How experts became an unchallenged authority
Updated on 11 April 2023
Knowledge used to come from trial and error – experience. Logically, whoever had been at it the longest had the best chance to “know best”. Indeed, father – and mother – knew best. Growing up one trusted them unconditionally, as we trusted all “legitimate” authority that transmitted wisdom through the ages. And then it all changed. Enlightenment introduced “experiment” and this new method of knowledge acquisition tended to supplant experience. Since then, the “expert knows best”. This has consequences.. The expert became the new and unchallenged “authority” – a monopolist. From “father knows best” our mood has swung to “father knows nothing”. Expertise has replaced tradition – we’ve killed the “father” as a source of knowledge. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and indeed, professionalization has lifted billions out of abject poverty, and helped us lead a healthier and comfortable life. As Zhou Enlai said about the French Revolution: “Too early to tell”. By replacing the homely “father” with the distant “expert” from “actors” in life we became “consumers” – helplessly dependent on prior expert knowledge. Everyone is telling us – in the name of expertise – what best to do for life’s enjoyment. By putting himself between us and experience the expert has become the mediator and intermediary. Experience no longer is spontaneous and im-mediate. We no longer trust ourselves as parents, educators, citizens. “Leave it the experts” – is the mantra – and we trust them implicitly. This implicit belittling of our innate capacities leaves us timid, and hamstrung. Rather than confronting a challenge, we devolve it. We are poorer for it – psychologically before it even is financially, for the monopolist will extract a hefty rent. Worryingly, after we have devolved our capacity to learn, we discover that “experts” are highly overrated. Knowledge abour predictable change is of little use when confronting the unpredictable. This also applies to our place of work, by the way. In the US “zero training” is the ultimate goal of a production process. So much knowledge is embedded in machines that the worker no longer need to learn – he can be put to operate the machine at once, and discarded at will. We no longer feel, and we no longer are – autonomous. We need experts to teach us how to “walk”. Which reminds of the joke of the centipede: wanting to kill the centipede his enemy asked him: “How do you move all your feet without falling all over yourself?” The centipede starved as he reflected. This is no call for romantic autarchy à la Thoreau. We are a species that evolves culturally. Culture is learning grounded in immediate experience and nowadays in deliberate experiment as well. By making learning an “elite” activity we are cutting ourselves off from one of our evolutionary strengths – human diversity. We do so at our peril: any narrow base is a dangerous one. It has not gone unnoticed that this ever-increasing cleavage between knowledge “producer” and “consumer” facilitates the appropriation of wealth by those who, by social convention, hold property rights to the process of knowledge acquisition.