Policy making during crises: how diversity and disagreement can help manage the politics of expert advice
Alfred Moore and Michael K MacKenzie argue that greater openness about disagreement among diverse types of experts makes it harder for political leaders to politicise expertise.
Whenever scientists provide advice to political leaders they risk their expert authority being used in ways they cannot control in order to serve political ends. At one extreme, when they give unwelcome advice they risk being dismissed on the grounds that they must be taking sides. At the other extreme, expert authority can be used to shield political leaders from responsibility. The UK government, for example, has repeatedly insisted that it has simply been “following the science” when making decisions during the covid-19 pandemic, even though experts do not speak with one voice and scientific facts alone cannot determine how political (or ethical or moral) judgments should be made.
These two extreme responses—ostentatious dismissal of expert advice and ostentatious deference to it—work by denying the importance of legitimate disagreement and uncertainty. In the first case, disagreement is dismissed as being politically motivated. In the second, disagreement is masked altogether. Both temptations are strong when decision makers come under pressure, as they do during crisis situations.
While many have rightly focused on the ethos and duties of experts in political contexts, we focus on the role that political institutions can play in helping to manage the politics of expertise more effectively and legitimately. Drawing on findings from behaviour research, we identify two principles to guide the institutionalisation of expert advice. The first involves ensuring that diverse perspectives—both disciplinary and social—are adequately represented when expert advice is given and consulted. The second has to do with protecting, promoting, and normalising disagreement among diverse sets of experts. […]
Creating institutions that establish norms and expectations of legitimate disagreement as part of the process of forming and communicating expert advice would make it easier for experts to stay true to their expertise and harder for politicians to hide their judgments behind the science. The principles and institutions we have discussed are, of course, not a magic bullet: their effectiveness will depend to a large extent on the political environments into which expert advice is inserted. At the same time, they would help make those political environments more receptive to expert advice by minimising the opportunities that political leaders have to distort that advice or simply defer to it for their partisan purposes. Our proposals can thus be seen as a step towards enhancing the quality of public deliberation and, ultimately, political judgment, in our political systems by encouraging an attitude not of blind deference to the science but of allegiance to the norms of science itself: a respect for diversity of opinion and the value of disagreement in processes of inquiry.