What is the Problem with Experts?

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bureaucracy, constructionism, democracy, discretion, expertise, liberalism, science

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The phenomenon of expertise produces two problems for liberal democratic theory: the first is whether it creates inequalities that undermine citizen rule or make it a sham; the second is whether the state can preserve its neutrality in liberal `government by discussion' while subsidizing, depending on, and giving special status to, the opinions of experts and scientists. A standard Foucauldian critique suggests that neutrality is impossible, expert power and state power are inseparable, and that expert power is the source of the oppressive, inegalitarian effects of present regimes. Habermas argues that expert cultures make democratic discussion impossible. Analogous problems arise with `cognitive authority', understood in Mertonian terms. Cognitive authority, as Merton sees it, allows us to ask about the democratic legitimacy of this authority, which appears to solve the problem (or part of the problem) because it returns ultimate `authority' to the people, who reject or accept the experts' claims. And many claims to expertise in fact do fail to gain acceptance. Through an examination of the type of expert that appears to evade the demands of legitimation, it is shown that expertise and liberal democracy can in principle co-exist, contrary to the claims of the critics.

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Social Studies of Science, v. 31, issue 1, p. 123-149