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How experts became an unchallenged authority

Published on 31 May 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

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.

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As I was walking along the river I saw this ad for group or individual courses in “Nordic walking” – for a fee, of course. An “expert” is trying to make a living by teaching people how to “Nordic walk”. For anyone ignorant of what “Nordic walking” is all about, let me explain. A company producing poles for cross-country skiing (Nordic skiing) found a way to unload the excess stock during summer time by inventing “Nordic walking”. It is walking as before – but by holding a ski-pole in each hand and swinging both for balance,after appropriate “training” one is supposed to “move 500 muscles” and no, it does not change your IQ or improve your charm directly, but it is supposed to make you much, much! fitter. It’s a “feel fit” activity for people without a fit life-style. How fitting! Tic, tic, tic – the tip of the poles hurriedly hitting the pavement – people “Nordic Walking” in the street surrounding my garden. I hear this fleeting sound often enough when I’m pulling out weeds on my knees. To me, in a paved suburban setting, it looks like affectation, but of course – it’s all jaundiced prejudice. Experiment is a deliberate way to gain experience – it should be a welcome addition to our kit of tools for understanding reality. One of experiments’ main functions is to verify – to sort the wheat from the chaff. In our enthusiasm for the newly found toy we tended to act like children – and discarded all other ways of learning. “Nothing but the best” was the mantra, and all other ways were declared obsolete. Less generous souls may argue that it was a process of appropriation: the “expert” first squeezed experience out of artisans, and then squeezed them out altogether[1]. 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[2]. 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.

[1] The emergence of the “expert” caste was often violent, deceitful, and totalitarian in intent – hence the emergence of “professional” guilds to replace crafts. See: Clifford D. CONNER (2005): A people’s history of science. Miners, midwives, and “low mechanicks”. Nation Books, New York
[2] See: Eric SCHLOSSER (2002): Fast food nation. The dark side of the All-American meal. HarperCollins, New York. (p. 236)

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