The Interactional Expert

If we humans evolved into a smart, sign-processing species, it might be because we are good at mingling with each other; we exchange thoughts and build on each others? ideas, copy actions and habits, and thus create high-level consciousness through mutually negotiated symbols. Somehow, language evolution and consciousness are intertwined with the process of social interaction as it was experienced at the interdisciplinary conference dealing with (and by) the 'Symbolic Species'. Or should we call it the 'Interactional Species'?

By Rut Jesus and Robin Engelhardt

Is it really possible to pass yourself off as an expert in a research field if you have never had any formal training and have never done a second of research? Meet Harry Collins, professor of sociology from the University of Cardiff. Collins wondered if one can acquire a full domain language of a specialized scientific community without having passed all the technical and mathematical entry examinations. To find out, he used himself in an experiment, posing as a gravitational waves physicist, a field he knew well from his sociological enquiries. From Collins' perspective, the experiment was a success: He managed to make actual physicists working within the field of gravitational wave physics believe that he was a full-fledged expert of their field.

This is a story that causes astonishment and creates enemies, as Harry Collins has learned, and the reaction was no different when he recently told it to a group of researchers at the conference "The Symbolic Species" arranged by Learning Lab Denmark at the Danish University of Education and the research priority area 'Body and mind' at the University of Copenhagen.

The theme of the conference was the evolution of the human brain and the development of the highly specialised human language with its use of symbols, and Harry Collins' experiment put a strong social constructivist spin on the theme: the use of the right language and symbols allows us to pose as experts in a field even if we do not have the knowledge to actually participate in the work.

I, physicist
In order to test expertise, Collins used the analysis of intelligence (and applied it to expertise) first proposed by Alan Turing in 1950 and now known as the Turing Test.

Here expertise (or intelligence) is defined as the ability to have a conversation and be accepted as an equal. In the classical Turing Test, the conversation is conducted via keyboards and the challenge for the community is to produce a computer that can give answers that are indistinguishable from those produced by a real human. Given that such interactions are by their very nature open-ended and context-dependent, Collins argues that only a fully socialized intelligence will be able to respond appropriately to any of the new and potentially unknown sentences directed to it.

In this way, Collins' experiment was a Turing test, performed in accordance with Turing's formula: An email with questions (only language-based - to test the acquisition of the domain language) about the subject was sent to a group of wave physicists and to Collins. The replies were sent to a panel of judges, who were also wave physicists. The result: The judges were unable to distinguish Collins from the true wave physicists on the basis of the answers given.

Collins calls this 'interactional expertise' as opposed to 'contributory expertise'. The contributory expert is truly part of a field and can contribute new knowledge. Collins, being 'only' an interactional expert, managed to make the judges believe that he was a full fledged contributory expert, because he was able to talk about the field in a way indistinguishable from how the 'real' experts talked.

A bona fide expert
This report caused a reaction of true astonishment and opposition among the audience at the conference in Copenhagen. Criticism ranged from disbelieving the results of the experiments to disbelieving the premises of the whole thing. "You ARE an expert", some would say. "You were lucky", others said. "Your Turing tests are inappropriate for checking tacit knowledge", others meant. People felt they had been duped, like by a magician on a stage. "I see it, but I don't believe it."

In this situation we have to remind ourselves that scientists createtheir identity through a long and thorough educational process of training and tests. It is therefore difficult to accept the claim that a lay person, a semi-educated wannabe, can pass a Turing test posing as a theoretical physicist. The Israeli mathematician Uri Leron, for instance, insisted that mathematics had to be different. "A non-mathematician can never answer correctly to the question: 'What is the inverse of the Lagrange theorem?'!"

The epistemic cut
Collins' approach touched on one of the major themes of the conference in a novel way, that of where the so-called 'epistemic cut' lies. The place of the epistemic cut has been a matter of philosophical discussion in many fields, from cognitive science to biology to the 'Symbolic Species' conference. This 'cut' concerns the dividing line between subject and object, between the observer and the observed, the knower and the known. In higher level organisms, it could define the separation between brain and mind, giving rise to discussions on the nature of consciousness. It could also be placed at the life/non-life fault, as the Danish biosemiotics researcher Jesper Hoffmeyer suggests by claiming that the dynamic aspects of living organisms possess semiotic characteristics.

Not so with Collins. To him we are a symbolic species in the Wittgensteinian sense. This means we are talking about an imitation game, not a school test in mathematical skills. If we were brought up around lions even without lion claws and lion teeth we could talk about every lion subject that could come up in the family. This means that we can acquire the tacit knowledge of the language belonging to a foreign area without acquiring the tacit knowledge of the practices belonging to that area.

Just talk the talk
Now, what does this imply for the nature of knowledge and the epistemic cut? First of all, it creates a shift in emphasis from embodiment to socialization.

In classical philosophy of knowledge, as formulated for instance by Hubert Dreyfus, the argument is that because lions (or computers) do not possess human bodies they cannot do what humans do. Collins' perspective suggests that the body is not the big issue. The issue is the a-social aspect of lions (or computers) that makes them incapable of becoming human.

This is why natural language is so important for our definition of intelligence and consciousness. People who cannot perform a particular task or skill ? and who cannot acquire the embodied expertise associated with it? can still talk about that skill as if they did posses the embodied skills. Taken to its logical minimum, only the ability to hear and speak is needed.

In terms of the epistemic cut, Collins' experiments might show that we seem to use the term consciousness as a seal of approval for having successfully passed a test of socialization. If you can talk like a duck and walk like a duck, we accept you as a duck. The matter of where in the evolutionary timeline we should look for the transition from no consciousness to consciousness to self-consciousness is therefore a matter of inter-species negotiations about kinship. The 'language' of such a negotiation can have many forms: chemical signals, visual clues or spoken words.

It is very refreshing that Collins does not try to discuss a way by which to expose these 'false experts'. For him they are obviously not false experts but just interactional experts, sometimes fulfilling an important role in a scientific domain.

Managers for example, don't need to know everything about the competencies and knowledge of a company. They solve other problems of interaction, and even sometimes of subject, although they may be quite ignorant about the underlying theories and methodologies.

What Collins did, rather, was to question the way education is testing people for their domain knowledge. What is most important: To be able to think and frame a problem like a physicist or to solve equation x according to y? Our science education is, as Collins said, excluding very talented out-of-the-box thinking people just because they can't do the math.

(published in DPU Quarterly, 31 October 2006)