The tyranny of expertise

Experts now shut debate down rather than providing Enlightenment.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Science & Tech

One of the most influential contemporary cultural myths is that our era is characterised by the end of deference.

Commentators interpret the declining influence of traditional authority and institutions as proof that people have become less deferential and possess more critical attitudes than in the past. However, it is less frequently noted that deference to traditional authority has given way to the reverence of expertise.

Western culture assumes that a responsible individual will defer to the opinion of an expert. Politicians frequently remind us that their policies are ‘evidence based’, which usually means informed by expert advice. Experts have the last word on topics of public interest and increasingly on matters to do with people’s private affairs. We are advised to seek, and pay heed to, the advice of a bewildering chorus of personal experts – parenting specialists, life coaches, relationship gurus, super-nannies and sex therapists, to name a few – who apparently possess the authority to tell us how to live our lives.

The exhortation to defer to experts is underpinned by the premise that their specialist knowledge entitles them to a higher moral status than the rest of us. For example, Ken Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions in Britain, pushed for the right to use expert witnesses to help boost the low conviction-rate in rape trials. Joan Ryan, a junior Home Office minister at the time, backed him, arguing that expert evidence in court could ‘address myths about rape and its victims’. The assumption seems to be that ordinary jurors lack the intelligence to grasp how rapists and their victims behave, which is why courts need the expert psychologist to put them right.

In previous times, pronouncements about who was evil or who had sinned were the prerogative of the priest. With the end of deference to the church, such mystical powers have become associated with the authority of the professional expert witness. The call for ordinary jurors to ignore their intuition and subjugate themselves to the superior insight of the expert is seldom characterised as what it really is, a new form of non-traditional deference. According to this perspective, the prejudices and myths of ordinary jurors need to be overcome through the intervention of the enlightened views of the expert.

It is necessary to state at the outset that any civilised twenty-first-century society is likely to take expertise seriously. The efficient functioning of such a society depends, to a significant extent, on the quality of contribution made by its experts. Anyone who is ill or confronted with a technical problem will turn to an expert.

The problem is not the status of the expert, but its politicisation. 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.

From time to time experts also use their authority to silence opponents and close down discussion. For example, those who argue that the debate on climate change is finished claim the authority of scientific expertise. That was how former British environment minister David Miliband justified his 2007 statement that ‘the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’. The impulse to close down debate is also evident in the attacks on Australian geologist Ian Plimer for raising questions about the prevailing consensus on climate change in his book Heaven and Earth. Plimer, it was pointed out with some finality, was not a climate change expert.

The cultural affirmation accorded to the authority of expertise originates in the nineteenth century. Historically, ‘expert’ referred to someone having experience. ‘Tho that bene expert in love’, wrote Chaucer in the late fourteenth century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an expert was ‘trained by experience or practice’ and was ‘skilled’ or ‘skilful’. Although the term was often associated with a skill, it could also refer to personal qualities. So an eighteenth-century monarch could be described as ‘expert both in the arts of peace and war’.

This general representation of expertise would soon give way to one that carried the connotation of possessing specialist knowledge or technical skill. The contemporary definition of an expert as ‘one whose specialist knowledge or skill causes him to be regarded as an authority’ is directly associated with the role of the specialist and specialisation. As sociologist Michael Schudson observed in Theory and Society magazine in 2006, ‘an expert is someone in possession of specialised knowledge that is accepted by the wider society as legitimate. This knowledge includes specific, technical skill based on some wider appreciation of the field of knowledge in question’.

The ascendancy of the expert was inextricably linked to the crisis of traditional authority in nineteenth-century Europe. Since the Enlightenment, the important questions facing the world have been subjected to the power of reasoning. It was no longer sufficient to appeal to the authority of the past. Political theorist Hannah Arendt puts matters most starkly in Between Past and Future, first published in 1954, when she declares that ‘authority has vanished’.

However, the vanishing of tradition was an invitation to the reconstitution of authority in a new form. In an era of scientific and technological progress the project of reconstituting authority was drawn inevitably towards the status enjoyed by technical expertise and specialised knowledge. Unlike traditional authority, which touched on every dimension of the human experience, the authority of the expert was confined to that which could be exercised through reason.

As legal philosopher Joseph Raz writes in Authority (1990), the ‘authority of the expert can be called theoretical authority, for it is an authority about what to believe’. Raz observes that unlike political authority, which ‘provides reason for action’, theoretical authority ‘provides reason for belief’.

However, while it is valid to draw a conceptual distinction between these two forms of authority, historical experience suggests that expertise becomes politicised easily. With the passing of time the distinction between these two forms of authority becomes blurred. Moreover the fragility of political authority encourages a process whereby politicians outsource their power to experts. As social scientist Stephen Hilgartner writes, ‘governments find expert advice to be an indispensable resource for formulating and justifying policy and, more subtly, for removing some issues from the political domain by transforming them into technical questions’.

Political scientist Terence Ball suggests that the potential for the politicisation of expertise can be understood through understanding the distinction between epistemic and epistemocratic authority. Epistemic authority is ‘that which is ascribed to the possessor of specialised knowledge, skills, or expertise’. For example, this form of authority works through deference to doctors on medical matters and lawyers on legal affairs. Epistemocratic authority, ‘by contrast, refers to the claim of one class, group or person to rule another by virtue of the former’s possessing specialised authority not available to the latter’.

Ball argues that: ‘epistemocractic authority is therefore conceptually parasitic upon epistemic authority. Or, to put it slightly differently, epistemocratic authority attempts to assimilate political authority to the non-political epistemic authority of the technician or expert.’

Ball claims that the conceptual distinction between political rule and expert authority in modern society becomes ‘blurred if not meaningless’. In effect, the epistemocratic imperative extends the claim of expertise to the domain of political and public life. It assimilates moral and political issues to ‘the paradigm of epistemic authority’ and asserts that ‘politics and ethics are activities in which there are experts’. The influence exercised by epistemocratic authority today is shown by the constant slippage between scientific advice and moral and political exhortation on issues as different as global warming and child rearing.

In the nineteenth century, the epistemocratic ideal was endorsed explicitly by positivist thinkers such as Saint-Simon and Comte. Not only did they assert the primacy of technocratic authority, they insisted on obedience to it. Although such an explicit endorsement of a technocratic authority is rarely expressed today, its anti-democratic impulse continues to play a powerful role. The influence of managerial and technocratic ideals on public life indicates that the epistemocratic ideal is one, as Ball puts it, ‘to which political reality in some respects increasingly corresponds’.

The status of experts requires that their knowledge and skill is recognised as authoritative by the public. As historian Thomas Haskell points out, by the mid-nineteenth century, the man of science gave way to the scientist, representing a shift from gentlemanly vocation to profession. Haskell’s book, The Emergence of Professional Social Science (2000), provides a convincing account of the campaign ‘to establish professional authority on a firmer base and to extend professional performance into new areas’. He writes that the ‘word scientific then seemed to epitomise the very essence of professional idea: expert authority, institutionally cultivated and certified’.

Although influenced by self-interest, the professionalisation of expertise also represented an attempt to respond to the crisis of traditional authority. Haskell perceives the trend towards professionalisation as part of a ‘broad movement to establish or re-establish authority in the face of profoundly disruptive changes in habits of casual attribution’ and ‘changes in the very notion of truth itself’.

Haskell adds that ‘professionalisation in the nineteenth century was not merely a pragmatic and narrowly self-seeking tactic for enhancing occupational status, as it often is today; instead it then seemed a major cultural reform, a means of establishing authority so securely that the truth and its proponents might win the deference even of a mass public, one that threatened to withhold deference from all men, all traditions, and even the highest values.’

So, the nineteenth-century professionalisation of expertise can be seen as representing the constitution of a new focus for public deference. At a time of disruptive changes and moral and intellectual confusion, the professional expert who personified reason and science was a reassuring authority figure. This was a form of authority that claimed to represent objective scientific truth and as possessors of this truth the expert could claim a superior moral status.

Haskell argues: ‘Precisely because there were truths that no honest investigator could deny, the power to make decisions had to be placed in the hands of experts whose authority rested on special knowledge rather than raw self-assertiveness, or party patronage, or a majority vote of the incompetent.’

Haskell goes on to ask: ‘What is it about modern society that causes men to rely increasingly on professional advice?’ He also asks: ‘Under what circumstances do men come to believe that their judgement, based on common sense and the customary knowledge of the community, is not adequate?’ Of course, the search for professional advice is founded on the loss of credibility of traditional guidance. 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.

In the nineteenth century, the world appeared increasingly complex and interdependent. In such circumstances traditional notions of cause and effect could do little to illuminate the problems brought about by industrialisation, rapid social change and the rise of a world economy. Uncertainty about the world encouraged the birth of the social sciences, leading to the expansion of the empire of the expert. In such circumstances, a society that was all too conscious of the limits of lay knowledge was more than ready to defer to the claims of expertise.

Since the nineteenth century, expertise has thrived on the crisis of causality. For example, experts in the field of social science often justify their existence by insisting that the world is far too complex to be understood by ordinary folk. As historian David Haney has pointed out, the discipline of sociology sought to legitimise its expertise by drawing attention to the complexity of modern society. This argument was eloquently promoted by Talcott Parsons, probably the most influential sociologist of the post-war era. Haney observed that ‘in an argument consistent with those of earlier generations of social scientists’, Parsons asserted that ‘the very fact of modernity, with its complexity and resultant confusion, required the expertise of the social scientist’.

The tendency to render reality complex is one of the distinct features of the politicisation of expertise. Critics of technocracy, particularly of its propensity for an elitist, anti-democratic orientation to public issues, are often dismissed as naive, simple-minded people who fail to comprehend the complexities of everyday life. Writing in this vein, sociologist Michael Schudson dismisses the naive romanticism of critics who fear that reliance on experts may be incompatible with democracy. Such a standpoint ‘fails to see not only the complexity of democracy but the democracy of complexity’.

Schudson adds that ‘in a world too complex for any one person or agency to comprehend, there is no governing without colleagues, consulting, committees and compromise’.

The flip side of expertise is an incompetent public. Historically, the ambiguous relationship between democracy and reliance on expertise has led many thinkers to draw pessimistic conclusions about the capacity of the public to play the role of a responsible citizenry. This argument is presented forcefully by American commentator Walter Lippmann in his classic 1922 study, Public Opinion. Lippmann declared that the proportion of the electorate that is ‘absolutely illiterate’ is much larger than one would suspect and that these people, who are ‘mentally children or barbarians’, are natural targets of manipulators.

The belief that the public was dominated by infantile emotions was widespread in the social science literature of the inter-war period. Often it conveyed the patronising assumption that public opinion does not know what is in its best interests. For Lippmann, the future of democracy depended on providing experts with the resources to influence the opinion of the public. American liberal philosopher John Dewey agreed with Lippmann’s pessimistic assessment of people’s capacity to understand the complexities of political life, but was concerned about the potential for experts to transform themselves into an oligarchy. His solution was to confine expertise to the provision of facts and distance them from policy-making. Although the positions of Lippmann and Dewey are often counterposed, it is important to note that they both perceived the expert as possessing an intellectual, moral and political status that was qualitatively superior to that of the public.

The tendency to regard public opinion as the prisoner of irrationality informed the attitude of the elite towards the public display of emotion throughout most of the twentieth century. Officials and opinion makers were particularly worried about the capacity of radical ideologies to generate too much political emotion. The passion and anger of protesters on the streets were regarded as the antithesis of reasoned and enlightened democratic process. Furthermore, it was generally assumed that, once mobilised, irrational emotionalism could vanquish the forces of rationality. That is why economist Joseph Schumpeter argued for the need to limit access to public affairs. Schumpeter believed that ‘utilitarian reason was simply no match for the extra-rational determinants of conduct’. The social sciences, and specifically sociology, continually communicated a sense of distrust towards the views and opinions of the public. Haney notes that in post-war America many prominent sociologists possessed a ‘profound suspicion of the character and inclinations of the American people’.

Through extending the idea of complexity to the domain of personal and informal relationships, 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 lives without professional guidance. Frequently the conduct of routine forms of social interaction is 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.

For example, experts claimed that their science entitled them to be the authoritative voices on issues that were hitherto perceived as strictly pertaining to the domain of personal and family life. As one US study, published in the 1994 book Troubling Children, notes: ‘The authoritative voice of “scientific experts” on child development advised repeatedly that the correct training of children required an expertise that few modern parents possessed.’

The new cohort of experts believed child-rearing, education and relationships needed to be reorganised in accordance with the latest findings of scientific research. They possessed a powerful crusading ethos and did not confine themselves to the presentation of research and observations.

As psychologist William Kessen wrote in the journal American Psychologist: ‘Critical examination and study of parental practices and child behaviour almost inevitably slipped subtly over to advice about parental practices and child behaviour. The scientific statement became an ethical imperative, the descriptive account became normative. And along the way there have been unsettling occasions in which scraps of knowledge, gathered by whatever procedures were held to be proper science at the time, were given inordinate weight against poor old defenceless folk knowledge.’

These experts, often with the backing of official institutions, could impose their proposals on schools and influence the conduct of family life. Against scientific authority, the insights and values of ordinary people enjoyed little cultural currency.

It is worth noting that the record of science in child-rearing, education and relationships has proved to be one of ever-recurring fads that rarely achieve any positive durable results. Nevertheless, at a time when adult authority has been on the defensive, the scientific expert has gained an ever-increasing influence over the conduct of inter-generational relations. Typically, educational experts claimed that since their proposals were based on objective science, only the prejudiced could possibly disagree with them. Pedagogic techniques were promoted on the grounds that they were based on the latest psychological research into child development or new objective theories of learning.

As far as Dewey was concerned, only an incorrigible superstitious traditionalist could object to the new scientific pedagogy. He could not comprehend how anyone could resist what the latest discoveries of the ‘science of individual psychology’ showed about the way people learn. He wrote in the journal The Philosopher that ‘it was a little as if no one had been willing to put radios on the market because it was obviously an absurd idea that sound can be transmitted through vast distances’. And with an air of impatience he exclaimed that ‘although these psychological discoveries are as well established today as the facts of the radio, they are still temperamentally abhorrent to a great many schoolmasters and parents’. Dewey, like many of his colleagues, clearly felt frustrated by what he perceived as the unholy alliance of prejudiced parents and unimaginative traditionalist teachers who questioned the new science of the curriculum.

While this professionalisation of everyday life has been a distinct trend from the outset of modernity, it has grown at a breathtaking pace since the 1960s, with professionals systematically expanding the range of personal issues that demand expert knowledge. Today, every aspect of life from birth through to school and career to marriage and mourning is subject to professional counselling. We live in an age of personal trainers, mentors and facilitators.

Until relatively recently, the professionalisation of everyday life was contained by the belief that the problems of the private sphere were best left to the informal solutions worked out by people in their communities. Although the claim that the expert knew best was rarely contested, the so-called helping professions had far less opportunity to colonise private life. They were free to encroach into the life of people on the edge of society but, until the Sixties, professionals had little opportunity to encroach into the private world of ‘normal’, especially middle-class, people. One of the most striking illustrations of the influence enjoyed by experts today is that they rarely feel restrained from lecturing people on how to conduct their lives. Nor do they confine themselves to the provision of advice. Expert advice is used to legitimise government policies that have a significant effect on people’s lives.

Of course, most experts are responsible and well-meaning individuals who have an important contribution to make to the welfare of society. But the consolidation of the political role of experts, and the reliance of politicians on expert advice rather than their own analysis, has encouraged a form of authority that violates the fundamental norms of democratic accountability. There is a tendency for politicians to retreat behind the complexity of expertise and complicate issues rather than striving to simplify, explain and achieve the resolution of problems. Expertise has also become a means to justify intrusion into areas of public and private life where it has no constructive role to play.

The problem is not expertise. Society needs expert authority, and expert authority needs an epistemic on which to draw. Society does not need the continuance of an epistemocratic political approach that rejects decision-making based on political judgment and hides behind technical expert advice. Nor does it need the manipulation of expert opinion as a smokescreen for political intervention, especially not in the private sphere.

One final point: expert opinion is not a substitute for intellectual reflection. Call them men (and women) of letters, intellectuals, generalists or polymaths. Since the Renaissance the intellectual and cultural life of a society depends on people who are able to transcend the limits of specialisation and have a grasp of the big picture. This point was clearly grasped in the nineteenth century by thinkers who were concerned about the consequences of excessive specialisation on public life. Writing in 1849, GL Lewis warned ‘that men of comprehensive minds should survey the whole circle of the sciences, should understand their mutual relations’ so as ‘to avoid that narrowing influence which is produced by restricting the mind to the exclusive contemplations of one subject’.

Since the nineteenth century, the problem of narrow specialisation and the erosion of a genuine dialogue across the arts and sciences has been widely commented on. In 1959, CP Snow expressed his anxiety about the split of intellectual life into the two cultures of the arts and sciences. How would he respond to the situation today when the two cultures have given way to disciplinary insularity within science and arts, where philosophers can’t talk to historians and sociologists can’t have a conversation with economists? What we need are not more experts, but thinkers and commentators who can interpret the meanings that different forms of knowledge have for society.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.

This essay is reproduced from the September 2009 edition of the Australian Literary Review.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi reviewed a book which showed that governments are bypassing the democratic processby outsourcing their authority. Elsewhere, he explained why politicising science is a bad idea. Rob Lyons called for a bonfire of the quangos. After the Blackwater scandal, Brendan O’Neill was struck by the American state’s readiness to share its means of coercion. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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