Tuesday 5 July 2016

The problem with experts

The referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union is sometimes perceived as a revolt against experts and the political elite. In an interview, one of the lead campaigners for Brexit, Michael Gove, dismissed economists by pointing out they did not predict the economic crisis of 2008 and hence had a bad record of success.

Whilst some of the unease ordinary people have with experts overlaps with their disquiet about political classes, the problem with experts has additional dimensions that are mainly a product of our dependence on them. There is hardly any area of life where we do not gratefully and dutifully submit to the recommendations of experts, be it medicine or plumbing. Yet, at the same time, we also resent and relentlessly question the basis of their authority.

At the core of the argument against experts stands doubt about the source of their knowledge, expertise. In a world where everything is available at a click of a button on Wikipedia, expertise is seen as little more than accumulated and stored wisdom about how to do something, which is practical knowledge. What is unacknowledged in this view of the sources of authority is the fact that practical knowledge sits on a mountain of theoretical knowledge, which developed through formulating and testing models of how best to do something. This theoretical foundation is however constantly shifting ground, which in turn requires careful assessment and recalibration of opinions within a community of practitioners, be they plumbers or dentists. It is this dynamic nature of expertise that people feel uncomfortable with, as opposed the desired stability and certainty.

In a sense, the refusal to recognise the dynamic nature of expertise is a reflection of our impatience with knowledge production. As the referendum demonstrated, people wanted to know 'the facts' in a world where facts are socially constructed and constantly challenged. The hope that experts could pronounce authoritatively on the legitimacy or truth of those 'facts' will always remain just that. It mirrors the disenchantment of many people with political strife: the demand that politicians just find common ground and agree on something that can then be implemented. That view neglects the critical role of strife and argument in knowledge production as well as politics. To argue about something is to strengthen the foundation of whatever might ultimately emerge as the best way forward.

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