Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Expertise is a prison

Most people would be happy with the idea that if you want an opinion it is best to talk to an expert. In most areas this idea is, of course, relatively modern because the areas of specialisation are themselves modern developments. But before the nineteenth century the idea of intellectual expertise hardly existed - it is only a slight exaggeration to say that people who fancied themselves as clever had opinions and wrote treatises on more or less any subject.

Where expertise existed in the past (for example expert shoemakers, expert bakers and so on) it was recognised most commonly among those with skills that were practical. It is tempting to see the origin of this view in the distinction between  'knowledge' and  'craft' that is found in early Greek philosophy which was hugely influential in western thought. But Aristotle (for example) made it clear that people who treat diseases need to have both knowledge and craft to be successful in medicine. The theory and the practice, if you want to put it another way, are both necessary and complementary.

In Tom Stoppard's play 'Dirty Linen' a member of parliament describes his colleagues as people with interests "either so generalized as to mimic wholesale ignorance or so particular as to be lunatic obsessions". The two groups are not so different. The problem with expertise is precisely that the lunatic obsessions are a form of gross ignorance. We have seen this work, with sometimes tragic consequences, where experts with an obsession are called upon to give evidence in difficult criminal trials.

As areas of expertise get ever narrower the probability that the expert has no views other than their own current hypotheses, and that you will not find anyone brave enough to gainsay them, both get dangerously high. Is this a problem? After all, aren't they likely to be right?

Aristotle has something very important to say about this. In Aristotle's view knowledge that is not purely practical can be claimed only of truths that are eternal, and we know that eternal truths are very rare. In the particular case of scientific investigation, every hypothesis must be assumed to be provisional until it is backed by generations of evidence. The opinions of experts are not, and in most cases cannot be, truths.

We expect too much of our experts; we expect them to be right. In recent times geologists have even been found guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict earthquakes. This is bonkers. Expertise is a prison if either you are dismissed as ignorant for stepping outside of it, or if you are tightly constrained by expectation within it. Neither is healthy for society, science, or government.