Construction @ 87th St. By David Wilson courtesy of Flickr. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons BY 2.0 DEED.

  • Robert Kirkman

    Robert Kirkman teaches and conducts research on environmental ethics and policy in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech. He develops tools to help individuals and communities to make more thoughtful and responsible decisions about the built environment, taking into account human well-being, justice, sustainability, and political legitimacy.

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