Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Electrocution and PhD supervision

In last month's discussion, Nigel Ford asked what the role of the PhD supervisor is.  The answer (as is usually the case) was "It depends".   It depends on the student, the subject and the project.  Most of the group's responses are summed up in the abstract that Sheila posted on this blog last month (Thanks Sheila!).  Arguably, one of the roles of a PhD student is, under the guidance of her/his supervisor, to become an expert.  That, however, raises the question of what an expert is.

As might be expected given its title, Carolyn Marvin's 1988 book "When Old Technologies Were New" considers the impact of, and response to, some of the technologies introduced during the Victorian era.  She draws on several articles from newspapers and magazines of the period.  One of her excerpts (from London Illustrated News, 10/07/1897) has a bearing on our July discussion on the invention of the fact.  The author of the article, which is about the "unskeptical presentation of the 'facts' of science", notes that "No work of information has given me the pleasure I derive from these weekly additions to knowledge.  Sometimes they surprise as well as delight me, for example: 'Kissing originated in England.'"

The book's first chapter is called "Inventing the Expert". Just as is the case with facts, it is surprising at first to think that experts were invented.  Arguably, expertise is something that evolved as cultures developed from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones.  However, someone with expertise is not necessarily an expert.

Until the 19th century, well-educated people could understand the principals of most available technologies, and could assess for themselves the competence of a specialist in that technology.  Using a passage from Electrical Review of 22/10/1887, Marvin illustrates how things began to go horribly wrong:  "Then there is the youth who has read as much as he could understand of an elementary textbook...This youth is the genius of the family...He must be an electrical engineer.  Taking advantage of the sudden demand for men with electrical knowledge, he manages to get a situation, being ready with his set phrases, in which volts, ohms and amperes are plentifully besprinkled.  We next find him in charge of a dynamo, and shortly after read the account of his death caused by shunting some of the current into his own body."

Professionals bodies had, for centuries, played a part in assessing the expertise of novices; but often this was to ensure that the profession retained its secrets.  As technologies became harder to grasp, secrecy for its own sake became less necessary.  Instead, the assessment (in the form of a professional qualification) helped to assure employers who did not understand the technology, that the possessor of the qualification was considered competent by people who did understand the technology.  In other words, experts became people whose pronouncements replaced the need for understanding.

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