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The Cosmopolitan Expert: Dancing with Numbers and Narratives

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The challenge for experts who come from one of the two cultures (which most do) is particularly vexing, for a perspective and set of practices can always be produced in the other culture that calls into question the limitations and biases of this expert’s view and recommended actions. Black swans flutter all around experts in contemporary life. It is even more likely that experts must live with black swans when they seek to somehow blend perspectives and practices from Snow’s two cultures. As I have noted frequently in this series of essays regarding the crisis of expertise in the midst of Intersects, the challenges as well as the opportunities are prominent in a world where two or more sets of perspectives and practices intersect with one another. Ultimately, I would suggest, we are encountering many Intersections when seeking to incorporate both the culture of science and the culture of the humanities in our work as experts (or as coaches to those leaders who look to experts for guidance). I would even go so far as to suggest that an interplay between different cultural perspectives and practices from the two cultures are at times “revolutionary” – resulting in what Thomas Kuhn (1962) identified as a shift in paradigms.

I wish in this essay to explore the interplay between the two cultures further—beginning with our apparent contemporary embrace of the scientific culture (and numbers) and then moving to suggestions about the underlying need for a broader catchment field (regarding information) and about ways to broaden this catchment area (especially when gathering information about human-based processes and events). I suggest, as I have done in the other essays in this series) that expertise which resides in the middle of an intersection can be of greatest value in our mid-21st Century world. I wish to identify these intersect-residing experts as Cosmopolitan in their perspectives and practices.

Enamored with Numbers

The challenge of expertise as we find experts dwelling in one of the two cultures begins with the love affair many people in the mid-21st Century are having with numbers and, more generally, the culture of science. One of the recent observers of this love affairs is Deborah Stone (2021) who writes about numbers and how we use them, often indiscriminately to portray reality and to make decisions based on this reality. She offers the following summary statement early in her book (Stone, 2021, p. 30):

This book explores how counting works in the social world and why numbers can’t do everything we wish they could. Numbers have come to serve as reality tests (“If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exit”) and truth detectors (“Show me the numbers”). · Too often people rely on numbers to make and justify their decisions, instead of doing the hard work of thinking, questioning, and discussing. If I devote more space to unpacking the limits of numbers than to praising their virtues, that’s because I hope to make them serve us better.

In my review of the important observations made by Stone, I wish to frame the arguments within the broader tradition provided initially by Berger and Luckmann (1967) when they introduced the concept of reality being a “social construction.” They challenge the widely accepted assumption that reality can be objectively viewed, given sufficiently accurate tools of measurement. This assumption is directly aligned with the culture of science. For Berger and Luckmann, there is no clearly specifiable and fully verifiable reality; rather, there are constructions of reality that reside within a special social context (completes with the biases, agendas, rewards, politics, etc.) associated with this society. Aligning with a more humanities-oriented culture, these two social “scientists” would applaud the analyses offered by Stone. She begins her analysis with references to Snow’s two cultures and often refers to the often arbitrary and constructive nature of numbers (referring to them as “metaphors”).

Numbers as Social Constructions

While there are many ways that numbers (quantitative/scientific) differ from narratives (qualitative measures/humanities) they are fully aligned with narratives as a fundamental level. Like narratives, the numbers we use are social constructions. They are not some distant, nonhuman-based enterprise that offer “objective” perspectives on reality but are just as vulnerable to failed human perceptions and judgements as are the so-called “subjective” (humanistic) perspectives on reality.

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