The Fetishisation Of The Expert

Written by:
13 January 2017
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Last month in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as US president, Julia Baird the host of ABC TV’s The Drum wrote a revealing article in The Sydney Morning Herald. She blamed the election result on things such as the public no longer believing in facts, a lack of trust in the media and “experts” being ignored.

Baird despaired of “the demise of the expert; politicians and pundits ridiculing of those who bring knowledge to bear on public debate by those who have none …”

Baird’s view is representative of those who believe that challenging the status of experts is a threat to democracy. But in fact the opposite is the case. One of the reasons faith in democracy has declined is because experts have far too much say in government, in policy and in people’s lives. Experts, and the politicians who follow the diktats of experts, have removed decision-making from the people. It’s understandable as happened with the Brexit vote, if experts tell the people to do one thing, the people will do the exact opposite.

As Daniel Hannan, the British member of the European Parliament and leading Brexit campaigner, pointed out a few years ago an “expert” is merely someone who has spent their whole career in a particular field – the “fetishisation of the ‘expert” is one of the most depressing features of contemporary politics.

Paul Cartledge, a classics professor at Cambridge University and the author of a new book, Democracy: A Life, explained to Spiked Review last year just how experts have amassed such influence.

“Today, given the complexity of society, it is possible to argue that ‘I understand how the global economy works, or how the Euro works, better than you do, so I’m more entitled to have my views listened to, and my judgment respected, so therefore my position should be one of power’. Yet, what’s happened, especially since the financial crisis of 2008, is that not only have the experts disagreed – which they always have – but they have also got a lot wrong. And not just wrong, but massively wrong.”

Fishy tales

There’s a term for what Cartledge described. It’s called a “Michael Fish moment”. Last week Andy Haldane, the chief economist of the Bank of England, talked about how economists in Britain had experienced a “Michael Fish moment” first, when they failed to predict the global financial crisis, and second when they overstated the consequences of the Brexit vote for the British economy. Prior to the Brexit vote, Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, warned that a vote by Britain to leave the European Union could cause a recession. The investment bank Morgan Stanley went one further – it said Brexit would cause a recession. Recent economic data shows that in fact since Brexit the British economy has grown strongly.

Australians might be unfamiliar with Michael Fish, but he’s famous in Britain. He even featured in the opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games in 2012.

Fish is a meteorologist and for many years presented the weather report on BBC television. On the afternoon of October 15, 1987, he started his report by saying: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t.”

A few hours later Britain suffered its worst storm in 200 years. Twenty-two people were killed, London lost electricity for six hours, and the UK home secretary said it was the “worst, most widespread night of disaster” since the Blitz.

Experts have their place, but it can never be forgotten they suffer the same biases and prejudices as the rest of us. We want our doctors to be experts; if a surgeon were to consistently leave their patients dead on the operating table we’d be wary of having them remove our tonsils.

The appropriate role for experts in a democracy was nicely encapsulated by Cartledge in quote from another classicist, Moses Finlay. “When I charter a vessel or buy a passage on one, I leave it to the captain, the expert, to navigate it – but I decide where I want to go, not the captain.”


This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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