On the topic of experts, masters and self-knowledge – part 1
Today I would like to talk about a topic that has been a constant in my life. Very likely it is a topic in most people’s lives maybe on a daily basis. This will be a series of posts, hope you enjoy them.
What is an expert? What makes one a master? Is there room for self-knowledge? How do we interact with these areas how has it changed over the years?
Me and Lisa, and increasingly among our growing circle of friends, have this conversation on a regular basis. I’m sure we’ll continue to have it for the rest of our lives and that makes it worth dedicating time to getting my head around it and, more importantly, testing my points of view, ways of thinking, seeing and communicating about it.
So, onto the article that made me sit up and say ‘I think I will tackle this today’. It was shared on Facebook by a couple of people that I follow because I believe I have a lot that I can learn from them, plus they are cool artists. On this particular instance I think it might be safe to say that we reacted to the article in different ways. The full article can be found at: The Death Of Expertise. As always you read the comments at your own peril, but I find that if you are careful with your time and energy you can usually spot one or two comments that make you think and see the article in a new way. Avoid if you are easily driven to opinionated anger.
The article itself is long but I did want to address as ma get really long. So to be fair to both the author of the article and myself, first go read the whole thing and then come back but keep the article handy. That way you can easily have a reread to keep things in context.
“I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.”
From my point of view this sets the tone for the rest of the article and it probably all hinges on his use of the word ‘expect’. In contrast Al Kavadlo (one of my favourite fitness experts) posted: “Don’t listen to me because someone else considers me to be an expert or some type of authority figure. Only do what makes sense to you.” Al’s attitude to an area in which he has vast expertise and a love for, makes me want to learn from him. He also makes me feel like it’s ok to not agree with everything he says and indeed to discuss and question what he says.
One definition of ‘expert’ is: “A person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority”. However, this ignores bias. History, life experience and intention, all contribute to what you have to bring to the table. This might be one reason why there exist many different definitions. The author says:
“I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. […] The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself.”
He goes on to say that there have been great things as well as bad things that have come from ‘western science’. But it’s a side note, I feel, and you are not meant to question neither what he uses as examples nor the fact that it is a huge broad stroke of a judgmental and very value-laden brush. It implies that if you are using the net to learn and inform your research and knowledge, you are already failing to be critical in how you approach it and, therefore, any gains you get from it are negated before you even got started. It sweeps aside any of the documented problems publishing, educational and scientific systems have always had in trying to remain valuable, fact fueled and free from political and ideological tampering. The fact that we need these systems should be undeniable but to suggest that we should trust them and its experts implicitly while those very real problems continue to exist, is where the real danger lies, in my humble opinion at least.
With the following 2 sections of the article, “How conversation became exhausting” and “The downside of no gatekeepers”, I struggled to pull just only a few lines to quote because I felt there was an underlying narrative which I was struggling to pin point. After pacing back and forth and rereading them, I feel the narrative boils down to this: ‘If you are not well informed and educated to the standards which I deem necessary, allowing us to converse at an equal level, then your mere existence is not a good enough reason for you to be involved in this discussion. Particularly if you have a glass jaw and a fragile ego to boot!’
I think what the author is attempting to address is a fascinating shift of reality. The internet offers many, many new opportunities and one of the most powerful ones is the real possibility to be heard. Hopefully that means that someone, however briefly or rarely, might also listen to you. And that means you have the power to affect, in a very real sense, the world that constantly affects you. But this reality does not automatically give us an understanding of how best to use it and how to act responsibly or critically, only time will give us that expertise.
The disconnect the author has from this shift, where we went from being at the mercy of experts to being able to share our opinions and create change on world wide scale is evident in the many throw away lines peppered through the article. Lines about universities and the proper educational model they should have, the kind of letters that should be allowed to make it to the relevant pages in magazines and newspapers, the fail proof reliability of peer reviewed articles. The kind of lines you are meant to read, nod your head in agreement at the sheer factual righteousness of their existence and move on.
The one that got my attention was the one about how “There was once a time when presidents would win elections and then scour universities and think-tanks for a brain trust; that’s how Henry Kissinger [..] ended up in government service […].” Henry is one of those guys that you should know a little about and I may even have mentioned him in a previous post. He won a Nobel Peace Prize. He’s also known as the Butcher of Cambodia, or one of them.
As an exercise in realising what we might be dismissing when we blindly accept such throw away lines, allow me to entertain you with a little scenario. Let’s say you happen to be one of these less than educated, political pugilists of the interwebs forums and you are taking a well earned vacation holiday from all your hard work. Now it just so happens that despite the fact that you “can’t name [your] own member of the House” and you struggle with geography, you’ve always wanted to travel, love the great outdoors and have heard really great things about Angkor Wat. So you head to Cambodia and have an amazing time visiting those ancient ruins and decide that you may even want to buy a holiday house, on the outskirts of some village that is close to some part of the jungle. Full of energy and excitement, and with thoughts about all the times you’ve trekked back in Nevada, you head off to explore, by yourself, what will be your future ‘backyard’. A couple of hours into it and off of any trail that was clearly in use, you step on a mine and have your legs blown off, like so many locals to this day. A little leftover present from Henry and all the other experts that used those less powerful and educated than them, in one of the many wars in that region.
That is nothing but a silly little scenario (that is all too real and possible if you ignore the warnings while trekking in Cambodia) but hopefully it underscores something: people want to be heard because actions by those in power have real and irreversible consequences, more often than not felt by those with far less agency or expertise. The net gives us this power and we are currently figuring out how best to use it and what that means for all of us. And this isn’t just about mines, it could be about toilets, or rights to protest, or being able to wear what you want without fearing for your life. Of course we want to have our say and be heard.
Back to the article and we are being told that ‘human nature’, in all its myriad of possibilities and intricacies, debated back and forth for thousands of years by philosophers of every stature, is nothing but “the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb.” I have to be honest, I’m not impressed by that simple definition of human nature and I like to think that neither would any philosopher worth their salt. In my limited experience, experts are just as likely to dig their heels in and put their blinders on, as most other people. Especially when there is ego involved. It also tends to lead them to share their opinions outside of their field of expertise, which frankly, puts them smack in the middle of that group of people the author is railing against.
What does all of this say about our current state of society? “All of these are symptoms of the same disease: a manic reinterpretation of ‘democracy’ in which everyone must have their say, and no one must be ‘disrespected.’” I actually thought that was what a democracy was meant to be but I’m no expert. So, apropos of nothing, I looked it up on Wikipedia: “According to political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy – literally “rule of the commoners” – consists of four key elements: (a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; (b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; (c) Protection of the human rights of all citizens, and (d) A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.” Maybe the author misspelt aristocracy?
Every so often, however, I would find myself agreeing with the author: “Indeed, in an ideal world, experts are the servants, not the masters, of a democracy.” Could not have said it better myself. “But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.” This is also only applicable to that totally unrealistic ideal world he mentioned, where everyone has equal access and time to the same level of free education, I am assuming.
He finishes up by giving some guidelines on how to be a proper expert. There is an inkling of usefulness in there, you should go read them.
The main reason why I decided to finally tackle this topic is mainly this: I feel that the time for gurus, of any kind, is well and truly over. And that is a wonderful thing. While going through school, uni, TAFE, Yoga Teacher Accreditation, while being an artist, a swimming teacher, a traveller, a barista, a patient, a citizen, a son, a brother, a husband, a friend… living as a human being I’ve met my fair share of experts, both good and terrible, and they do have a common thread: they don’t like being questioned or critiqued. Some take it quite well and in their stride, to their well deserved credit, but it still grates. Trust me, I’ve been one! 🙂
I find that once you have this attitude in your head of being an expert at something, it changes you and makes it harder for you to remain flexible, in terms of how you view yourself, others and the world. I think there is plenty of room for self-awareness and confidence about exactly how much you do know and have to offer about a particular topic but I would suggest taking a few moments to step back and reflect if you find yourself thinking and uttering: “trust me, I’m an expert”!
I hope that was, at the very least, an interesting read. You are invited to return for parts 2 and 3! 😀