The Papacy of Experts.

By Carsten Frenzl from Obernburg, Deutschland (faceless) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is often laughed at, the denial of expert opinions; that when an expert says “jump”, only a fool would question his degree in suicidology – and his knowledge on the subject. You will have heard from pundit postulaters, and educated comedians, that we are living in a post-truth world, why? Because we do not trust the experts anymore.

So what is an expert opinion? Is it one that can only be had with knowledge of the facts, and to deny that opinion is to deny those facts? (Whether they’re provided to you or not?) Is it one that only experts can have, and if you’re not an expert your opinion is not quite as important? Is it one where the qualifier, “expert”, turns opinions into facts. Well it seems to me, the difference between my opinion and an “expert” is the same between an estimate and a guess, one may be more educated, but neither of them are predictions.

The truth is, that an expert is simply just a man who cannot bear to be proven wrong. If he was not, then he would not need to call upon his qualifications to make an argument, he would simply present the facts. In this sense, to preface the word “opinion” with “expert” is like prefacing any word with a pronoun, all it tells us is that it is the opinion of an expert, not that the opinion itself is expert, and it does this because the validity of an opinion does not increase by the skills required for it to be ascertained.

Let’s pretend that I am an expert in literature. I will tell you, in my expert opinion, that the novel Of Mice and Men is objectively better written than Lord of the Flies. And I mean objectively because of its structure, the use of language, and the skilful integration of plot and theme. Would you accept my statement because I know more on the subject than you do? Even if you prefer Lord of the Flies?

“Well no, that’s different, that’s subjective. There is no gradation in prose, there are no numbers in literature.” Well, which expert told you that? And why do you believe him? I have plenty of knowledge in narratology and once more a range of figures and polling data about which styles appeal to more people. I’m not going to show you of course, but you are expected to trust that I have them, after all, I’m an expert on the subject.

So when I hear that 97% of scientists can agree, or 9 in 10, all I can think is that if 97% of scientists can agree, when the job of a scientist is to be sceptical until finding proof, then by willing to agree 97% of scientists are not doing their job. Rather, they are being compliant, because if it were proven, it would not have to be agreed. And it is also probably true, that so many of those 97% could merely be banking on each other’s expertise to guide their opinions. On top of that I would trust more the opinion of a friend who’s done his research, than a man who is paid to provide his opinions, as I would trust a friend who has read a book more than I would trust a quote, hand-picked and purchased, from a best-selling author who praises it.

From expert to expert, opinions can be passed down, like teacher to student, through some apostolic succession; bishops of the holy see pass down some truth which is known to be had by the holiness of the man who told it to them, as so can an expert pass down his truth, which is known to be had by the intelligence of the man who told it to him. And if a papacy of God can be dictated by the Counts of Tusculum, and the Theophylacti, a dark-age aristocracy, then is it such a conspiracy to think that a papacy of experts can be corrupted also?

Science has become a religion in two ways; while different in its approach, in evidence over faith, its followers do so by faith and faith alone. The second way, is that both a man with a PhD in Theoretical Physics, and a man who claims to be a successor to Saint Peter, with a direct line to the word of God, can speak ex cathedra (“from the chair”) to define what people should or should not believe. A scientist would say of God that if one cannot provide any evidence, there can be no claim to His existence, and yet all too willing is he to expect to be believed without providing evidence of his own claims. And so too are fans of science willing to proclaim that a belief in God is a form of brainwashing, Church propaganda, and yet not at all willing to look further into the propaganda of “expert opinions”.

So where does it come from? I know we are living in a society which shames people for being wrong more than it teaches them what is right, so maybe people are so afraid of being beaten in a debate, they will preach the reliability of their sources more than help to explain what the sources mean, and how they can be interpreted. That is a real post-truth world, and so I would urge you to remember that truth is refuted by reasonable doubt, and opinions are only upheld by a preponderance of evidence. Experts should be treated atheistically, their opinions no more consecrated than the opinions of an old man in papal regalia.