(Wow – that last Predicament post was all over the place. There’s a real idea in there someplace, at least I imagine there is. Here’s another crack at it.)
When I was 23? 24? I thought I’d like to go to grad school and get a masters in – Liturgy. No, really. The reasoning was as bass ackwards as it sounds: I had already learned a little about the Catholic Mass and traditions through a volunteer job I had after graduation, and wanted to share my (24 year old. Sheesh.) wisdom – but nobody’s going to listen to me! But if I had a *masters* in Liturgy, they’d have to! Right?
And then it dawned on me: that’s all supposed expertise is, in the ‘reality will not be allowed to disprove you’ world of most academics- I get the advanced degree so that I can push my own special brand of nonsense on the world, and they have to listen because I’m an *expert*! In the vastly less popular ‘put-up-or-shut-up’ fields such as engineering or even business, your degree might get you a job, but you run a real risk of losing that job if you fail to perform. Not so with ‘education’ or social work or the odd liberal arts degree. Those are ‘reputational’ fields, success at which consists of getting and maintaining a suitable reputation among others in that field.
Impressive-sounding degrees really help get that reputation going. There’s also a strong feedback loop: once you get that Master’s or PhD or law degree, you become part of the pool of people who set reputations. Since their reputations begin with the sort of official certification they have received – he’s a *doctor*! She’s a *lawyer*! – people in the field are very unlikely to disparage such degrees, at least to ‘laymen’. To take an extreme example: people who get a degree in Gender Studies will not get very far – build a solid reputation in the field – by disparaging Gender Studies degrees. Perhaps lawyers among themselves talk about law as the votech field it is, I don’t know. But just try having an opinion about law around a lawyer, and see how fast (however subtly) they will mount their defense upon the barbican of their degree. Since the whole law degree/bar exam thing was set up as a way to restrict supply (and raise prices/income) by what are effectively lawyer’s guilds, the magic of the law degree must first of all be defended against laymen. John Adams and Abraham Lincoln, who practiced law rather successfully without the benefit of formal academic training in law, are not the model here, regardless of their reputations.
Over time, the highest reputations in reputational fields will necessarily be held by the people who pay the most attention to reputations. Thus, when introduced to such people, we will often find out quickly their degrees, where their PhD was obtained and where they teach, maybe about some publication that enhanced their reputation in the field. Most important, these high-reputation people then become the gatekeepers of – reputation.
Such people then generalize their expertise. Reputation comes to equal brilliance – he teaches at Stanford or Harvard! He must be an expert! A genius, even! Such a one’s intellectual dogs are soon off the leash, so to speak, nosing about in every field that smells promising. Given the feedback loop of reputational fields described above, if I, the sort of glib poser who is the type-specimen here, hold a degree and agree with the experts in my field, I am likewise a genius and an expert! I of course will pay a certain reverence to my betters in my field, as a primitive worships the sun whose light is the source of his reflected glory. But to outsiders, I am a recognized expert! Bow to me!
First order of business for the expert class: keep the non-credentialed posers in line. In business school, I had to take a business ethics class. Can virtue be taught? Who cares, as long as there’s a paying gig to offer required classes in it. The prof was as bad as you might imagine, a procedure obsessed self-righteous prick. He’d explain his grading methodology in elaborate detail, so we’d all know how fair and transparent it was, and then ask us open ended moral questions for which there were no wrong answers unless he didn’t like them.
He didn’t like mine very much.
Seriously, how does one become an *expert* in business ethics? Is there this long noble tradition of business ethicists, experts in how to be virtuous at business, respected if not loved by their enlightened and now equally virtuous students? To ask the question is to laugh. Instead, a vita is constructed wherein degrees and studies and even experience are aligned in such a way as to make the claim of expertise in business ethics palatable – to the ‘experts’ on the hiring committee. Oh, he studied philosophy, and then worked in industry where he was on an ethical review committee? Then got a PhD in something? Good enough! Once you get that first job as a professor of business ethics, that becomes the star of your vita, and the battle is over.
Similarly, there is science, and there is policy. They are not the same thing, any more than the principles of business are morality. The charge of the electron is something scientists – Mikkelsen and his successors – figured out in a series of elegant experiments. Arsenic was isolated by Albertus Magnus, and, centuries earlier, a process to isolate it was described by Jabir ibn Hayyan (I had to look that one up – full disclosure). But knowing everything about the observable properties of electrons or arsenic tells us nothing about whether we should drive an electric car or poison somebody.
The Predicament rears its ugly head: we want to follow somebody, an expert seems like somebody good to follow, but we humans seem incapable of distinguishing what, exactly, an expert is an expert *in*, let alone only following the lead of experts insofar as what they are leading us through is what they are experts in.
We seem – I think, maybe not, the world is insane – to know that an auto mechanic fixes cars, but is not by that fact an expert on where or how you ought to drive the car he just fixed for you. Somehow, we shelve this simple, obvious truth when faced with more decorated and aggressive (and thin-skinned) experts.
Our predicament: most of us all of the time, and all of us some of the time, must rely on somebody else’s opinions. We have been taught to rely on the opinions of experts. We have not been taught to question the nature and limits of expertise. Therefore, most of us all of the time, and all of us some of the time, are made uncomfortable if not angry by the mere thought of pushing back or questioning the limits of expert opinion.
In the expert opinion of the founders of this nation and of centuries of English law, the most crucial, life and death decisions are too important to leave to experts. What else are trials by jury and elections than the manifestation of our long-standing distrust of experts?
Yet, as a people we are lost, terrified, and angered by anyone who questions the approved experts. This needs to stop. An expert worth respecting acknowledges the limits of his own expertise. Does he have special knowledge of proper policy? Really? How did he get it? If not, why is he attempting to dictate policy?