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Policy making during crises: how diversity and disagreement can help manage the politics of expert advice

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: (Published 26 October 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4039

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  1. Alfred Moore, lecturer1,
  2. Michael K MacKenzie, assistant professor2
  1. 1Department of Politics, University of York, York, UK
  2. 2Department of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
  1. Correspondence to: A Moore alfred.moore{at}

Alfred Moore and Michael K MacKenzie argue that greater openness about disagreement among diverse types of experts makes it harder for political leaders to politicise expertise

Whenever scientists provide advice to political leaders they risk their expert authority being used in ways they cannot control in order to serve political ends. At one extreme, when they give unwelcome advice they risk being dismissed on the grounds that they must be taking sides. At the other extreme, expert authority can be used to shield political leaders from responsibility. The UK government, for example, has repeatedly insisted that it has simply been “following the science” when making decisions during the covid-19 pandemic, even though experts do not speak with one voice and scientific facts alone cannot determine how political (or ethical or moral) judgments should be made.

These two extreme responses—ostentatious dismissal of expert advice and ostentatious deference to it—work by denying the importance of legitimate disagreement and uncertainty. In the first case, disagreement is dismissed as being politically motivated. In the second, disagreement is masked altogether. Both temptations are strong when decision makers come under pressure, as they do during crisis situations.

While many have rightly focused on the ethos and duties of experts in political contexts,12 we focus on the role that political institutions can play in helping to manage the politics of expertise more effectively and legitimately. Drawing on findings from behaviour research, we identify two principles to guide the institutionalisation of expert advice. The first involves ensuring that diverse perspectives—both disciplinary and social—are adequately represented when expert advice is given and consulted. The second has to do with protecting, promoting, and normalising disagreement among diverse sets of experts.

Inclusion of diverse perspectives

Expert advice should draw on diverse disciplinary specialisms and diverse social perspectives. Disciplinary diversity is important for two …

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