New Books in the Arts & Sciences

Celebrating Recent Work by Gil Eyal

Monday, December 2, 2019  6:15pm The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

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Office of the Divisional Deans in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences

New Books in the Arts & Sciences:
Celebrating Recent Work by Gil Eyal

The Crisis of Expertise
By: Gil Eyal

In recent political debates there has been a significant change in the valence of the word “experts” from a superlative to a near pejorative, typically accompanied by a recitation of experts’ many failures and misdeeds. In topics as varied as Brexit, climate change and vaccinations there is a palpable mistrust of experts and a tendency to dismiss their advice. Are we witnessing, therefore, the “death of expertise,” or is the handwringing about an “assault on science” merely the hysterical reaction of threatened elites?

In this new book, Gil Eyal argues that what needs to be explained is not a one-sided“mistrust of experts” but the two-headed pushmi-pullyu of unprecedented reliance onscience and expertise, on the one hand,  coupled with increased suspicion, skepticismand dismissal of scientific findings, expert opinion or even whole branches of investigation, on the other. The current mistrust of experts, Eyal argues, is best understood as one more spiral in an on-going, recursive crisis of legitimacy. The “scientization of politics,” of which critics warned in the 1960s, has brought about a politicization of science, specifically of regulatory and policy science, and the two processes reinforce one another in an unstable, crisis-prone mixture. Eyal demonstrates that the strategies designed to respond to the crisis - from an increased emphasis on inclusion of laypeople and stakeholders in scientific research and regulatory decision-making to approaches seeking to generate trust by relying on objective procedures such as randomized controlled trials (RCTs) – end up exacerbating the crisis, while undermining and contradicting one another. 

This timely book will be of great interest to students and scholars in the social sciences and to anyone concerned about the political uses of, and attacks on, scientific knowledge and expertise.

About the Author:

Gil Eyal's work deals with sociology of expertise, intellectuals and knowledge, in particular as it relates to broader political processes and to the interstitial spaces between fields. In two early books he has dealt with the transition from socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe, and the role played by intellectuals, technocrats and in particular economists in the process. (With Ivan Szelenyi and Eleanor Townsley) Making Capitalism without Capitalists. (London: Verso, 1998); The Origins of Post-Communist Elites: From the Prague Spring to the Breakup of Czechoslovakia. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). A later book dealt with expertise about Arab affairs and the role it plays in Israeli society, government and the military: The Disenchantment of the Orient. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006). His latest book provides a sociological explanation for the current autism epidemic, and traces the blurring of boundaries between experts and laypeople that play a role in the dynamics leading to the epidemic. (With Brendan Hart, Emine Onculer, Neta Oren and Natasha Rossi) The Autism Matrix: The Social Origins of the Autism Epidemic. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010). The approach applied in this book is developed further in his recent article: "For a Sociology of Expertise: The Social Origins of the Autism Epidemic,” AJS Vol. 118, No. 4 (January 2013), pp. 863-907.

Peter B. de Menocal is Dean of Science for the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Columbia University where he oversees the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ nine science departments. He is the Thomas Alva Edison/Con Edison Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Climate & Life, a research team with over 120 PhD scientists leading research to understand how climate impacts life’s essentials – our access to food, water, shelter, and energy. The Center engages the private sector to build a more resilient, sustainable world. He is a geochemist and paleoclimate scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who uses ocean sediments to understand how and why past oceans and climates have changed, and their impacts on human evolution and culture. He is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union (2013), an AGU Emiliani awardee (2014), recipient of the Lenfest Columbia Distinguished Faculty award (2008), and the Distinguished Brooksian award (2013). He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree from St. Lawrence University in 2009.

Diane Vaughan, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, received her Ph.D. in Sociology, Ohio State University, 1979, and taught at Boston College from 1984 to 2005.  During this time, she was awarded fellowships at Yale, the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford, the American Bar Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She came to Columbia in 2005. Influenced as a graduate student by Georg Simmel’s work on social forms, she began experimenting with what she calls analogical theorizing: developing theory by comparing cases of similar events, activities or phenomena across different organizational forms in order to elaborate general theory or concepts. Since then, she has written three books on how things go wrong in organizations: Controlling Unlawful Organizational Behavior, Uncoupling, and The Challenger Launch Decision. The fourth book in the project, Dead Reckoning: System Effects, Boundary Work, and Risk in Air Traffic Control (in review) is her negative case, looking at how an organization gets it (mostly) right.

Steven Shapin joined Harvard in 2004 after previous appointments as Professor of Sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and at the Science Studies Unit, Edinburgh University. His books include Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 1985 [new ed. 2011]; with Simon Schaffer), A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (University of Chicago Press, 1994), The Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1996; now translated into 16 languages), Wetenschap is cultuur (Science is Culture)(Amsterdam: Balans, 2005; with Simon Schaffer), The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), and several edited books.

Shamus Khan, Chair and Professor of Sociology at Columbia University: My work is primarily within the areas of cultural sociology and stratification, with a strong focus on elites. I am the author of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton 2011); The Practice of Research (Oxford 2013, with Dana Fisher), and am completing Exceptional: The Astors, Elite New York, and the Story of American Inequality (Princeton, forthcoming). With Dorian Warren, I am the director of a Russell Sage Foundation working group on “The Political Influence of Economic Elites;” I also serve as the principal investigator on a Andrew W. Mellon Foundation project using the New York Philharmonic archives to uncover the character of their subscribers from the 1870s-present.  In addition to my primary focus, I also write in the areas of gender theory, deliberative politics, and research methodology. I recently served as an opinion columnist for Time Magazine and continue to write about sociology in the popular press.

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