Matters of Concern and the Politics of Who: A Response to Herndl, Danielle DeVasto

SERRC —  July 11, 2016 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Danielle DeVasto, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,

DeVasto, Danielle. “Matters of Concern and the Politics of Who: A Response to Herndl.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): 14-17.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

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l'aquila - 38

Image credit: Gabriele Mainetti, via flickr

I am grateful to Carl Herndl for his generous and insightful commentary on my article, in which I propose an expertise of doing as a way of addressing long-standing problems of inclusion and expertise in science-policy decision making. A focus on doing, I argue, might be particularly useful when addressing matters of concern like the trial of the L’Aquila Seven, where six Italian scientists and one political official were convicted (and now partially acquitted) of manslaughter for failing to warn the public of an earthquake in 2009. Professor Herndl has offered me much to consider. 

A Seat at the Table?

One such consideration that his reply has prompted me to think more about is who should have had a seat at the CGR’s table. As I said in my original article, it was not my intention to level a value judgment about who should be included. And I am still slightly cautious about doing so for fear of going down the well-worn rabbit hole of what Mol calls the politics of who. But I am hoping that by considering more specifically who should or should not have been given a seat at the table, it will allow for a broader reflection on the nature of the case itself and the rationale underpinning different configurations of inclusion.

Though he may disagree with me, my sense is that Herndl might be suggesting in his response that Giuliani should have been included at the decision-making table—or at least listened to—because he was “right. They [the CGR experts] were wrong” (3). True, Giuliani’s prediction did come to pass, but he was, arguably, more lucky than he was right. Reliable earthquake prediction, especially at the level of precision that Giuliani was operating at, is widely acknowledged by the scientific community as not presently possible. Moreover, if a criterion for inclusion is rightness, it would seem to be more of a return to epistemic grounds and concerns, not ontological, practiced-based ones. If we look to see who is right and who is wrong, I worry that the doings that lead to that rightness or wrongness would be obscured. By describing the case’s primary question as a binary—“Is there going to be an earthquake or is there not?” – L’Aquila is framed as a matter of fact (3). And as a matter of fact, Giuliani may be allowed in but the people of L’Aquila are, necessarily, excluded and deemed to have no pertinent expertise.

Now, Herndl is certainly correct when he says that L’Aquila is not a wicked problem. But neither, I would argue, should it be construed as a matter of fact. Rather, as the ensuing trial and international uproar following the earthquake suggest, it can be understood as a matter of concern. A matter of concern exists when an unanticipated event that had been demarcated as a technical concern overflows or escapes those boundaries and extends into the public sphere. Though highly uncertain, a move to matters of concern does not mean forsaking facts or accepting relativism; instead, it puts facts in a larger context, a context in which they appear and are to be judged differently. Interpreting L’Aquila as a matter of concern authorizes certain responses or ways of handling the situation that are missed when it is treated as a matter of fact.

While I do not have the space to elaborate here, my colleagues and I (2016) present an argument that the deliberation in L’Aquila is not “mostly about epistemic issues rather than values” (Herndl 4). In short, we show that fact and value may not be neatly separated but can be in dynamic, often nested relationships within the flow of debate. We also argue that the CGR’s attempts to purify and treat the situation as a matter of fact, rather than as a matter of concern, resulted in the ensuing and lengthy post-quake conflict.

On Matters of Concern

It certainly is easier to deal with earthquakes as matters of fact than as matters of concern. The questions and answers are more clear cut—is there or isn’t there going to be an earthquake? Both the international press and the CGR chose to, at least initially, frame the case in such a manner. Additionally, a retrospective analysis such as the one I conducted in the original article allows for an answer to be given to this question, which could contribute to the case’s potential to appear “facty.” Because the event in question happened, right and wrong have been determined. But, I think the case is not quite as transparent as a matter of fact construal suggests. This looking backwards hides the messiness and uncertainty that was present in the decision-making moment.

If an expertise of doing were applied in a forward-facing situation (for example, at the time of the deliberations in L’Aquila), uncertainty would still be reigning. To be sure, the fault would eventually slip but when and to what degree would remain unknown. This kind of uncertainty is likely to remain as, unlike meteorology for example, seismology does not study repetitive events and patterns on a human scale against which to develop predictions of the future. Even more so, the geologic timescale ensures that the future is not particularly accessible. This is not to say that there is no benefit in retrospective analyses to help assess the decision making that occurred for better or for worse; rather, there seems to be a great need and value in identifying strategies and methods that will work in the kairotic moment. Particularly if the goal is to save lives, being able to assess issues of inclusion and expertise while in the depths of uncertainty, not just after the fact, seems to be key. The failure to do so in the case of L’Aquila emphasizes the challenge of determining relevant expertise in a timely manner in an ever changing context.

Herndl helpfully highlights that a case such as L’Aquila is categorically different from other cases that deal in uncertainty, such as environmental policy. Just as there are different kinds of doings, value and uncertainty are not flat terms either. These may be additional elements to consider if trying to develop normative action or principles of rarefaction. When dealing with questions of inclusion, Collins and Evans (2002) similarly note the need to distinguishing between types of science as well as types of expertise. In their schema, seismology would be classified as a historical science, in which the scientific input is uncertain and unlikely to become more so any time soon. It is too complicated to model the system in which seismologists are embedded accurately “and may even be impossible to predict accurately because of the working of chaotic processes” (268). For Collins and Evans, an environmental issue such as climate change is one step removed, classified as a reflexive historical science, where the potential for uncertainty is even greater because the long term outcomes are affected by humans.

Despite these differences, in the case of both earthquakes and climate change, the science is not certain and not likely to become certain soon. Consequently, Collins and Evans argue that in such instances political and social input should be given more importance in deliberation. So, if the L’Aquila case is approached as a matter of concern that deals with uncertain scientific input, I think an argument can be made for the inclusion (and more direct representation) of the Aquilani at the table. Here, too, Giuliani, as a member of the public sphere may have grounds for inclusion.

But I think the reasons to include the Aquilani might be more than that. In addition to being members of the public, the residents of L’Aquila also have an embodied expertise that is rooted in their doings and practices. As theories of embodiment stress, location, space, and materiality matter. In the context of expertise, this is clearly demonstrated in works such as Brian Wynne’s (1989) now-canonical exploration of the Cumbrian sheep farmers or Beverly Sauer’s (2002) analysis of risk, mine safety, and the embodied expertise of miners. Similarly, but with an ontological twist, Teston et al.’s study of the FDA’s Avastin hearing suggests that inclusion “should be decided upon participants’ experiences based in practices. Such an eligibility requirement surfaces the legitimacy of experiences had by more than those who run randomized clinical trials” (166). In short, they recognize the lived experiences of patients (and other public voices). Like the Avastin cancer patients, the residents of L’Aquila have an embodied experience of their “disease.”


As I demonstrated in my original article, the experience of seismic activity is personal, but it is also cultural, passed down and refined through the generations. I would agree with both Herndl and Collins and Evans that not all experience can be used to claim an experience-based expertise. According to Collins and Evans, for experience to be linked to a claim for expertise, it cannot be something that “anyone could master…immediately without practice,” and it should not be on the fringe or discontinuous with the core-set’s expertise (251). Applying these conditions to the case, the Aquilani’s experiences living with earthquakes and seismic risk fit both criteria while Giuliani becomes excluded by the fringe status of his methods. Maybe we shouldn’t call what the residents of L’Aquila have and do expertise. But it is something to be recognized and, especially in the context of a matter of concern, would be valuable to have at the table.

Again, I want to offer my most sincere thanks to Carl Herndl for engaging with my ideas and deploying his experience and expertise to further refine them. While I may not have answered them, I find his many open questions encouraging and indicative of the productive opportunities at the intersection of practice and expertise—for decision making, matters of concern, and rhetoricians alike.


Collins, Harry and Robert Evans. “Third Wave of Science Studies: Studies of Expertise and Experience.” Social Studies of Science 32, no. 2 (2002): 235-96.

DeVasto, Danielle. “Being Expert: L’Aquila and Issues of Inclusion in Science-Policy Decision Making.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 372-97.

DeVasto, Danielle, S. Scott Graham, and Louise Zamparutti. “Stasis and Matters of Concern: The Conviction of the L’Aquila Seven.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 30, no. 2 (2016): 131-164.

Herndl, Carl G. “Doing and Knowing in the L’Aquila Case.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 6 (2016): 1-6.

Sauer, Beverly. The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Teston, Christa B., S. Scott Graham, Raquel Baldwinson, Andria Li, and Jessamyn Swift.“Public Voices in Pharmaceutical Deliberations: Negotiating ‘Clinical Benefit’ in the FDA’s Avastin Hearing.” Journal of Medical Humanities 35 (2014): 149-170.

Wynne, Brian. “Sheep Farming After Chernobyl: A Case Study in Communicating Scientific Information.” Environment 31, no. 2 (1989): 10-39.

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  1. Expertise as Practice: A Response to DeVasto, Zoltan Majdik « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective - November 3, 2016

    […] Danielle. “Matters of Concern and the Politics of Who: A Response to Herndl.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 5, no. 7 (2016): […]

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