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Researcher, Analyst, Advocate

Reading Brian Williams’ account of his involvement with the defence of Salim Ahmed Hamdan at Gitmo, and all of the responses to it on CTlab in recent days, has been fascinating. There are so many points to respond to, but I want to take up the theme that Christian Bleuer addresses in his post, as I think the question of the “expert” is one that we all need to give some thought to in light of what Williams has to say.

Of late, I have found myself called upon numerous times as an “expert” on various local issues here in Montreal of which I have expertise. Prior to my academic career, I spent a good seven years working as a research analyst in Ottawa. There, the firm I worked for was hired for its expertise in historical research.  We were used by lawyers as expert witnesses, or at least as experts in our fields to be used in negotiations. My combined experience, plus reading of Williams’ experience with Hamdan’s case, plus Bleuer’s response, brings several things to mind.

I'm currently teaching a course on qualitative research methods in the social sciences, and this has me thinking about why it is I get called upon for my expert opinion lately on urban planning and the urban landscape in Montreal. I was recently teaching my students about the concept of the expert, of the reason why they need to find scholarly sources to write their papers. One student asked why, and I responded that it was because sociologists or  historians are experts, have spent years training, learning their discipline, practicing their methodology, so when it comes time to publish their work, they are experts, they have a deep understanding of the subject.

A journalist, on the other hand, is working to a much tighter deadline and needs to finish her story, and since the readership for her story is going to be the general public, it need not be as in-depth. But that kind of approach is not good enough for research in the social science and the humanities (and my discipline, History, falls within the humanities, not social sciences).

So what? We all know this, but we don’t all know this. For me, it was the experience of breaking this down in the classroom for a bunch of first and second year undergrads that made me realize what is happening here, to critically reflect on my experience as a research analyst and as an historian, and how my opinion is used and has been used in such diverse situations as legal cases, newspaper stories, media interviews, and urban planning pow-wows with various levels of government.

Many times, it has been as Bleuer notes, that “[w]at much of the public and the government wants from academics, PhDs and experts is a source of legitimation for their predetermined beliefs.” And this is where we have the potential to get into trouble. For example, a former colleague of mine in Ottawa, a well-respected analyst in our field, got very frustrated at one point with the glacial speed of negotiations and lawsuits. So he became less an analyst and researcher and more of an advocate. This was a choice I understood then and still sympathise with now. He saw injustice and he thought he could fight it better as an advocate than an analyst. In the short term, it worked well for him and for his cause. He was hired as an expert, he made numerous appearances in the courtroom, his words carried weight in negotiations for settlements. But, in the long-term, he hurt himself and his cause, because the lawyers and politicians, on both sides of the debate, began to realize that he was not providing a relatively unbiased opinion, but a polemic for one particular point-of-view.

So this brings me to Williams. As Bleuer notes, Williams’ testimony before the Hamdan “jury” was one of those instances where the audience had an open mind vis-à-vis the expert opinion. I think there are several reasons for this. Most notably, Williams did not appear as a zealous advocate of Hamdan. His reservations about the case come out clearly in his account at CTlab. His response, his work for Hamdan’s defence, was reasoned, dispassionate, and grounded. In short, his credibility could not be impugned. This makes him the exception, or at least it seems that way.

Court cases across North America involve experts in all matters of all things. And this, in many ways, discredits the expert. For example, there is here in Canada currently a furore over a pathologist who specialized in the deaths of infants, and whose work, which turns out to have been deeply flawed, led to legal proceedings against many innocent parents already grieving over their babies' deaths. This pathologist shows the exact problem with the “expert”. Rather than providing a relatively objective point-of-view, or at least one that arises from the supposedly objective place we’re supposed to start from as social scientists, the “expert” too often plays the role of crusader.

While I can understand why, I believe that we can do more as “experts” by standing on our credibility as experts. We can still be passionate believers in our causes, we can still stand on the side of right against wrong, as Williams has done. Indeed, Williams was contacted by Hamdan’s defence team because he had done research that confirmed the view of the defence. He was not hired for an objective point-of-view. But because he had credibility in front of the “jury” in Hamdan’s case, he was able to play such a central role in the acquittal of the most serious charges against the defendant.

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