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NADRA 2014: In experts we trust?

Public health

16 Sep 2014

The new expert society and different perceptions of the alcohol and tobacco industry were the themes of two of the keynote presentations at the Nordic Alcohol and Drug Researchers’ Assembly (NADRA) in Stockholm in August 2014. The presentations have at least one question in common: Who should we trust?

Doctor Staffan Furusten, an associate professor at Stockholm School of Economics and the director of Score (Stockholm centre for organizational research), talked about the challenges organizations face in the contemporary expert society.

– Experts are popping up everywhere. We see them in many different settings, in many different areas. From the mid-nineties the number of experts has increased significantly, Dr. Furusten said, referencing SCORE data on the rising number of various consultant groups.

However, increased expertise does not always equal increased knowledge.

– A first look at the rise of the number of experts and areas of expertise may look very promising but a second look makes it clear that this development requires closer reflection.

What kind of knowledge do experts possess? What is the role of expertise in society today? When should experts be consulted? How much power should they have? Who is in control of what is defined as expertise – and how can we trust the experts?

Expert organizations such as governmental public health institutes are challenged by new types of experts, promoting for instance a market based or political expertise.

– It´s important to remember that when some experts are given more power, others, such as organizations, are losing it, Dr. Furusten pointed out.

The rise of the new experts

There is a great variety in the level and amount of knowledge upon which expertise is claimed. Some experts are self-claimed whereas others base their expertise on the processes of authorization, accreditation, legitimization, standardization and certification.

– Today there are more self-claimed experts out there than ever before and they are providing expert services to politicians, public authorities, non-governmental and non-profit organizations as well as to enterprises. The new experts tend to represent themselves and their own interests, Dr. Furusten pointed out.

The traditional popular conception of experts is one based on, for instance, specific education (lawyers, doctors), specific experience or memberships in associations. Such experts are perceived as non-political and altruistic. During the past decades however, there can be seen a new type of experts, taking advantage of the old perception of expertise as reliable knowledge, whilst not in fact possessing the required education, certification or membership that lives up to the perception of expertise. Such ‘new’ experts are often, but not always, connected to political or commercial sectors.

– I´m not saying that the traditional conception of experts is always better but it is useful to take a closer look at this development, Dr. Furusten said.

The modern expert – one who knows more than the rest of us?

According to Dr. Furusten, systems for certification, qualification and standardizations have emerged with the development of an expert society.

– There may be a promotion of ignorance in the contemporary expert society. For example, when you are about to hire someone, you might not trust your own judgments.  It may be more important to use the right model developed by experts for recruiting than to find the right person for the job, Dr. Furusten explained.

There is an increased short-sightedness in the organization of knowledge production and expertise, and acting according to standards is rewarded. Where is the resistance, what are the alternatives?

– As Woody Allen said ‘I took a course in speed reading and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It was about Russia.’ One wonders: what are we missing every time we take the shortcuts, asked Dr. Furusten.

Different perceptions of the alcohol and tobacco industry

In his keynote presentation Professor Jeff Collin from the University of Edinburgh explored the differences and similarities of the alcohol and tobacco industries.

– As a professor of global health policy with an interest in NCDs (non-communicable diseases), I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the question of why tobacco companies are perceived as being so different from the alcohol industry. What are the implications of such perceived differences for public health policy?

– Are tobacco companies really that different from alcohol companies or ultra-processed food companies? Why is tobacco perceived as exceptional, asked Professor Collin.

Access denied for tobacco companies

According to Professor Collin the alcohol corporations are allowed to participate in the global governance arena to an extent that has, in recent years, not been possible for tobacco corporations. Quoting Professor Sally Casswell, Collin attributed this difference to the success of three alcohol industry frames.

– The alcohol industry claims that moderate drinking is good for you, associates problems and harms relating to alcohol only with a small minority of heavy drinkers, and emphasizes individual rights, partly through lack of emphasis on wider social costs of alcohol related harms.

In the year 2000 the WHO Committee of Experts stated that “Tobacco use is unlike other threats to global health. Infectious diseases do not employ multinational public relations firms. There are no front groups to promote the spread of cholera. Mosquitos have no lobbyists”.

– The WHO treats alcohol companies like partners or stakeholders, whereas the tobacco industry is treated very differently, Professor Collin pointed out.

The alcohol industry – a legitimate partner in research?

The tobacco industry’s involvement in scientific research has been vigorously contested.

– Partnerships are precluded, interactions are minimized and regulated, industry positions are instinctively questioned and open political support is problematic. For example the medical journal PLOS Medicine refuses to publish research funded by the tobacco industry, Professor Collin said.

– By contrast, alcohol industry actors are in many contexts still widely regarded as legitimate both as partners in health and development policies and as key funders of research.

Professor Collin raised three key questions: is there a comparable conflict of interest in alcohol research, what are the implications of relationships between scientists, funding agencies and the alcohol industry, and are tobacco control practices applicable in the context of alcohol?

– A clearer analysis of the politics and economics of alcohol across national, European and international levels needs to be developed, Professor Collin stated.


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