‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.’
What if you don’t know what you like – or at least recognise that you need to find out more, not just with art but with a range of complex issues that you don’t truly understand: nuclear power, climate change, the National Broadband Network (NBN)? Whose analyses and views do you accept, when you’re not an expert in the field?
In an accompanying Flagpost blog Expertise and public policy: don’t just ask the experts, Thomas and Buckmaster note that politicians and bureaucrats are routinely required to develop policy responses to identified issues, evaluate the effectiveness of programs or proposed solutions, or even make a judgement about whether an issue requires government intervention – without necessarily being experts in the field. The same, of course, applies to voters who want to scrutinise decisions and ultimately cast their judgment in an election.
Thomas and Buckmaster say the policy maker’s task has become all the greater in recent times, with a rising volume, range and specialisation of subjects to deal with:
“For example, in its first five years of existence the House of Representatives considered an average of less than 30 pieces of legislation each year. For the period 2008 to 2012 the average had grown to 220. The 17 Acts made in 1901 covered taxation, post and telegraph services, immigration, revenue and administrative matters. All these issues were also covered by Acts made in 2012 (with telecommunications replacing postal services), but in addition legislation also covered issues such as offshore petroleum and greenhouse gas storage, nuclear terrorism, the prohibition of tobacco advertising, health insurance, road safety and higher education support to name but a few.”
That means they need to rely on experts, but who do they trust and how do they measure credibility? And what of ‘third party representations of experts and their claims’, such as those provided in the media or by lobby groups which may be partisan or politicised?
In what could be a particularly valuable publication as a range of newcomers converge on the House of Representatives and the Senate over the next nine months or so, the research paper sets out to provide a guide to better understand:
- what is expertise
- how to determine who are the relevant experts where it comes to the technical aspects of public policy debates
- how to go about choosing between competing expert claims.
It argues that the only way that non-experts are able to appraise expertise and expert claims is through the use of social expertise: the sort of judgement that we use on a day-to-day basis in relation to friends, acquaintances and, yes, politicians.
They suggest posing some helpful questions:
- does the expert seem credible?
- do they have the numbers on their side?
- are there any relevant interests or biases?
- what is the expert’s track record?