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Experts in conflict

Ing. Dr. Anton Hütter, hütter & partner

After training as an engineer, Anton Hütter studied philosophy and worked on issues in knowledge management. Today he is a freelance consultant (main focus: organization and project development, participation and citizen involvement) and a facilitator in complex projects in the public realm. He is part owner of “Mediator GmbH” (Berlin) and one of the editors of the scientific periodical “perspektive mediation”, published by Verlag Österreich.

Contact: office(at), website:

Mediation processes in the public realm often involve complex issues and risk estimates from the fields of science, engineering, business, medicine, ecology etc. In order to answer these questions, the mediation forum is dependent on advice from specialists, i.e. on experts. Particularly in the case of highly controversial topics a phenomenon occurs that is known as the “experts' dilemma”: various highly qualified experts are commissioned to write reports on a particular subject – but the reports reach divergent, often even contradictory conclusions. Each side has “its” reports, each lobby “its” scientific “backroom boys”.

Now, how are we to cope with this multiplicity of truths, which in the established view of science ought to be completely out of the question? Two fundamentally differing ways of reacting to the experts' dilemma can be identified:

  • Clinging to the traditional role of the expert
    The perspective here is as follows: experts are independent persons with a special grasp of a discipline. This grasp has to do with certain knowledge that all specialists recognize and to which there is no alternative as a basis for decisions. Moreover experts make such knowledge available regardless of who asks the questions and irrespective of other interests. To sum up, they provide – in this perspective – impartial, reliable and adequate knowledge as a basis for prompt, unequivocal decisions. Here the expert dilemma is regarded as a mishap, due either to imprecise work or to so-called “black sheep” within the community of science, who give priority to their own or third-party interests rather than to the strict standard of striving for objectivity and truth to the exclusion of all else.
  • Reassessment of the role of the expert
    Here the fact that in many cases no uniform expertise exists, and that the relationship between scientific-technical assessment on the one hand and decision-making on the other is growing more and more complicated, is seen as an opportunity for innovation, not just as a hazard in the process of decision. With a systemic-constructivist attitude as a starting-point, and in full awareness of the various inconsistencies and ambiguities, the expert is tied into the process as a partner in the discussion on an equal footing. The background to this is an acceptance of the findings of the philosophy of science over the last 50 years, which have shown that the absolute unity and coherence which used to count as the hallmark of scientific knowledge, particularly in the 19th century, does not really exist and is not a meaningful goal, either. One and the same state of affairs can be regarded from various different angles (all equally valid) in turn. Plurality is a feature not only of ways of life and cultural orientations but also of ways of knowing. So interest shifts toward establishing structures of knowledge management; here the expert acts as an assistant in linking up the various subsystems (stakeholders, the economy, law, politics etc.). This plurality and inconclusiveness of knowledge is of course a permanent source of irritation for any technically oriented mindset aimed at mastery. None the less the following maxim holds: there is no access to the entirety of things, all knowledge is limited.

It is easy to see that this second perspective on what experts do is far more compatible with the basic assumptions of mediation than the earlier scientistic perspective. Strictly speaking, exchanging information presupposes that the systems involved in the exchange (politics, law, the economy, science, grassroots initiatives etc.) have identical criteria of relevance. However, this is not the case, since the spokespersons for the systems involved in the exchange each have their own history, identity, cognitive structures, motives, goals, issues etc. What at first sight appears to be a straightforward process of information transfer actually has a different structure: experts present the information they have. For recipients these signals are initially just raw data; they can next evaluate these data in terms of their own specific criteria of relevance, and thus construct information for themselves. But clearly this information will differ from what the experts transmitted, otherwise the two systems would be identical.

Now, what does that imply as regards introducing experts' knowledge into a mediation process? The key lies in the praxis of working on issues in a group. This is where the real strength of mediation reveals itself. In successful processes, working together in the mediation forum results in collective learning, in the sense that a shared experiential context, a “community of practice” evolves, which means that the criteria for evaluating data – i.e. the procedures for constructing information – converge in a common praxis. This in no way implies that experts abandon their function of presenting and advising; only the rigid separation between the experts' providing information and knowledge earlier on and the process of reaching a decision at a later stage no longer applies. The cooperative approach is more in line with the spiral model of collective learning: develop a question – obtain experts' knowledge – refine the question – obtain more expertise – etc. In this process the participants' criteria of relevance gradually converge: essential if information and knowledge are to be passed on at all.

Experts taking part in mediation processes must possess social skills and be aware of how to use knowledge in a context-sensitive way. Contrary to traditional thinking, specialized knowledge alone is not sufficient; the ability to make complex interrelations comprehensible to educated non-specialists, so that they can handle these, is also required. By way of the setting and appropriate guidance from the mediator, the mediation process creates the right context for making experts' knowledge usable in the sense outlined above.

Further details (article in perspektive mediation, 2006, in German): Experten im Konflikt

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