Monday, January 24, 2022

Question Authority - Don't Blindly Trust Experts

By Tim Gamble

A few days ago, I posted a quote from Winston Churchill on the dangers of rule by "experts" (also known as technocracy, or rule by technocrats). I want to take a look at closer look at the problem of experts  and why we shouldn't turn over control of our government, economy, and lives to them. 

First, a reminder of the quote:  

"Nothing would be more fatal than for the government of states to get into the hands of experts. Expert knowledge is limited knowledge: and the unlimited ignorance of the plain man who knows only what hurts is a safer guide, than any vigorous direction of a specialised character. Why should you assume that all except doctors, engineers, etc. are drone or worse?"  -- Winston Churchill, in a letter to H. G. Welles 

Letting experts run things might sound like a good idea to many people. After all, they are the experts - highly educated and knowledgeable, and above petty influences like money, politics, ideology, or personal gain. Their ways, such as the scientific method, peer review, and tenure, are designed to remove bias, guarantee neutrality, and achieve the best results. We are told throughout our lives that we should admire and respect experts. We can trust them to make the best decisions possible. 

Or can we? Here are a few things to keep in mind about the experts.

Experts may be highly educated and knowledgeable in their particular field, but that doesn't carry over to other fields. Their knowledge is often "a mile deep but an inch wide."

Experts naturally focus on their specialty, which limits their understanding of the larger situation. They often fail to "see the big picture" and "miss the forest for the trees." They don't consider or even realize all the potential ramifications and unintended consequences of their solutions. 

Experts rarely make good leaders, because leadership requires an understanding of the larger situation, of how all the pieces need to fit together. A leader has to be able to see the forest, not just the trees. In this sense, expertise (detailed knowledge) and leadership (big picture) are polar opposites. 

Experts are humans, same as anyone else. Experts can make mistakes, same as all of us. Experts can be biased by their personal beliefs, values, and even fears, same as the rest of us. Experts may allow their personal motivations, such as career aspirations or even petty office politics, to influence their work. Experts are not immune to peer pressure, or to pressure from their bosses or funding sources. Experts are not above being influenced by money, politics, or ideology. 

Winston Churchill was trying to explain all of this to H. G. Welles. Churchill's point was that the very thing that makes experts so useful - their expert knowledge - also limits them in a way that requires the commonsense and practicality of the plain man. A government of experts would be fatal, in Churchill's opinion. 

Sadly, the modern system doesn't value commonsense and practicality in the same way it values expertise. Instead, we put experts on a pedestal, declare them unquestionable, and deny or make excuses when reality proves their theories wrong. We are told to "not question the science" and to obediently follow the dictates of the scientists. 

Encouraged by both Socrates and Timothy Leary, the idea of "questioning authority" was once considered a value. Now doing so may get you banned from social media, fired from your job, and even investigated by the FBI as a potential domestic terrorist (just ask any number of parents who dared question the policies of the experts on their school boards). Dissent is NOT allowed in 2022.

We are lurching ever closer to the scientific dictatorship of technocracy. We are losing our freedoms and surrendering ownership of our lives in the name of the Common Good, without ever being allowed to question if it is really good or not.

See also: Technocracy, The Power Elite, and the Transformation of Human Civilization

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