Expertise in Response to the Wellcome Trust

In response to this below video and the wider “expert” climate.

There is one view from amongst those presented above which I feel was a worthy response, and that was: ‘Expertise, one has to be quite humble about, and one needs to be careful not to overrate oneself really, and to keep learning’.

I found this kind of self-effacing caution towards not only expertise as an accepted status, but to expertise in general as a category most refreshing. This response showed a wonderful clear-eyed reticence towards the status of the expert which I think no other respondent even vaguely gestured towards. Largely the respondents here are very willing to embrace the status of expert and its related trappings, which is, for me, to miss the heart of the problem.

The unfortunate final respondent here illustrates this difficulty most clearly. Her claim that ‘people do still trust academic scientists because they see them as having a lot less of an agenda’ demonstrates the easy conflation between ‘expert’ and ‘academic’. Whether the majority of the public do trust academics, whether scientists or otherwise, is somewhat moot here, but it is certainly the case that the status of ‘expert’ has been explicitly mobilised for the purpose of eliciting mistrust and suspicion in the public in recent political discourses.

From Michael Gove’s infamous Brexit line: ‘we’ve had enough of experts’, to Trump’s generalised assault on what he has characterised as a complacent and haughty establishment, the expert is the bogeyman of right-wing populism. In Britain the expert has found its home in the smug elitism perceived in Westminster and the city of London’s role as an economic drain on the rest of the country. In the American context this appears in the form of the Democrats and their patronising attitude to their supporters and enemies alike, along with their neglect of the malcontent of the white working class, especially as represented by Hilary Clinton and her campaign support from big business, and only underlined by Obama’s long-time insistence that ‘the arc of history bends towards justice’. The ‘expert’ stands in for the Neoliberal vision of top-down progress, for a failed trickle-down economics, a social and healthcare system that, particularly in America offers precious little in the way of dignity, and a culture which ultimately falsifies a dream of social mobility while routinely diminishing the quality of life deemed acceptable at the lowest common denominator even as it proffers a utopian ‘hard graft’ as its solution to poverty and socioeconomic ignominy.

In other words, the expert means; someone of privilege who patronises from a position of arrogance and complacency those considered less fortunate while ignoring the prejudices of a socioeconomic environment which has made their privilege possible.

It may be the case that this person does not exist, and it also may well be the case that, even if such individuals do exist, that they are not as ubiquitous amongst the enemies of society as Gove or Trump might have it. Regardless, this is one of the figures upon whom the malcontent and politically disillusioned have focused their displeasure.

The problem with the attitude prevalent in the above video is how easily and apparently blithely the academics interviewed accept their conflation with this identity.

It is not entirely their fault – clearly they have been framed a question within the terms of the discourse. They have been asked to discuss explicitly ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’ and the public attitude towards them – who can blame them for following the lines of an already polarised debate? Yet the fact still remains that only one respondent showed the awareness, pause, and caution towards being aligned with the ‘expert’ which would transform the conversation into one more productive about the role of the academic in society.

I tend to be a little reductive in my thought about what an academic should be. I tend to consider philosophy the ur-discipline of all the others – which is not to say that all disciplines should be trying to do what philosophy currently does or once did, but that all disciplines are breeds of philosophy with particular fields as their object of study and particular methodoligies developed for those fields. I think this is a fairly intuitive claim in the humanities, the arts, and the sciences and since it is not a major point here, I won’t discuss it at length. However, I will say that, the academic should absolutely not be equated with the expert in the sense I have highlighted above.

The expert is an easy imaginary enemy that groups such as Trump’s administration and Brexit campaigners have arrayed their battle-lines against. The expert is on the side of those who know, and against those who know-not. The expert is on the side of those who govern, against those who are incapable of self-government. In more explicitly Marxist terms; the expert is on the side of those who have, and against those who have-not. This is how, in the mobilisation of a single ideological term, an attack can be launched against public healthcare (“doctors are experts who patronise and think they know better when they really don’t”), political orthodoxy (“career politicians are experts who are complacent and privileged and don’t deserve to rule”), economists (“those rich city folks are experts who just manipulate us to keep the money in their own pockets”), educators (“teachers are experts who want to turn your children against traditional values with new-age ‘nurture'”), the European Union (the EU have been damaging and telling the UK what to do too long with their false and failing expertise”), climate scientists (see climate change deniers), academics of all descriptions (do I need to illustrate how?), and the list goes on.

It should be apparent how easy it is to tar any given target with this ideological brush. Whether intentional or not, the polarising power of this discourse as used by the current right-leaning political trends is not to be understated. Expert can apply to anyone who tries to tell you what to do – the ideal category to mark as your enemy if you’re working against the establishment or orthodox knowledge-producing institutions.

Against this, I feel it can’t be stated enough how important this attitude is:  ‘Expertise, one has to be quite humble about, and one needs to be careful not to overrate oneself really, and to keep learning’. This is to remember the first attitude of philosophy: from the ancient greek philo- sophia-, to love wisdom, not to have wisdom, but to seek it. If the expert is one who knows and mobilises that knowledge in the service of power, money, capital, political gain, then the intellectual or the academic must be one who does not know, but who seeks nonetheless.

The objection might be made that science is from the latin scire ‘to know’, and hence, should be conflated with this political notion of the ‘expert’; one who knows. Since I have already stated that I tend to consider philosophy the ur-discipline of all intellectual pursuits, it should be clear why I disagree with this. For me, even the scientist should prefer the status of one who seeks knowledge to the status of one who knows.

By way of contrast, compare this selection of respondents above to the stance of contemporary public intellectual Slavoj Zizek:

Though Zizek has his own questionable brand of self-authorship and politics, what is clear is that a distance must be taken from this noxious status of the expert in the current political and public discourse. An easy and docile embrace of a category such as expertise, and an assumption of the neutrality of language in this context can undercut all the good will attempted by such projects as the video cited above from the Wellcome Trust. I do not, it should be noted, endorse the idea of ironically questioning the conditions for all debates either, however – to take a distance from the terms of the question is not a strategy which will ever actually answer the question itself. What is vital is to pursue the terms of the question itself with a sincere and deep honesty, coupled with a sharp and broad view of the discourse in which the question is framed. To this end, the expert as framed by Gove and Trump et al, has no place in the academic or intellectual climate – one who knows has nothing left to find out, and is no longer an intellectual but a bureaucrat at best, and a zealot at worst – and given its current political status, the expert is a concept that, in its current iteration, we could all do without.