Frank Furedi from Budapest is a professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, UK. He is well known for his work on Sociology of Fear, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Sociology of Knowledge.
Spiked Online (www.spiked-online.com) published his latest article; “The Tyranny of Expertise” which is discusses about one of the most influential contemporary cultural myths that our era is characterised by the end of deference. Here are some excerpts:
Commentators interpret the declining influence of traditional authority and institutions as proof that people have become less deferential and possess more critical attitudes than in the past. However, it is less frequently noted that deference to traditional authority has given way to the reverence of expertise.
Western culture assumes that a responsible individual will defer to the opinion of an expert. Politicians frequently remind us that their policies are ‘evidence based’, which usually means informed by expert advice. Experts have the last word on topics of public interest and increasingly on matters to do with people’s private affairs. We are advised to seek, and pay heed to, the advice of a bewildering chorus of personal experts – parenting specialists, life coaches, relationship gurus, super-nannies and sex therapists, to name a few – who apparently possess the authority to tell us how to live our lives.
The exhortation to defer to experts is underpinned by the premise that their specialist knowledge entitles them to a higher moral status than the rest of us. For example, Ken Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions in Britain, pushed for the right to use expert witnesses to help boost the low conviction-rate in rape trials. Joan Ryan, a junior Home Office minister at the time, backed him, arguing that expert evidence in court could ‘address myths about rape and its victims’. The assumption seems to be that ordinary jurors lack the intelligence to grasp how rapists and their victims behave, which is why courts need the expert psychologist to put them right.
In previous times, pronouncements about who was evil or who had sinned were the prerogative of the priest. With the end of deference to the church, such mystical powers have become associated with the authority of the professional expert witness. The call for ordinary jurors to ignore their intuition and subjugate themselves to the superior insight of the expert is seldom characterised as what it really is, a new form of non-traditional deference. According to this perspective, the prejudices and myths of ordinary jurors need to be overcome through the intervention of the enlightened views of the expert.
It is necessary to state at the outset that any civilised twenty-first-century society is likely to take expertise seriously. The efficient functioning of such a society depends, to a significant extent, on the quality of contribution made by its experts. Anyone who is ill or confronted with a technical problem will turn to an expert.
The problem is not the status of the expert, but its politicisation. All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.
From time to time experts also use their authority to silence opponents and close down discussion. For example, those who argue that the debate on climate change is finished claim the authority of scientific expertise. That was how former British environment minister David Miliband justified his 2007 statement that ‘the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’. The impulse to close down debate is also evident in the attacks on Australian geologist Ian Plimer for raising questions about the prevailing consensus on climate change in his book Heaven and Earth. Plimer, it was pointed out with some finality, was not a climate change expert.
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