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Katie van Schaijik

The rising cult of experts

Sep. 12, 2009, at 6:26am

Here is an excellent and thought-provoking article (hat tip Arts and Letters Daily) in The Australian warning about the growing sway of “expertise” with its tendencies toward social manipulation and ultimately tyranny.

All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.

The author ties the growing reliance on “expertise” (which he traces to the industrial revolution and the development of the social sciences) to the decline of traditional (and superior) forms of deference:

The prerequisite for the rise of the expert was the erosion of traditional authority. The diminishing salience of custom and traditional truths created a demand for guidance and advice. The demand for experts was fostered by a cultural climate where little could be taken for granted and where people lacked the intellectual resources to make sense of the world. At a time when Western society was confronted with a crisis of causality the public was ready to embrace those who claimed the authority of scientific truth..

Note the striking contrast this with Newman’s view of the true aim of education, as expressed, for instance, in this chapter of The Idea of a University. It is not expertise, but wisdom and judgment, learned not only through books and instruction, but through the personal influence of excellent teachers, through the dialog with other minds, and the traditions of the place…

We have lost this sense in our society. We conflate “reason and objectivity” with science and expertise and consider forcing the policy conclusions on the public as almost synonymous with good governance. Just this week the highly regarded New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, openly envied China, where a “relatively enlightened” elite has the power to “get things done” without having to go through the messy and protracted democratic process of winning the consent of the people. And more and more of the political, academic and media elite tend to agree with him.

Nor is this limited to large questions of public concern. Here’s more of the article:

THROUGH extending the idea of complexity to the domain of personal and informal relationship, the authority of expertise has sought to colonise the private sphere. One of the characteristic features of modern times is that the decline of taken for granted ways of doing things has encouraged the perception that individuals are not able to manage important aspects of their life without professional guidance. Frequently the conduct of routine forms of social interaction are represented as difficult and complicated, which is why child-rearing can be treated as a science and why we often talk about parenting skills, social skills, communication skills and relationship skills. The belief that the conduct of everyday encounters requires special skills has created an opportunity for the expert to colonise the realm of personal relations.

We must find ways of reversing the trend.


Scott Johnston • Oct 6, 2009 - 1:47 am

Coming in a little late here. . .

I totally agree Katie. Here is one more obvious example of this. . . I tend to think that the more ancient, mysterious, intuitive sense of something like a “priest”—which of course has been baptized and transformed by the New Covenant priesthood—has been replaced in the imagination of the post-modern Western world by experts, especially scientists. They are the new priests. So, loss of faith and secularization plays some role here, perhaps. An authentic priest is an expert of sorts, but not in the same way. He does not control or master his subject even as he grows in holiness and wisdom. And his flock is aware of this.

More broadly speaking, the domination of experts, I think, has a lot to do with plain old pride. The more that pride rears its ugly head and is tolerated—even embraced—in our culture, it is inevitable that more and more people will think themselves (or others like them) worthy of forcing their views upon others, since they are so expert and just know that they know better.

How often, today, does the phrase “you need professional help” replace what 75 years ago would have been: “you need to talk to grandma”?

I tend to see materialism (whether explicit or simply practical) also as having a role (which in turn is linked to a decline in vigorous faith). If man himself is only a material being, then mastery of the universe is equatable with mastery over matter—including of the human person. And so, those who excel in science and technology and other things that operate (or presume to) in a material sphere become the height of attainable knowledge. And “wisdom” collapses into mere techno-scientific expertise, as there is no longer an understanding of the human person has having a telos that is spiritual and that transcends this life.

So, the formula for a remedy? It would focus on faith, humility, and piety. And for education, fostering a Newmanian view of education.

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