The Problem of ‘Experts’ In Cultural History

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Image from Another Angry Voice

Today we rely upon experts. When we have health issues we go to our GP and hope that they have the expert knowledge to help us get well. And if not, we hope they can make us an appointment to see a consultant who will use his or her considerable expertise and the use of other medical experts to sort out all our health problems.

Every day we rely upon expertise to get us from A to B: the designers of cars, and buses and trains; the designers of roads and rail systems; the engineers who confounded 19th century beliefs by digging deep underground to build tube systems and make them safe.
When we fly, we not only rely upon the expertise of the pilot, but also of all those aircraft designers, engineers and mechanics, not to mention air traffic control operatives and those experts who designed the original ATC systems.

Scientists help us understand our world and over time have helped to make it a safer place for us. Architects and Engineers have built structures of all shapes and sizes which assist with everything from transport of goods and of us, to living accommodation, factories, roads, bridges, etc…

And so on…

An ‘expert’ is usually considered to be someone who has studied and practiced in a particular field, to the extent that they know their field so well we can rely upon them to control that ‘field of expertise’.

Nowadays, when we hear the ‘too many experts’ charge, we laugh at the crass lack of intelligence this remark demonstrates. And we feel correct in doing so. In our busy and fast-moving world, we need experts to deal with a host of things which we are not capable of dealing with ourselves.

Without experts, our lives would be very different and in most cases much less acceptable.

However, this does not mean that there is no problem with the term ‘expert’. But we need to go back in history to understand why.

In Britain and in Europe until the 17th Century, when a person was ill they went to see a ‘wise woman’ or a ‘herbalist’ or similar. These people studied herbs and other elements provided by nature to make ‘potions’ and healing implements. The wise woman would also provide her services to assist a difficult childbirth.

But the 17th century onwards also saw the rise of ‘professionals’. These were relatively wealthy members of society who paid to study new practices. Doctors in particular became part of a profession.

Being a professional usually meant belonging to one of the new rising ‘professional societies’, open only to those who had gained the necessary qualifications and therefore ‘expertise’.

This was definitely class and gender based in that it was usually only the sons of the rising upper middle classes who had the chance to study to become doctors (or scientists or top level engineers), but at least it provided a path to better living standards for all (although this would take a very long time in reaching the less wealthy members of society).

But the rise of the professional was also exclusionary in other ways.

By outlining who exactly was a ‘professional’ or ‘an expert’, this also cast aside all those previously practicing, particularly in medicine, healthcare and childbirth, because they were no longer considered to have the ‘correct’ knowledge.

Even worse, with the Early Modern European witch hunts, not only were those practising healing by other than now ‘accepted’ methods hunted down and murdered on behalf of religious fervour, the fear and hatred of ‘witches’ was aided and abetted by the growth and acceptance of new ‘professionals’.

Over the centuries, the rise of the ‘expert’ has occurred alongside the outlawing of methods accepted over previous centuries (whether good or bad) and, with the growth of Capitalism, has led to workers having a complete lack of control over production and of attaining a living from their particular skills handed down throughout the centuries.

In other words, seen this way, the rise of ‘the experts’ was very bad news to ordinary people. It was like a smack in the face to everything they knew and a total disregard of their own teachings and commonly shared knowledge.

This could go some way to explaining the ‘anti-expert’ rhetoric we hear today, especially when it comes from members of the working class or from those hoping to appeal to them for political gain.

We all need experts in our lives and we need to encourage our children to become experts in their chosen field too. But perhaps, rather than simply being scornful of those who dismiss experts, we need to go some way towards understanding why for some people being ‘anti-expert’ is seen as a source of their own identity.

And then just maybe we can include their thoughts and fears in our search for a way out of the political mess that the appeal to ‘anti-expert’ feeling has brought us to.

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