The return of the expert

An unintended benefit of the pandemic is the return of facts, truth and experts

April 02, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 01:05 am IST

The expert is back in public discourse. Dismissed until recently as an enemy, a self-indulgent blabber, an arrogant armchair intellectual, he returns now as a valuable adviser and ally, someone we cannot do without. The flamboyant display of ignorance has been suspended. Populist leaders who had openly berated experts, and spoke of their tyranny, are now singing their praise. Though forced by the coronavirus , this is an extremely welcome change. Why? Are experts blameless or exempt from criticism? Is the criticism of experts never justified? What is expertise anyway?

What is an expert

Humans realised quite early that an individual cannot lead his life doing everything by himself. He must rely on others who occupy different social roles. But mere division of labour does not yield a society of experts. To have the competence or technique of doing something is not the same as having expertise in it. One may be able to ride a bicycle or play cricket but not do either of these well. Expertise comes with doing something extremely well, which in turn relies on developing more than technical skills. It comes when skills are nurtured patiently and constantly honed. Their acquisition is impossible without continuous, time-consuming practice and their growth depends on making mistakes and learning from them, and on listening to constructive criticism by others. Thus, to become an expert, one must imbibe the broader culture surrounding good work.

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This brings me to a preliminary specification of an expert: she is not just a role-occupant or bearer of mere technique but, by investing time on developing special skills, by understanding the standards of excellence in her field, trying to measure up to them and hoping to raise the bar, she becomes a role model for others, an authority, someone who can teach others. A person may occupy the position of a gardener but becomes an expert only with experience, incessant learning, imaginative self-improvement and with the ability to pass on her skills to others. In short, experts are people with special skills and virtues, with legitimate authority in their own field and the stature to advise and teach their skills. This distinguishes them from non-experts, from competent fellow-workers and novices.

Skills may be primarily learnt informally or formally. Those trained informally, working predominantly with their bodies, particularly their hands, include farmers, gardeners, cooks, carpenters, potters, mistris , vaidyas and healers, traditional musicians and dancers. However, the enormous complexity of contemporary social and economic life necessitates that everyone be literate and have a bare minimum of formal schooling. This would have been sufficient in the past to make experts out of them but today this is merely one enabling condition of expertise. To become experts in some domains now, long years of formal training and education are required. The feature that distinguishes modern professionals — medical doctors, engineers, architects, lawyers, micro-biologists, physicists, historians, economists, sociologists — from their informally trained counterparts is their prolonged formal education. In such domains today, experience is necessary but not sufficient.

Denigrating experts

If it is good to have experts in society, why have they been devalued recently in public discourse? Two long-standing reasons come to mind. First, not long ago, expertise in our society was firmly believed to be inherited. But while shastric knowledge was overvalued, the practical knowledge of the informally trained was denigrated. They were not recognised as experts. However, a contemporary scientist does not genetically transfer science to his child. Why then is shastric knowledge a birth-related privilege of a few brahmins? And how many of us acknowledge the expertise of the mali who tends a beautiful garden? Why is he less of an expert in his field than a doctor is in his? Though some change in this mindset has occurred, it is not enough. (For instance, vaidyas , nats and nartakis were once considered lowly and socially stigmatised. Today’s medical doctors, actors and dancers are not.)

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In one sense then, an understandable disaffection with the expert is part of a continuing democratic revolt against the very idea of inherited shastric expertise. This revolt will not cease if inherited expertise is merely replaced by epistemic arrogance, a sense of superiority stemming from delusional infallibility. Indeed, unless experts cultivate the virtues of humility and corrigibility in an atmosphere of equality and solidarity, their relevance will remain under a cloud.

A second reason is the easy translation and transfer of authority from one field to another, enabling experts in a few fields to wield power and authority over others. The traditional Brahmin may have been a shastric expert but how come this narrow expertise yielded a general social authority over others? Besides, experts jealously guarded their knowledge as a secret and refused transparency or accountability. A challenge to such translation and transfer of authority from one specific field to others is justified. So, part of the blame for the gradual fall of the expert lies with the historically transmitted culture surrounding him. Expertise must be disentangled and rescued from this hierarchical culture.

Education and expertise

However, the real roots of today’s specific problems lie elsewhere, in the current mindset of the populace at large. The main trouble comes paradoxically from the very condition of general literacy and education in our society. All of us are encouraged by our generalised education to conflate expertise with competence and to believe that knowledge comes easy. In this age of fast speed, the very idea of patient learning is severely threatened. For quick fixers, skill acquisition is a waste of time. If everything can be swiftly self-taught, why bother with experts who slog. Just consider the recent trend to self-medicate. The situation is worse in the social sciences and humanities. I am astounded by the gumption of super-confident, self-styled ‘historians’ or pop statisticians who, without an iota of doubt, claim to know the past or the respective percentage of minorities in the overall Indian population. This is independence and equality gone berserk.

This problem is exacerbated by Wikipedia, Google and WhatsApp. The Internet allows us to treat every information and opinion as equally true. People simply view evidence selectively and with prejudice, confirming whatever it is this they already believe in, disregarding all evidence or argument against it. Abused easily, the Internet turns truth into falsehood and opinion into dogma. This is mobocracy in the world of the intellect. Everyone has a licence to kill objective or inter-subjectively validated knowledge This climate is hardly conducive to the survival of experts who seek validation for their claims. Moreover, it helps the political and economic exploitation of their difference from non-experts. With the expert’s scrutiny out of the way, the avaricious capitalist can easily sell his well-advertised goods, the wily politician, his false promises.

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The arrival of COVID-19 has changed something, at least on television. Both the Prime Minister and the Health Minister were recently seen imploring us to shun ‘ andh-vishwas ’ (blind faith, superstition), disregard rumours and continually fact-check. A good beginning! Doctors from the best medical colleges are seen providing scientific answers to questions by laypersons. The word ‘evidence’ is heard frequently. Statistical data is cited from Johns Hopkins University, and Imperial College London. People seem passionately interested in research on vaccines by the best Indian institutes. Fake news is officially having a bad time! One Hindi channel even has a Truth index — what it calls ‘ sacchai ka sensex’. This ‘ sacchai ’, the source of facts and evidence, comes from, guess who? Experts! One unintended benefit then of the current pandemic — if one looks for a silver lining in our gloomy world — is the return of facts, truth and experts. One can only hope that the restoration of respect for expertise will not be confined to medical doctors and researchers but extend to expert historians, social scientists and socially grounded intellectuals — all badly needed to check the mayhem that has followed the announcement of the lockdown and its dreadful impact on migrant workers.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

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