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Federico Brandmayr

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convening the First Novel Coronavirus Expert Meeting. 16 Feburary 2020
Reading Elizabeth Anderson in the time of COVID-19 800 533 Federico Brandmayr

Reading Elizabeth Anderson in the time of COVID-19

The pandemic is a good time to reflect on expertise (if you have the luxury).

During this particular emergency, governments appear to pay heed to experts. Or at least they do now that the extent of the crisis is clear. The public and the media show them respect and even reverence. This is especially true of physicians and public health scientists, especially epidemiologists and virologists. To a lesser extent, social scientists specializing in behavior and networks weigh in on how to organize life under partial or complete lockdown and how to make this lockdown effective. Economists are voicing ominous warnings on the magnitude of changes to come.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the First Novel Coronavirus Expert Meeting, 16 February 2020

One tempting conclusion is that after decades of being dismissed or scrutinized for their various weaknesses, experts are back with a vengeance. Indeed, it is striking how much more trust politicians and the public are willing to place in epidemiology than, say, in climate science. It is possible that after COVID-19 is overcome, this halo effect will last and many experts will enjoy greater trust, not just the ones whose advice was particularly relevant during the pandemic.

But this prediction may be wishful thinking. The UK government’s abrupt U-turn from mitigation to suppression, while officially justified by scientific advice, is more likely a result of internal rebellion and external criticisms. The critics of mitigation have appealed to a medley of scientific, ethical, political considerations against the pursuit of ‘herd immunity’. Some expressed astonishment at the fact that the UK experts arrived at advice so different from most other countries which overwhelmingly backed suppression. The radical uncertainty about how the epidemic will develop, the disagreements about how to ‘flatten the curve’ and contain further damage, as well as the now familiar bouts of fakes, misinformation and politicization of expertise, all undermine the optimistic ‘return of the experts’ narrative.

Even if the position of the experts after the pandemic will be stronger, this is not a reason to forget how complex and hard-won epistemic authority is. Public health scientists that are now considering strategies of containing the pandemic rely on models with inevitably speculative assumptions. Furthermore, in order to make inferences from these models, they have to make judgments about the appropriate levels of harm to the public, the acceptable numbers of dead, the tolerable restrictions on freedom, the likely behavior of masses under lockdown, and so on. These judgments are uncertain and controversial, and disagreements between different experts are often intractable. So even if experts are back, their return should not herald their rule.

Elizabeth Anderson

Professor Elizabeth Anderson of the University of Michigan is a moral philosopher known for her work on expertise and the politics of knowledge. Her writings are a must for anyone who cares about how to define expertise, whether expertise can and should be challenged by laypeople, and what is the proper place of experts in a democracy. Her ideas are as relevant as ever and we recommend two papers in particular. These are classic Anderson papers many of us know and love: they start with a theoretical claim and then illustrate it with historical and contemporary examples of expertise in action.

Anderson, E. (2011). Democracy, Public Policy, and Lay Assessments of Scientific Testimony. Episteme, 8(2), 144-164. doi:10.3366/epi.2011.0013

In this paper, Anderson observes that responsible public policy in a technological society must rely on complex scientific reasoning, which ordinary citizens cannot directly assess. But this inability should not call into question the democratic legitimacy of technologically driven policy. Citizens need not be able to judge whether experts are making justified claims, but rather they need to be able to make, what she calls, reliable second-order assessments of the consensus of trustworthy scientific experts. Her case study is anthropogenic global warming and she argues that judging the trustworthiness of climate experts is straightforward ‘for anyone of ordinary education with access to the Web’.

Anderson, E. (2006). The Epistemology of Democracy. Episteme, 3(1-2), 8-22. doi:10.3366/epi.2006.3.1-2.8

This is a paper on how institutions make knowledge, both theoretically and in practice. Theoretically, Anderson reconstructs democracy as an epistemic engine through deliberation and votes, arguing that democracy’s success in this task is due to the experimental nature of its institutions, just as John Dewey taught. Her case study is based on Bina Agarwal’s account of community forestry in India and Nepal. Its initial exclusion of women resulted in failure to solve the problem of firewood and fodder shortages.

We recommend reading these papers alongside Anderson’s answers to our questions below. We asked her to answer questions about these topics and she sent us her answers before the pandemic struck. Her reflections are on expertise and democracy in general, not on how it has played out in the last weeks:

1. Considering your research and/or work in practice, what makes a good expert?

  • EA: Expertise in any field must join technical knowledge in the field with certain virtues: (i) honesty in communicating findings in the field, including uncertainties about these findings and the most likely alternative possibilities; (ii) conscientiousness in communicating the “whole” truth, in the sense of not omitting findings that are normatively relevant to policymaking, although they may be inconvenient to one or more political views; (iii) avoidance of dogmatism – i.e., a willingness to revise conclusions in light of new evidence; (iv) taking the public seriously: listening to their concerns, which may include distrust of experts, and taking action to earn their trust, rather than dismissing them out of hand or treating them as stupid, even when their concerns are based on misinformation.

2. What are the pressures experts face in your field?

  • EA: As a moral and political philosopher, I am reluctant to claim that there are specifically moral experts, in the sense of people who convey technical conclusions to the public by way of testimony – that is, where we are asking the public to take our word for it in virtue of our being experts, because the considerations for these conclusions are too technical for the public to assess.  Philosophers don’t convey findings to the public by way of testimony.  We offer ideas, arguments, and perspectives to the public, which they can evaluate for themselves.

3. Have you observed any significant changes occurring in recent times in the way experts operate?

  • EA: We now live in a climate of distrust in expertise, of disinformation spread by social media, irresponsible politicized news, and authoritarian regimes, and of propaganda and toxic discourse that has displaced evidence-based, constructive, democratic policymaking with ideas designed to spread distrust and division among citizens.  Some of the distrust in scientific expertise arises from experts themselves, who have failed to take responsibility for bad predictions.  Some experts have also been corrupted by moneyed interests.  Experts need to repair their broken relations with the public.  But it’s not all on them.  Conflict entrepreneurs – including populist politicians and media – deliberately spread lies and unfounded doubts about experts, to create a climate in which they can operate with impunity while in power, without taking responsibility for the consequences.  Spreading doubt about climate change allows fossil fuel interests to wreck the conditions for a sustainable planet. Spreading doubt about economics may allow plutocrats to drive the UK over a no-deal Brexit cliff. Spreading doubt about the safety of vaccines spreads preventable disease while enriching quack doctors.

4. Do you envision any changes in the role of experts in the future?

  • EA: Experts can no longer rely on their technical knowledge alone, in order to be able to play a constructive role in policymaking.  They need to find constructive ways to relate to the public, to engage the public with their findings in ways that both earn their trust and empower the public to distinguish between real experts and those who disseminate lies, propaganda, and toxic discourse.  This will require a reinvigoration of democratic practices in conjunction with science. In the U.S., an exemplary case of what I have in mind is the citizen science undertaken in Flint, Michigan, which exposed the presence of lead in the water and consequent lead poisoning of children.  In this case, experts – doctors and environmental scientists—empowered citizens to collect data from their own water lines, and reason together about the meanings of their findings and what to do about them.  This is democracy in action, empowered by experts in ways that reinforce trust in expertise and democracy alike.

Reading these now, it is hard not to draw connections to the story of expertise during the pandemic. Anderson’s conception of a responsible expert – as transparent about value judgments, respectful of concerns of the public, and properly undogmatic – is a compelling standard against which to evaluate the experts driving the response to the epidemic. But this standard is also tricky to articulate and to apply in the present context. What it would mean for institutions of public health to produce knowledge that is properly representative and practical? Is there a place for citizen science of infectious diseases or does the urgency and danger of a virus like COVID-19 call for a less distributed, more centralised, and frankly a more authoritarian model than Dewey’s? A proper defence of participatory science needs to show that it is not a luxury that can be put aside during crisis, but rather a necessity. This is far from obvious. What could a citizen science about COVID-19 be? And how can such science command trust in an age of misinformation?

In an email on March 26th Anderson added that citizen science on COVID-19 is already happening:

We also wonder how Anderson’s view that the trustworthiness of experts is a second-order question (recall she argues that the public need not know the science to trust the experts), help us to understand the trustworthiness of epidemiologists in the time of COVID-19. How do they marshal as much trust as they do, at least once they do, and what accounts for the contrast with, say, climate scientists? Is epidemiologists’ knowledge or character somehow superior to that of so many other distrusted experts? Or is there something about the clear and present urgency of a pandemic and the vividly obvious threats to one’s own life that makes an expert on it trustworthy? (We mean to say trustworthy, rather than trusted, because, as the precautionary principle recommends, when the risk of tragedy is high, it is appropriate to act on less evidence than otherwise.) If so, the proper response to climate scepticism is not better science or better experts as such, but a better representation of urgency and crisis.

There is much more to say and in the coming weeks the Expertise Under Pressure team will be publishing our own and invited commentary on the role of experts during this pandemic. But the writings of classics such as Elizabeth Anderson are an obligatory passage point.

The Expertise Under Pressure team

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away? 1024 683 Federico Brandmayr

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away?

The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1869) by Mihály Munkácsy.  In the public domain (Wikimedia Commons).

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away?

Compassion, Justification and Exculpation in Social Research

27 SEPtember 2019, 09:15 – 17:30

Room SG1, The Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT


Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge)


A common charge levelled against researchers who study human culture and social behaviour is that their explanations can provide justifications or excuses for ill-intentioned people. Sociologists often encounter this objection when they explain crime and unemployment, historians when they study dictators and genocide, anthropologists when they interpret religious and traditional practices, and psychologists when they assess mental illness and addiction. Although many of these accusations are far-fetched and betray a profound ignorance of social research, we should not underestimate the practical and performative effects social scientists can have in society, as well as the fact that social research is often laden with a web of normative assumptions. Where, then, should we draw the boundary between explaining and explaining away, between understanding and agreeing, between finding causes and making excuses? Drawing together perspectives from the disciplines of history, sociology, law and philosophy, the workshop will provide an opportunity to critically reflect on the exculpatory potential of social research. 

Speakers and discussants

Gabriel Abend (Universität Luzern)

Anna Alexandrova (University of Cambridge)

Jana Bacevic (University of Cambridge)

Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge)

Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche (University of Cambridge)

Livia Holden (University of Oxford)

Stephen John (University of Cambridge)

Hadrien Malier (École des hautes études en sciences sociales)

Nigel Pleasants (University of Exeter)

Marco Santoro (Università di Bologna)

Paulina Sliwa (University of Cambridge)

Stephen Turner (University of South Florida)

Further information

This workshop forms part of the Expertise Under Pressure (EUP) project, funded by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation. The EUP project’s overarching goal is to establish a broad framework for understanding what makes expertise authoritative, when experts overreach and what realistic demands communities should place on experts.

Queries: Contact Una Yeung

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away? Compassion, Justification and Exculpation in Social Research 795 599 Federico Brandmayr

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away? Compassion, Justification and Exculpation in Social Research

FIRST WORKSHOP – 27 September 2019

Organised by Federico Brandmayr and Anna Alexandrova

“Does understanding come at the price of undermining our capacity to judge, blame and punish? And should we conceive this as a price, as something that we should be worried about, or as something that we should welcome?”

The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1869) by Mihály Munkácsy (Wikimedia Commons).

The Expertise Under Pressure project hosted its first workshop on 27 September 2019 at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). The project is part of the Centre for the Humanities and Social Change, Cambridge, funded by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation. The overarching goal of Expertise Under Pressure is to establish a broad framework for understanding what makes expertise authoritative, when experts overreach, and what realistic demands communities should place on experts.

The talks and discussions of this first workshop focused specifically on a charge frequently levelled against experts who study human culture and social behaviour, i.e. that their explanations can provide justifications or excuses for ill-intentioned people, and that decisionmakers making choices on the basis of their advice might neglect to punish and react effectively to harmful behaviours.

A good way to capture the theme of the workshop is a saying attributed to Germaine de Stael: “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner”, “to understand all is to forgive all”. Social scientists perhaps do not intend to understand all that there is, but they generally like the idea of increasing our understanding of the social world. By and large, historians, sociologists, political scientists and anthropologists, tend to show that the people they study do certain things not just because they want to do those things, but also because they are driven by various kinds of factors. And the more knowledge we have of these factors, the more choice, responsibility, and agency seem to fade away. This begs the question: does understanding come at the price of undermining our capacity to judge, blame, and punish? And should we conceive this as a price, as something that we should be worried about, or as something that we should welcome? And how should scientific disciplines, professional associations, and individual researchers deal with this issue in their daily practice and especially in their interventions in public debates and in policymaking contexts? Indeed, these issues essentially relate to the question of how social knowledge is produced and how it circulates outside academia, and notably how it is appropriated and misappropriated by different groups in the endless disputes that divide society and in which attributions of credit and blame are widespread.

The one-day event brought together researchers from various academic disciplines, looking at the exculpatory potential of social research. Here is what they came up with.

Livia Holden

Professor Livia Holden (University of Oxford) was the first speaker of the day. With a background in anthropology and socio-legal studies, Holden leads a European Research Council project titled Cultural Expertise in Europe: What is it useful for? The project looks at the role of anthropologists and other cultural experts in advising judges in court cases and policymakers in fields such as immigration law. In her talk, ‘Cultural Expertise and the Fear of Absolution’, she analysed the concept of cultural expertise and described the specific challenges cultural experts face, especially where anthropology enjoys little credit. Drawing on several examples, including her own experience as an expert witness in family law cases, she argued that experts oscillate between the fear of absolution, i.e. concerns of excusing harmful acts (such as genital mutilation) on the grounds that they are rooted in cultural traditions, and the fear of condemnation, i.e. concerns of being complicit with colonial rule and repressive criminal justice policies.

Jana Bacevic, Livia Holden, and Hadrien Malier

The following speaker was Hadrien Malier (École des hautes études en sciences sociales), a sociologist who studies policy measures aimed at nudging working-class people into adopting more ‘eco-friendly’ habits. His talk, ‘No (Sociological) Excuses for Not Going Green: Urban Poor Households and Climate Activism in France’, presented the results of an ethnography conducted in two low-income housing projects. The volunteers and activists that Malier followed in these neighbourhoods framed the protection of the environment as an individual and universally distributed moral obligation, independent of privilege, class and education. Climate activists, who are mostly middle-class and educated, recognise the social difference between them and the mostly poor people they try to nudge toward eco-friendly habits. But this difference is simply interpreted as proof that people with low income do not know or care enough about the environment. More relevant sociological insights on class differences, including well-supported claims according to which people with low income have a relatively light ecological footprint, are often seen as a bad excuse for acts that are detrimental to environment.

Nigel Pleasants

Dr Nigel Pleasants (University of Exeter) gave the next talk. Pleasants is a philosopher of social science who has written extensively on how sociological and historical knowledge influences our moral judgements. In his recent publications, he focused on various controversies related to historical explanations of the Holocaust. His talk, ‘Social Scientific Explanation and the Fact-Value Distinction’, explored and clarified the relation between excuse and justification. Excuses concern the responsibility of an actor in performing a certain action, while justifications refer to the moral status of an action (i.e. whether it is right or wrong) regardless of the responsibility of the actor that performs it. Drawing on scholarship on the Holocaust, he argued that while explanatory accounts from the social sciences are highly relevant to determine whether a certain act can be excused, the same cannot be said for whether a certain act is justified or not.

Marco Santoro and Nigel Pleasant

The morning session ended with a talk by Professor Marco Santoro (Università di Bologna): ‘Whose Sides (of the Field) Could We Be On? Situatedness, Perspectivism, and Credibility in Social Research’. Santoro is a sociologist who has written on such diverse topics as the notarial profession, popular music, the international circulation of social scientific ideas and the Sicilian mafia. His starting point was a personal experience in which his interpretation of the mafia was harshly criticised by a colleague. In his writings on the topic, he had argued that the mafia can be interpreted as a form of political organisation, a non-state political institution enjoying a certain legitimacy and providing protection and services to its constituency, in a region where poverty runs high and that many see as having been left behind by the Italian state. Those scholars who instead saw the mafia as functioning like a company, simply providing services (e.g. protection from violence) in exchange for money, considered his arguments tantamount to a justification of organised crime. This episode inspired Santoro’s forceful defence of a multi-perspectival approach, according to which we should broaden the range of interpretations of a single phenomenon while being aware that these perspectives are not morally and politically neutral. Some might put us in dangerous territory, but it is only by seriously advancing them that we can clarify our very moral ideals.

Federico Brandmayr

Opening the afternoon session, Dr Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge) reconstructed the debate on ‘sociological excuses’ that took place in France after the country was struck by several deadly terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. In his talk, ‘The Political Epistemology of Explanation in Contemporary French Social Thought’, he showed that the very expression of sociological excuse has clear intellectual and political origins, rooted in US right-wing libertarianism, and argued that it is mainly used in France in relation to accounts of the urban lower class that emphasise poverty, unemployment and stigmatisation. Sociology as a discipline was at the centre of much controversy after the 2015 terrorist attacks, and sociologists reacted in three main ways: some denied the allegations, others reappropriated the derogatory label of excuse by giving it a positive meaning, while others accepted criticism and called for a reformation of sociology. Accordingly, Dr Brandmayr argued that French sociology should not be considered as a monolithic block that experiences attacks from political sectors, but rather as a heterogeneous complex of different epistemic communities.

Stephen Turner, Federico Brandmayr, and Stephen John

In a similar historical vein, Professor Stephen Turner (University of South Florida) gave a talk titled ‘Explaining Away Crime: The Race Narrative in American Sociology’. A renowned historian and philosopher of social science, he reconstructed the history of how social scientists have dealt with the fact that crime rates for Blacks in the US have always been higher than for other ethnic groups. Generally speaking, social scientists wanted to avoid racist accounts of this gap (like those based on a form of genetic predisposition of black people to commit crimes), but they also showed dissatisfaction with accounts that explained the gap by simply pointing to social factors such as poverty and discrimination. This is because of certain theoretical inconsistencies (such as the fact that black crime mainly targets black people, while one would assume that discrimination should cause Blacks to act violently against Whites), but also because it was seen as an excuse pointing to a deficiency in the agent and implying a form of inferiority. Spanning more than a century, Turner’s historical reconstruction identified three basic strategies US social scientists adopted to overcome this dilemma and delineated their ethical implications.

Finally, Gabriel Abend (Universität Luzern) took a more philosophical approach in a talk titled ‘Decisions, “Decisions”, and Moral Evaluation’. His talk built on a theoretical framework that he has recently developed in several publications, and which provides the foundation for the study of decisionism, i.e. the fact that people use decision (or choice) concepts and define certain things as decisions. Decisionism has clear moral and practical implications, as people are generally held accountable and subject to moral judgment when their acts are interpreted as decisions. Abend provided a striking list of examples from scientific journals in which the concept of decision was used to describe such unrelated things as bees’ foraging activities, saccadic eye movements and plant flowering. While these instances of decisionism offer plenty of material for the empirical sociologist, he raised concerns about the risk of conceptual stretching and advocated a responsible conceptual practice.

The workshop was a truly interdisciplinary inquiry, in the spirit of CRASSH. All interventions, whether their approach was philosophical, sociological, historical, or legal converged toward increasing our knowledge of the relationship between explaining and understanding on the one hand, and excusing and justifying on the other. Thanks to the lively and thorough responses given by an impressive battery of discussants (Dr Anna Alexandrova, Dr Jana Bacevic, Dr Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche and Dr Stephen John), the talks were followed by fruitful exchanges. A special issue with the papers given in the workshop is in preparation and will be submitted soon to a prominent interdisciplinary journal.

Text by Federico Brandmayr

Pictures taken by Judith Weik