Day By Day

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Undermining the Cult of Expertise -- The New Republic and Its Symposia

The New Republic has another one of its little symposia in which it asks a number of experts what to do about a current problem. This time the subject is Afghanistan. Read the articles here. Or if you want to save time, Richard Fernandez has a summary with some comments here. Fernandez likens the exercise to blind men trying to describe an elephant, each touching a different piece of the animal's anatomy. He also notes that none of the essays puts the ongoing conflict within a global context. It all makes for interesting reading, but what it does more than anything else is to highlight the problems associated with adherence to the cult of expertise. On any policy issue the advice of credentialed "experts" is sought and often determines the outcome, but experts come in all varieties and styles and they seldom agree with each other or, for that matter, with themselves over time. Even when a "consensus" on a particular subject is proclaimed it is often a sham, and even if it is honestly arrived at, the consensual position often changes over time. This ambiguity leaves policy makers free to pick and choose among the experts those who support the course of action they prefer, and allows them to cover their butts if the policies fail by noting that they were following the advice of "experts".

Those in the know have long understood how the game is played. What is interesting is that the general public is beginning to catch on. Disillusionment with the opinion of experts is an important element in the populist upsurge that is currently roiling the political waters. What future effect it might have on politics and policy formation remains to be seen. Of one thing I am sure, it will be interesting.

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