“Ask the expert” is the dictum which all of us are told to obey for successfully negotiating an increasingly complex world. There used to be a time when there were fewer experts around to ‘help’ us make decisions which we did without any fuss. The knowledge explosion of the past several decades has broken down domains into cocoons of specialisation. It is true that skill and scholarship in any area are acquired only through dedicated study and research. But punditry has acquired an esoteric dimension which is debatable.
It will not be an exaggeration to say that experts wield enormous power in our society. They are the elites, the knowledge emperors of the 21st century. We have medical experts, educational experts, career experts, nuclear experts, defence experts, weather experts, etc. The list is large. There is an expert for everything that touches our daily lives.
Is your child unruly and lazy? Take her to a counsellor who, after say 30 minutes of talk, will tell you what you already know about your child. If a couple cannot get along, they are supposed to consult a marriage counsellor or psychologist. This professional will suggest a list of dos and don’ts which the couple could have easily found in a self-help book.
Bored with life? Consult a life coach or mentor who will enlighten you with nuggets of wisdom which you forget once you walk out of the consulting room.
Are you confused about your course selection and career? Go and see an educational expert. He will advise you to select the courses which the job market favours at the time. This information could have been found had you read newspapers regularly. Suppose the branch you selected became unfashionable and irrelevant by the time you finished your course, don’t blame the expert. He cannot assume responsibility for the vagaries of the job market.
When the government finds it difficult to take a decision on an intricate issue, it appoints an expert committee to examine the problem in ‘depth’ and recommend solutions. Most of the time, it is only a diversionary tactic to buy more time. It is not that the rulers don’t have solutions. They do not want to implement unpopular measures and risk defeat in the next elections.
Japan’s famed nuclear safety experts could not anticipate that an earthquake and a tsunami would occur simultaneously. The experts had an alibi for not anticipating the Fukushima nuclear disaster — the accident was a Black Swan — a highly improbable event with enormous consequences. But the fact that a few precautions like a water-proof backup generator could have mitigated the fallout was lost on the pundits. Such precautions do not need expertise, only an application of the mind which has become an endangered activity in the age of the Internet.
The most optimistic and self-righteous tribe of experts operates in the world of economics and finance. Most economists failed to see the 2008 mortgage crisis in the U.S. coming.
People were so disillusioned with the economic wizards that they started asking whether economics was a social science or quackery. Whether it is stock market or gold, the projections of experts are off the mark more often than not. Unpredictable human behaviour often stumps economic theory.
Some experts are democratic and egalitarian. They share their knowledge by writing books, But their works do not reach a wider audience because the Internet has scattered our attention with its ever shifting images and distractions. It has robbed us of our ability for deep reflection which book reading demands.
This is not an anti-intellectual rant. When we are bombarded with information overload, we need to ask an expert which information is important and which is trivial.
We need not always surrender our autonomy to the professionals and connoisseurs if we are well informed and try to use our brains to pause and reflect, introspect and reason — to lead examined lives on our own terms.
(The writer’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org)