Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

"Common Sense Geography" and the Elected Official: Technical Evidence and Conceptions of 'Trust' in Toronto's Gardiner Expressway Decision

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

"Common Sense Geography" and the Elected Official: Technical Evidence and Conceptions of 'Trust' in Toronto's Gardiner Expressway Decision

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

For over 30 years, sociologists of science and technology and political scientists have exhibited interest in integrating or understanding scientific and technical models of information evaluation and planning in public policy debates. Generally glossed as "Evidence Based Decision-Making" (henceforth EBDM) these scholars address a disparate and unsystematic mass of techniques attempting to resolve perceived inefficiencies for decision-making in government (in political science see for example: Aucoin, 1990; Young et al. 2002; Head, 2008; Winch & Maytonera, 2009; Monahan 2010; Boehm et al. 2013. In STS see: Knorr 1976; Porter 1995; Wynne 1996; Epstein 1996; Collins and Evans 2002; 2007; Jasanoff 2004; Lynch and Cole 2005; Pielke 2007 Collins 2014a; 2014b). These discussions provide an interesting backdrop for understanding societal institutions such as democratically elected governments, particularly when knowledge controversies (Jasanoff 2004; Whatmore 2009)--friction between "expert advisors" and elected officials--emerge. A contemporary example of such a knowledge controversy event is Toronto City Council's decision to adopt the Hybrid model for the easternmost 2.4 kilometers of the Gardiner Expressway. In this case, Toronto City Council chose to disregard the professional advice of the city's chief planner, a consortium of ex-chief planners, and to a significant degree the very experts they had appointed to assist in deciding how to treat the ailing expressway.

One way we might be tempted to treat the knowledge controversy pertaining to the Gardiner is to reduce the obligations of the elected official to a form of "passive recipient" of "expert" advice, and question: "what aspect of these discussions did elected officials not understand when they chose to ignore or mistrust the experts?" This could reflect the vast majority of public discourse and media scrutiny pertaining to knowledge controversies in general or the Gardiner decision in particular. However, doing so presupposes at least two things; the first, that it is properly the role of the elected official to trust expert advice, as opposed to actively scrutinize evidence. There has recently been an emphasis in scholarship on expert advice for political decision-making in which it is presumed that expert advice is naturally good advice (i.e. Collins and Evans 2002; 2007; Nyholm and Haveri 2009; Winch and Maytorena 2009; Collins 2010; 2014a; Smallman 2014). This leads to the second presupposition, that the 'expert' and the elected official are engaged in the same 'constitutive practice' (Garfinkel 1963; Watson 2009)--deriving and accepting systematic evidence (in all of its various forms) for public policy decision-making --whereby choosing to disagree with an expert is, in a sense, a breach of trust. When this attitude to the relationship between 'expert' and elected official is undertaken (that they are engaged in the same practice, applying technical or scientific findings or guidance to public policy decisions) then as controversies emerge between experts and elected officials ground is opened for the accusation of ineptitude leveled at the elected official when they exhibit mistrust for what the expert has told them--"they are not the expert, the expert(s) gave them the best advice, why did they not simply accept that advice?"

This approach imposes a normative frame upon political decision-making where elected officials are understood as deficient in some manner when they do not accept the advice of appointed experts--that they are "ideological," "ignorant of the export of official/technical/scientific evidence," "not listening to the right experts," etc ... An alternative way to examine knowledge controversies between experts and elected officials is to ask: "when elected officials exhibit a lack of trust in the advice of their appointed experts, under what conditions does that mistrust make sense?" Applying this approach to the Gardiner decision, I argue, shows that it is not the case that political officials are deficient in decision-making skills, "scientific" or "technical" knowledge, or perceptions of expertise or appointments to the roles governed by expertise. …

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