Expertise as Attribution – Towards a Solution to the Post-Fact World

The following is the text of a talk I gave at a symposium entitled The Politics of Expertise in Media and Cultural Research at Birmingham City University on the 30th November 2016. The references I used in constructing this text are available on request – reach me on Twitter @timsquirrell.

Expertise as Attribution

Tim Squirrell

PhD Candidate in Department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies

University of Edinburgh

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts” – Michael Gove MP

“Experts, soothsayers, astrologers, are all in much the same category” – Jacob Rees Mogg MP

“Well, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?” – Stewart Lee

A truly tremendous quantity of ink has been spilled over the past year over the problem of expertise. “Post-truth” is the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year. The consensus seems to be that publics in Western liberal democracies have lost their trust in experts and expertise. The questions of when, why, and how this happened, and how the expert class can possibly hope to redeem itself are perpetually mooted in hand-wringing think-pieces in The Guardian and The Spectator alike.

In this talk, I’m going to do three things. First, I’ll problematise the existing, hidden consensus that experts just exist, and that it is our choice whether to listen to them or not. Second, I’ll propose an alternative view that conceptualises expertise as something which doesn’t exist a priori, but is attributed by particular audiences to particular individuals, groups and institutions in order to solve particular problems. Third, I’ll show why, far from being a simple redefinition which makes no practical difference, there are some specific advantages of taking this viewpoint, centring around (i) the way we ask those who would claim expert status to present themselves, and (ii) our ability to dismiss specific actors, rather than the concept of expertise as a whole.

The question that nobody seems to be asking is “What do we mean by ‘experts’?”. It’s taken as a given that when we say the word ‘expert’, we know of whom we speak: late middle-aged white men in suits and glasses, staring out at us from a television screen, speaking on behalf of a university, or an organisation with some acronym nobody can remember. IFS, IEA, ECB, CPS: they might as well all work for the same company, for all the scrutiny we give their credentials. We can identify who counts as an expert a priori: they speak for established institutions, they have qualifications and credentials and letters after their names, and they have experience to back up their authoritative-sounding words.

There are a couple of major issues with this. First, it allows individuals (and whole communities) to dismiss the entirety of what has come to be known as the “expert class”, without having to engage with their statements or arguments. When these experts make predictions about the economy, or elections, or the climate, they inherently stake (to some degree) their reputation on the veracity of their predictions. The problem is, if we link all experts together, when someone (or a group of people – say, psephologists) gets something wrong, then they harm not just their own reputation but the reputation of everyone linked to them through the label ‘expert’. When we bind people together with a particular label, we allow other people to use that label to have blanket beliefs about that whole group (experts) rather than making decisions about smaller, more appropriate, sub-divisions (psephologists, or Nate Silver, or the Huffington Post pollsters).

Second, it facilitates the complacency of the aforementioned expert class. If they speak, and nobody listens, they can throw up their hands and say, “Well, we gave them the facts and they refused to accept them. We can’t help it if the public are stupid and mistrustful.” There’s nothing they could have done to foresee this, and now that the epistemic gates are open and the horse of trust has bolted, there’s very little they can do to steer that horse back into the stable and regain the confidence of the public. Clearly, the solution is simply to end democracy and delegate all authority to the expert class, because the people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions when presented with the objective facts.

These problems alone should probably give us serious pause: is this view productive? Is it something we want to keep with us in this brave new post-fact world? When combined with some of the more conceptual issues I’m going to outline as we go on, I’m convinced we should wholeheartedly reject the view of expertise which says “these are the experts, believe them or not”.

“But what, pray, is the alternative?” I hear you cry, “We can’t allow just anyone to call themselves an expert. That way charlatanism lies!” Well, little strawman that I just made up, you’re halfway there. The alternative is as follows.

We could, if we so chose, decide to carve up the word conceptually and acquire knowledge purely through the mediation of our own senses. But our senses are unreliable, and there’s not enough time or money to allow us to imbibe the knowledge of every discipline under the sun. So for most of us, most of the time, we delegate our epistemic authority to others: we allow them to tell us what’s true, and we decide how to act upon it. As children we listen to parents and teachers; as adults we read news publications and books, listen to particular individuals we find compelling or inspiring, heed the advice of our doctors regarding our health, and broadly take for granted that we aren’t being lied to or misled.

There are certain ways in which we try to tell the difference between those experts we ought to trust and those who are incompetent, misleading or just plain wrong. We can examine how they argue: how well do they present their arguments, are they quick to produce defeaters or counter-defeaters for the arguments of others? We can look at their track record of making good predictions, we can try to examine any potential biases or vested interests they might have, we can scrutinise their credentials, or we can look at how many other putative experts agree with them.

There are numerous problems with each of these metrics which render it very difficult to tell between ‘good’ experts and ‘bad’ experts. Often those who know the most aren’t necessarily the best at arguing their side of a debate (a problem I will attempt to solve with my view later on). Moreover, it is almost impossible for us to assess the claims of experts on a technical basis, because the very reason we are listening to them is that the knowledge they are articulating is esoteric and epistemically inaccessible. Similarly, what makes a “good prediction” is up for debate, so track records are difficult to assess. Most individuals in a given industry or field likely have some biasing factors behind the things they are saying, because nobody is objective and anyone who says otherwise is lying or deluded. Finally, if we’re relying on the agreement of other potential experts, then we just defer the problem of identifying “good experts” one step down the line.

Most of our actions, then, rely upon trust in others. When we decide to believe what someone says, we don’t usually do so based on pure logical reasoning. Instead, we listen to them based on a function of whether we trust them (qua friend, or parent, or expert, or politician) and whether what they are saying sounds intuitively plausible. Crucially, intuitive plausibility itself is contingent on our prior beliefs. If what someone is telling us conflicts with a deeply-held belief – they’re telling me the Earth is flat when I’ve been informed my entire life that it is round, for instance – then it’s unlikely I’m going to abandon my prior belief in favour of what they’re now telling me. That’s important, because it provides further fuel to the pyre of the realist view of expertise: if I have a prior disposition not to believe people we call ‘experts’, because I perceive them to have been mistaken before, then it’s unlikely that their telling me something is going to have a large positive impact upon my propensity to believe it.

Delegating our epistemic authority – our ability to carve up the world conceptually – is incredibly common. When we give that authority to a particular person, group, or institution, and we do so for the purpose of solving a particular problem or class of problems, I call those actors ‘experts’. We delegate our authority on matters astrophysical to astrophysicists; we listen to oncologists about cancer; we heed the words of the weather forecaster on meteorological matters. They are our experts on those things. Crucially, this means that they do not already have expert status, putting the burden upon individuals and communities to decide whether or not to validate that status. Rather, we grant them that status when they are able to provide information that is useful for the resolution of particular kinds of problems. Expertise doesn’t exist independent of an audience to grant the status of expert.

What are the implications of this? The little straw-man from earlier might say that now anyone can be an expert, and that this will only speed our civilisation’s inevitable decline into chaos. On the contrary, tiny straw-man. The realist view means that those we designate as experts are never required to learn how to communicate effectively: they’re told that all they have to do is say the facts, and the public will listen – and if they don’t, more fool them. When we switch to an attributionalist view, we are able to place the onus upon those who wish to be considered experts to step up their dialectical game. It’s no longer enough just to sit back on a throne made of credentials and qualifications. Charlatans, hustlers and liars will always be able to peddle nonsense smoothly. We have to trust that those who know what they are talking about will be able to engage with them and show why they are incorrect. We have to trust that, when presented with equal rhetorical skill, truth will be vivified by its collision with error.

Further, and I think potentially even more importantly, when we refuse to engage in a system which identifies and protects a particular “expert class”, we afford ourselves the ability to avoid future situations like the one in which we find ourselves today. By recognising that expertise is a status rather than a trait, we head off at the pass any attempts to tar all ‘experts’ with the same brush. Instead of fetishizing credentials as the sole means by which people can enter the expert class, we should allow anyone to call themselves an expert, and then to have that claim tested through argument. Instead of dismissing an entirely disparate group of people who happen to have been lumped together we enable ourselves to dismiss individuals who make bad judgements, or institutions which have a reputation for making bad calls.

This is incredibly freeing. An economist makes a bad forecast? Be hesitant about trusting them in future. All economists fail to predict and prevent some financial catastrophe? Be incredibly wary of them, unless particular individuals or institutions show themselves to be worthy of a second chance. The failures of pollsters shouldn’t be used to render untrustworthy the predictions of political pundits; likewise, the success of one technocratic elite shouldn’t be seen as validation for other, unrelated people who happen to have a few degrees under their belts.

Expertise as a concept has to endure, and for this it has to be flexible enough to allow audiences to attribute it where they see fit. If they choose some charlatan with the “best words” and clever one-liners, we have to be prepared to fight them (discursively, of course) with equal levels of rhetorical polish. But crucially, those who actually do have knowledge, or skill, or predictive or explanatory powers, should be able to win out against those who do not, provided that they too are good at arguing and presenting their ideas clearly and simply to those who are not familiar with their fields.

If we do all of this, then maybe those who know what they are talking about have a chance of coming back from this anti-intellectual, anti-expert moment we find ourselves in. But if we don’t, then we’re doomed to repeat the technocratic mistakes of the past. We shouldn’t ever again have to hear that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. I hope that we don’t.

You do not have the right to ‘offend’

On the 5th March, I spoke in a debate at the Oxford Union, against the motion “This House Believes that Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend. We lost. Catastrophically. A full, much funnier, write up of the event is on its way, but in the meantime, here’s the rough text of the speech I gave.

I have two jokes for you. The first comes from a piece by Frankie Boyle, entitled ‘Offence and Free Speech’. It goes like this:

The thing about that paedophile ring at Westminster is that they weren’t even the worst MPs. There were people in Parliament who were to the right of MPs that STRANGLED KIDS. And they actually did more harm than paedophiles. I mean, the nonces tried to do harm in their own little way, but Thatcher fucked ALL the kids.

The second comes from a lovely website called Sickipedia, and it goes like this:

What do you say to a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice.

Both of these jokes are offensive in the sense that they can shock, appall and cause personal upset. On the level of rights and freedoms, only one of these jokes matters.

What I’m hoping to convince you of over the next few minutes is that framing this debate in terms of ‘offence’ is an error. It is an error because it obscures the difference between the personal upset which might be caused to a person in a position of privilege by a joke, or a comment, or an insult, and the contribution to oppression and prejudice and structural inequalities which is made by comments aimed at people from groups which are marginalised in society.

First, I want to address some of the points made by Brendan O’Neill in his speech. I want to talk about the idea that any restriction on speech in the name of preventing harm, where that speech is not actively inciting violence, is somehow paternalistic or infantilising. Brendan in particular has a shtick about this. ‘Students of Britain,’ he says, ‘rise up against your censorious leaders! You’re being patronised beyond belief. You’re being infantilised. So buy the Sun, play Robin Thicke on college radio, invite the EDL to speak, talk about abortion, make sexist jokes, indulge in banter, hold debates on transgenderism, and do anything else you can to kick against the pricks who think you are babies who must be kept away from sexy or shocking or silly words.’

Two responses to this: One, no, I’m not the only one saying these things, it’s just that I’m the one who gets invited to speak about them at the Oxford Union and I wonder why that is. It’s almost as if entrenched structural privilege is a thing. Most of the people saying these things are from marginalised groups, and the free speech absolutists are, by and large, privileged white men.

Two, why is having a thick skin such an important trait to you? what is so important about being able to take insult after insult that you fetishise emotional fortitude so? why can’t you embrace the reality that some people in society are weak, they are vulnerable, they are hurt in ways that go beyond the temporary emotional by things that you say?

Let’s talk about how we have come to be in a situation where ‘offence’ is the operative word in situations where speech is discussed. How have we got to the point where any and all protests against the harmful effects of a particular speech act can be dismissed with the wave of a hand and an apocryphal Voltaire quote? How has it come to pass that we have ceded the authority to obviate any need for arbitration of speech and expression, either by ourselves or by others, to smug Stephen Fry GIFs?

A tentative answer – and those of you playing student leftie bingo, please keep any noise to a minimum – comes from neo-liberal individualism. When we’ve been told for so long that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families, we come to believe that not only is there no need for social cohesion greater than that required to facilitate the functioning of business, but also that there is no such thing as identity politics – or that, if there is, it is something pernicious, something which undermines ‘rational discourse’, something JS Mill certainly wouldn’t approve of. We’ve been led to believe that the only kind of harm that matters is individual harm, that the only offence which has any importance is individual offence, that there is no need for a politics which encompasses the very real prejudices, conscious and unconscious, historic and present, which give rise to structural oppressions in our society.

This, I put to you, is a fundamental mistake. [Only if Brendan et al say this: last time I spoke to Brendan, he quoted Martin Luther King, telling me that he wanted to live in a world in which people were judged by their character, and not by the colour of their skin]. I, too, would like to live in that world. But it is not the world we live in. You have to be intentionally looking in the wrong direction not to see the very real, everyday acts, both small and large, minor and viscerally violent, which are perpetrated against people from marginalised groups, and which perpetuate their marginalisation.

Only by recognising that oppression and harm happens on a structural level, and it is contributed to by every offensive joke, no matter if it is ‘ironic’; by every throwaway remark about rape, or domestic violence, or mental illness; by every racist cartoon and every dog-whistle xenophobic immigration panic Daily Mail article and every Unilad facebook post; only when we recognise that, can we begin to understand why ‘offence’ is not the right way to frame this debate. What to me is personally upsetting – and I’ve been called an awful lot of things in recent months – is to others actively oppressive.

Instead of focussing on ‘offence’, we should be focussing on material harm, whether that be physical or psychological – and there really isn’t that much of a distinction between them. This has all been said before, in much more eloquent terms, by Katherine Cross of Feministing. She says, ‘Being made to fear for your life is not the same as feeling hurt by speech. Losing your job as a result of stereotypes or harassment contained in speech is not the same as feeling personally offended by that speech. Being shot by the police because of ideas about your skin color transmitted through discourse is not the same as merely being offended by it. Being outed against your will is not the same as having your feelings hurt by it. It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.’

These are the kinds of material harm with which we should concern ourselves. Speaking out against these acts, which happen every single day, across the world, is a radical expression of free speech. Some people will tell you that the most important thing we can do is to listen to views we consider vile and toxic, as though inciting racial hatred or transphobia or misogyny is some kind of victory for Enlightenment values.

I think J.S. Mill would be sick to his stomach if he were alive to see the kinds of people who have appropriated his ideas today, and the ends to which they have put them. Never mind the fact that the ideal Millian arena in which good ideas will always beat the bad ideas just doesn’t exist. Never mind the rhetorical tricks and flourishes and seductive prose that awful people use to convince ordinary people to join them in hatred.

Instead of celebrating the most down-punching, prejudiced, bigoted acts of speech that can be summoned up in the name of ‘free inquiry’, we should be celebrating the up-punchers, the radicals who offend those in power, the non-conformists who refuse to be cowed by bullies who wield ‘the Enlightenment’ and ‘robust public debate’ as sticks to beat them with.

Yes, we should have freedom of speech. Yes, we should have debate, and argument, and vigorous disagreement. But we have to recognise that not all views are created equal, that you do not have a positive, protected right to hurt people, and ‘offence’ does not begin to cover the damage which our words can cause.

The ‘New Political Correctness’ tastes of privilege and desperation

I had an email from The Spectator the other day, asking me to come on their podcast and discuss the latest work vomited directly from the mouth of professional Brendan, Brendan O’Neill. It’s on ‘the New Political Correctness’, which is apparently A Thing now. I’m not certain a) how it differs from the old political correctness, or b) whether it means anything other than ‘common human decency extended to more people than just straight white guys’, but there we go. I agreed, because someone has to try and convince poor Brendan of the error of his ways.

They sent me the articles, one of which, ‘An A-Z Guide to the New PC’, is essentially an excuse for Brendan to gleefully type ‘nigger’ and ‘tranny’ and get away with it. To quote Tom Slater, who works for Brendan’s pet hate machine Spiked, ‘someone should tell them that satire is supposed to be funny’. The other article, by Damian Thompson, begins by telling us that ‘transgender … includes transvestites and transsexuals’, before whining that nowadays one has to ‘patiently master the racial nomenclature that tripped up Benedict Cumberbatch’, because it really is awful that we can’t just talk about Orientals and Negroes anymore. The triptych of turgid tripe is rounded off by Rod Liddle lagubriously lamenting the fact that some people desire gender neutral pronouns. The whole thing would be quite funny if it weren’t for the fact that I can picture in my mind the hordes of Spectator readers nodding along and tutting at the arrogance and censoriousness of today’s young liberals.

Here is a bunny to take your mind off of the mental image of Rod Liddle, Damian Thompson and Brendan O’Neill in a hideous ecstasy of righteous privileged anger

I wasn’t aware that the podcast, which you can listen to here, would include both myself and Brendan talking at the same time until they Skyped me. I hadn’t expected to come face to face with Brendan until next month at the Oxford Union, when we’ll be debating ‘The right to free speech always includes the right to offend’, so it was a little bit of a shock. I haven’t listened back to the whole thing because I like the sound of my voice probably about as much as Brendan does, but a few things stuck in my mind.

He kept referring to me as Mr Squirrell, which was a little jarring – possibly because he thinks my name is funny, possibly because he didn’t think we’re on first name terms yet. I disagree – when someone writes an article lambasting you and referring to you as a ‘censorious leader’ of students, I think you form a certain connection.

Then there was his strange insistence that he’s a ‘progressive’, and he’s upset by the fact that today’s left-wing students don’t see everyone on earth as ‘equals’ and judge people based on their character rather than the colour of their skin. ‘See,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘You hate Martin Luther King, so really you’re a racist!’ I’m quite happy to judge people entirely on the content of their character when society starts doing that too. When people who’ve been systematically marginalised and oppressed because of the colour of their skin, or their gender, or their sexuality, are raised up to the same level of prosperity that middle class white men enjoy now, then I’ll happily judge people and their words and actions entirely on the basis of their character, rather than their background. But we’re not there yet. We’re so very far from there that pretending we are is nothing short of delusional or, as Brendan put it, ‘literally insane’. It’s a weird day when I get to play the pragmatist and accuse someone of being idealistic, but it happened.

I’ll let you listen and judge for yourself – there’s no doubt that Brendan (or Mr O’Neill, if he prefers) is a good speaker, and he has in common with some of the other right-wing pundits the ability to spin a seductive argument and reframe the debate in such a way that it almost seems like he’s on the moral highground. But if you peel back the thin veneer of intuitively appealing idealism and faux-egalitarianism, you can see it for what it is: a man from a dying breed of privilege, raging against the dying of the light.

The podcast is here, if that’s the sort of thing you’re in to.