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Have we had enough of experts?

Posted By Robin Jourdan, Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Robin Jourdan examines the issue of expertise in our world today through her sixth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


Sage advice; knowledge is power; Plato's Noble Lie; the 10,000 hours’ goal. Such phrases describe experts and expertise since the 1300s. Often citizens reject experts as an objection to power that has become centralized in government or among distant leaders. Over decades there has been an idea that the people in charge, whether they're railroad barons or the government, ignore ordinary folks. Additionally, some further confuse rejecting expertise for showing their independence of thought. Is this a pre-emptive rejection of anything that implies their own opinion may be flawed?


Certain societies have romanticized grassroots efforts or the plain nerve to get the job done. Thus, the confidence of the dumb. This aspect of human nature is called Dunning-Kruger. When taken to the extreme, it can show itself through demonizing experts who disagree with our ideological views. Who is the expert? What gives him/her the right to speak on this matter? Is the expert using wiggle-words? These are words that skirt the truth by bending language against the listener. As we hear them, we feel twinges. Learned heuristics can cause even the most open minded to shut down. This lays the foundation of why political discourse is currently so distasteful.


This is different from skepticism. Skeptical but level-headed people are why nations achieve great heights in science, diplomacy, the arts and more. They never displace ordinary voters as the deciding voice in affairs of state. Skepticism does not rely on continual assurance that popular views, no matter how nutty, are virtuous and right.


These aspects combat today's "Expert Revolution" with economic value correlating to expertise. The democratization of knowledge and broader spheres of open conversations muddle the thinking. Expertise is further complicated by the myth that every opinion is equal. Regardless, it's essential that open discussions continue, as an ingredient for stable governance.


What happens when expertise is politicized? Use of leaded gasoline, IQ tests, smoking tobacco, and others show links between experts and political decisions. Such fuel counter-expertise controversies. It's essential in democratic decision making for the people to understand the issues of the day. What's needed is especially deep understanding to address approaching wicked and complex problems. As such, counselors rely on the evidence of expert analysis. Biased experts undermine public confidence in technocratic evidence. When trust in expert advice is damaged, decisions made are less optimal.


Experts in any government model must remain servants not masters to the system. Such distinction is needed as non-biological entities are becoming containers for expertise. Machine expertise, AI, and deep learning will increasingly factor in our decision making. Some say the rise of artificial intelligence will make most people better off toward the end of this century. Still, many have concerns about how AI will affect what it means to be human, to be productive and more.


Going forward we will struggle with ever more complex wicked problems never seen before needing more intelligence than ever. Today, innovation success tends to come from generalists, not only from specialized experts. What if we look at experts by the relative strength of their expertise? A proposed range of possibilities follows, each critical in light of the world's challenges.


First up, "Armchair Experts" can be convincing, but conversational. This jack of all trades is a master of none, but generalists have a role. The ability to cross-boundaries is often an ingredient for economic innovation. Next in the continuum: "Appliers" meet their curiosities by tinkering with new ideas, technologies, and other skills. Shortages of these educated workers result in higher demand. "Authorities" add experience to the equation and carry responsibility for the growth of an idea, technology, or other skill. Inclusion and innovation spur economic growth, including new jobs for this persona. Such people are held responsible for long-term systemic solutions. The final level adds accountability, real subject depth is met by the "Ace."  The Ace is a master of independence, capability, and invention.  They have the longest-view of approaching issues and are the fewest in the population.


Have we had enough of experts in the world? The simple answer is no. While the use of experts can be exploited and admonished, there is a role for experts that cannot be denied. Inclusion and diversity often make for successful enterprises throughout human history. What's needed is a greater understanding of the degrees of expertise, accountability, and the value of each. Wicked problems march forward whether experts are available or not. All things considered, the best approach to solve wicked problems is to create equally wicked but wise solutions.


© Robin Jourdan 2019

Tags:  expertise  professionalism  professionalization 

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