Cult of the expert, ramped

From Salvo:

Experts, Shmexperts

Critical thinking begins with examining exactly what is being said and by what authority. Let’s start with the question of authority. In Shmexperts: How Ideology and Power Politics Are Disguised as Science, Marc Fitch addresses what he calls “the modern myth of experts.” He begins by defining “experts” for his specific purpose. (Personally I like “shmexperts” better, but I will go with his terminology for now.) First, an expert is not the working professional informed by relevant experience and skill—the man or woman “whose motivation in their work is to produce a result: an actual, testable piece of hardware or a theory that can be proven empirically.” A professional whose product is subject to external standards in this way is not what Fitch is talking about. Second, he’s not necessarily referring to intellectuals—those who make their living in the realm of ideas, although the lines between intellectuals and experts are apt to get blurred.

Experts, for Fitch’s treatment, are primarily defined by their transgression of the boundaries inherent to their fields of expertise. For example, a cell biologist may have a perfectly good, morally sound opinion on the social advisability of religion-based models of childrearing. Or he may be a cold-blooded moral monster. The point is, knowledge in the realm of science does not make him a credible authority in the realm of values. This should not need pointing out, but apparently it does. Whenever anyone makes statements about non-material realms of thought, or pushes a moral argument, under the banner of science, then the science is not being used in its proper context. It is being coopted to advance an agenda.

When expert “authorities” advance an agenda this way, they are “avoiding an ethical, moral, or political argument,” Fitch points out…

Reality check: The avoidance is not accidental but intentional.

A proper expert in a field cannot avoid acknowledged issues without appearing incompetent. But if he is grafting his claims about unrelated matters onto his standing in a cool field, and gains a wide following through mass media, he can get away with it indefinitely. Usually on a scandal, often unrelated, takes him down.

See also: Memo to Dallas Morning News: Citizens are the new Fourth Estate. Look out.

  • In the future we will all be experts for 15 minutes.

  • Tom Quiggin

    Interesting article. An expert is, by definition, some who is good at retrospective coherence. In other words, the ability to connect the dots looking backwards through an event or series of events. Unfortunately, we expect “experts” to be able to foresee future outcomes, which is an entirely different skill set. Hence most of the problems. Do not confuse “expert” with the talking heads you see on CBC/CNN etc etc

  • Norman_In_New_York

    “An expert is someone who is afraid of anything new, because then he wouldn’t be an expert anymore.” – President Harry Truman

  • simus1

    Mark Twain defined an expert as “an ordinary fellow from another town”

    Will Rogers described an expert as “A man fifty miles from home with a briefcase.”

    Danish scientist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr defined an expert as “A person that has made every possible mistake within his or her field.”

    Malcolm Gladwell describes expertise as a matter of practicing the correct way for a total of around 10,000 hours.