The Tyranny of Experts (part I) – the Limits of Expertise

Written by admin on December 5th, 2010

“An expert! An expert! My kingdom for an expert who will prove me right!”

No, King Richard wanted a horse. But today’s public and political warriors need something more modern than horses to run rough-shod over their opponents. They need experts.

Experts are quite useful people to have on retainer, or to be able to pull up from Wikipedia on demand. It’s even more useful to be an expert yourself. You can play on your expertise far beyond your field of useful knowledge – just ask Dr. Laura, or Al Gore.

Expertise is extremely valuable, necessary even, in a wide range of human endeavors. Want to build a better microprocessor? Hire yourself a fleet of electrical and computer engineers. Want to pay the taxes you owe and not a penny more? Hire an accountant. Want to understand the ways hegemonic imperial state power has shaped the discourses of post-colonial nations? Hire an assistant professor of non-western English literatures… please?

We need experts to accomplish many of our great goals. To gather, sift and organize new knowledge; to apply basic research in order to engineer new possibilities; to better understand the physical and human worlds we live in. Experts are well trained in narrow specialties that enable them to do original, creative things. Expertise is often accompanied by experience, commitment and dedication.

But there are limits to the utility of experts. Experts can be banal. Experts can be elitist and authoritarian. Experts can be bought. Experts can be highly biased and ideological. Experts can be as foolish and fallible as anyone else. Experts can bludgeon dissent and frighten lay people into obedience. Experts and expertise can be a two-edged sword, particularly in the realm of civil society. We need experts for many things, but we cannot surrender to experts our opportunities – our responsibilities – to engage the world as intelligent, passionate, informed citizens. Indeed, we must break off the tyranny of experts and actively strive to save our corners of the world one idea at a time.

Tyranny of Experts

Experts cultivate authority. Their degrees, their awards, their publications, their experience all demonstrate and elevate their authority. We listen to them and trust them and pay them because they speak authoritatively about things we are not sure of ourselves. But the authority of experts can extend further. Expertise can be a club to bludgeon dissent; it can be a shield against criticism; it can be a muzzle to silence debate and create apathy. In addition, experts are often far from objective. To the contrary they are often highly ideological. Undue deference to experts can lead to a kind of tyranny. Sometimes experts indeed know things we do not. But in cases of civil society, there is little they know that you do not; and in no case ought they to replace your participation in public debate.

Experts hold strong ideological positions. They are not objective, and few would claim to be if you asked them. If an expert asserts objectivity, they are probably using their authority to try to convince you of a powerful piece of ideology. Experts are often ideological precisely because they are experts. Why would you dedicate 3 or 5 or 8 years gaining a doctoral degree on some narrow field or issue if you were not passionate about it to begin with? It often is not for the money, because there are easier ways to make a buck. It is because they care a great deal. They cared when they started their training, and their subsequent research, practice and experience make them more passionately dedicated. But sometimes experts used their expert status to shield their ideology. When the distinguished professor of biophysics stands before you and speaks passionately about the influence of greenhouse gasses on ocean temperatures, remember that she cared deeply about environmentalism long before she began graduate school; and all of her degrees, federal research grants, field studies and teaching seminars have strengthened that ideological resolve. None of that makes her assertions necessarily false; it just recognizes her ideological position.

Experts are also usually terribly stubborn and uncompromising. Science and academia value flexibility, tolerance, and the willingness to alter conclusions upon seeing new data. But experts know a lot of stuff. Their worldviews are complex, sophisticated, and mature. And, as noted above, they are passionate believers in their philosophical and ideological systems. They are unfamiliar with changing their minds, and they are unwilling to bend without much convincing. These people are not sophomores discovering themselves and their world anew. These are doctors who have it figured out. This is why debates over minute disagreements between experts within a field can be so acrimonious.

Experts surround themselves with symbols of authority. When challenged, they sometimes make the mistake of shielding themselves behind expertise or office, rather and engaging in discussion or debate. In our modern egalitarian world, few people understand hierarchy better than experts. The assistant professor challenges the chair or dean at her peril. The lawyer does not attack the judge. If the Senate staff member attacks a Cabinet member, he had better do it with an anonymous leak. Similarly, in the authoritarian space of a classroom, many students learn the very unfortunate lesson that some professors will not abide being challenged or questioned by an undergraduate student. Everyone who has played the card game ‘war’ knows that a queen beats a deuce. The most natural response to criticism is to question the credentials, publications, experience or office of the critic. An expert’s critics are not good scientists; they are outside the scientific consensus; they have not seen the evidence or the classified documents; they do not understand the theory. What then follows is often an incomprehensible, jargon laden defense of their position meant to subdue the poor sophomore who dared cross the doctor’s path. In this manner, expertise is used to limit discussion and dissent. It serves to make non-experts insecure, silent, obedient and eventually apathetic.

The Limits of Experts and Expertise

What the plethora of authoritative experts around us conceals is that there are some very important things that experts cannot and should not do. There are some basic limits to expertise. First, experts are often banal or obvious. Did you really need an expert with a federal grant to tell you that children find Rembrandt or Bach beautiful? What would you do without the expert who tells you that lack of sleep makes driving more dangerous? How many different committees need to reshape the food pyramid? – and they still cannot agree on what your mother knew very well: ‘Eat your vegetables and then go out and play!’ Clearly not all expert conclusions are obvious. But many an expensive lab has been funded to discover and document the obvious. Second and more troubling, experts are often used to substantiate, as truths, claims that are highly contested. Expert says, ‘zero tolerance enforcement leads to lower crime rate.’ Well you may or not agree with that assertion. And it does not make one bit of difference which experts assert it. It is a contested conclusion. In both cases, whether the expert’s conclusions are banal or completely contested, they do not change our view of the world.

Next, expertise, by its very nature is limiting. Experts devote themselves to something specific and narrow. You cannot possibly be an expert of very much. That does not stop some experts from asserting that they can speak authoritatively about whatever they want. But they are actually only experts of a narrow field. Civil society requires that all people – whether they are experts of some narrow thing or not – engage a broad array of issues. I happen to be an expert of a narrow historical field. But I believe passionately that we all ought to be engaged and speak and be heard across the full array of issues that shape our particular worlds. When I strive to engage in public debates on social or political or ideological issues, no one need care what degrees I have. I speak as a person engaged in civil discourse. The broad field of civil society should not be tilted in favor of experts with degrees, titles, offices or narrow expertise.

Most importantly, expertise and degrees do not confer wisdom, ethics, responsibility, morality or philanthropy. Experts are human – just like you. Experts can be proud, elitist and condescending. As noted above, they can resort to ad hominem attacks when challenged. They are often biased. Fundamentally, their expertise does not give them the hidden answers to difficult problems regarding where society ought to place its priorities, or how tax dollars should be spent, or for whom you should vote. Their positions are as likely to be foolish, muddled, irresponsible or selfish as anyone else’s. Their ideas, ideals or ideological positions may be compelling, useful, effective, and even visionary. But their status as an expert has no influence on any of that. Within the context of civil society, judge them by quality of their ideas – no more; no less.

There are also some very basic things that experts cannot do. 1 – Experts cannot predict the future. They just can’t. An expert who claims to predict the future, whether he or she is a biologist, an economist or a historian, is a charlatan. 2 – Experts cannot direct your principled, moral decisions on public policy issues. You, as a citizen of your community and nation bear that responsibility alone. 3 – Experts cannot and never will form the substance and character of civil

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