One of the things that defines the times in which we live is our suspicion of anyone who presumes to know what he or she is talking about. We deny expertise. It’s one of the sadder effects of our egalitarianism. We move from the moral fact that all are equal to the absurd conclusion that no one knows any more than anyone else. Aside from our medical people and our auto mechanics, whom we must trust, we think all other opinions are of no great weight, certainly no better than our own. We forget what George Berkley once said: all opinions should be tolerated for what they are worth. Some opinions are heavy and others are so light they float away in the wind, many of our own included.
But if it is my opinion I am convinced that it weighs as much as yours, no matter who you are. “It’s just Plato’s opinion,” as one of my students said in reading a Platonic dialogue, with the clear implication that it weighed no more than this particular American college freshman’s did. “We are all entitled to our opinion” translates for many into “my opinion is just as good as yours.”
Take the issue of global warming, as an example. There are a great many people in our Congress who think that 97% of the scientists are wrong despite the fact that those scientists have examined the situation carefully and are reluctant to draw conclusions that cannot be corroborated by their peers. That is to say, those who sit on their butts every day making huge salaries think they are as smart as those who are paid very little to study the appropriate evidence and draw conclusions, many of which are unpalatable to them as individuals. Science is disinterested and a very strict task-master. Yet, those sitting on their butts in Congress, or running for president, claim to know better than they what is happening to our world. The problem is, of course, those who do not know control the mechanisms that might make our world a safer place in which to live and plan our collective future.
Expertise, if you think about it, is based on knowledge of one’s field. An expert in biology may not be the best person to ask about the literary value of a new novel. But in his or her field the opinions uttered have weight. We do ourselves a great disservice to ignore the experts in an age in which we are overwhelmed by information and have so little knowledge about so many things. Like it or not, we must trust others to help us understand what is going on in our world. If we have pain in the gut which we think results from listening to political lies, and it the pain persists, we really ought to visit the physician and listen carefully to what she has to say.
At some point we must trust the experts and acknowledge that there are people who know a great deal more than we do. We must trust those who know and know those who are worthy of our trust. But those people who stand up before us running for political office and who claim to know things that are patently absurd should not be trusted. We must always be on the alert for those who claim to be experts but who know less than we do, while at the same time acknowledging that there are experts who know a great deal more than we do. It requires judgment and scrutiny of every word and gesture — and a suspicious eye on the possibility that there is a hidden agenda somewhere that we might not want to embrace.
In a word: ask ourselves whether or not the person who is making the claim has something to gain from our believing what he or she has to say. The scientists who predict that our planet is in dire straights have nothing to gain from our accepting their conclusions. Those fat cats who sit in Congress and are paid to vote as the corporations want them to definitely have something to gain from the rejection of what the scientists have to say. And that politician with the strange hair who stands there making outrageous claims wants us to believe everything he says even though so much of it is bollocks. His agenda is not even that well hidden.
In a word, we must suspect all those “experts” who have a hidden agenda. But this is no reason to reject expertise altogether: there are some who really do know more than the rest of us. But, to my knowledge, none of them has strange hair.