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.

What I wish they’d told me about postgrad

Postgraduate degrees can be lonely. Like, really fucking lonely.

It sounds trite, but I wish someone had warned me before I decided to do a PhD just how isolating it could be. In my final year of undergrad, I knew that I wanted to stay in academia, and so I spent my Christmas hols writing up research proposal after research proposal. I was lucky enough to receive four years of funding from the ESRC to study at Edinburgh, reading about expertise and authority and the internet, in the Department of Science, Technology and Innovation Studies.

The city itself is excellent and my experiences of the department have been broadly positive. It’s just hard. Hard to drop all of the friends and relationships you’ve built up over the last four years and move somewhere completely new, many hours by train away from everyone you know and love. Hard to make new friends when most people around you are younger, or older, or busy with work, or has their own friends already, or has a long-term partner they live with.

Much of the isolation of a PhD is an extension of the kind of isolation undergraduate humanities students can already experience. Most of my work consists of sitting in an office, library, cafe or park, reading and annotating and trying to think of a vaguely original argument about something which people much more intelligent and harder working than I have dedicated their entire careers to. As someone who doesn’t deal well with being on my own much of the time, there’s an internal tension between wanting to surround myself with people and knowing that if I do so I’m unlikely to get much done. I end up sitting in the ‘collaborative working’ area of our little postgrad office, hoping to absorb some camaraderie and sociality by osmosis, not caring that people’s conversations prevent me from concentrating on my reading because at least this way I can pretend that reading paper after paper isn’t such a lonely fucking chore.

The isolated nature of the work brings with it the additional problem of making it harder to motivate myself to work in the first place. I used to be a science student with constant lectures and labs, and it was difficult not to see people. Getting out of bed was rarely a struggle because there was always somewhere I had to be at 9, or 10, or 11. Now the lack of deadlines or immediate pressure is just one more reason to stay in bed for another three hours and stare at the space on the wall. On a good day I’m in the office before midday. On a bad day I never make it in.

But it’s not just the work itself that’s lonely. It’s all of the baggage that comes with being a postgraduate student at a new university. Even as the youngest person in my cohort (I’ve just turned 23, the average age is probably around 26), most of my friends are undergraduates who are significantly younger than me. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that – I’m not so silly as to think that there’s something weird about hanging out with 18 year olds – but it does make some things difficult. It might be fine to be friends with undergrads because your hobbies coincide, but getting invited to parties gets a bit harder, and when you are invited you’re the guy who’s a bit out of place because he’s older and he’s been through this and there’s this disconnect of experience which makes you feel as though people are looking at each other as if to say ‘why is he here?’.

Worse, your schedules just don’t match up with most of your friends’. When you’ve just handed in a solid 15,000 words of work and you’re ready to unwind, they’re just getting into the meat of exam season. Then, just when it’s getting to the point where you’re starting to stress over your dissertation and could do with some company, everyone fucks off for the summer and you’re left in a half-empty city full of people you’ve never really had the chance to get to know.

As a postgrad, it’s just much harder to form lasting bonds with the people in your cohort. A lot of people are only there for a year, which means that no matter how fast you make friends, you’re going to find it hard to really get to know them, particularly when the workload of a Masters or PhD can be pretty intense. It’s exacerbated by the fact that a lot of people are holding down jobs or long-term relationships, so they’re not around much of the time. Add to that the fact that lectures and seminars can be somewhat scarce at this level, and the result is that you’re unlikely to even know everyone in your cohort. More likely is that you get to know a few people reasonably well, but you don’t necessarily hang out with them all that much because they’ve got other commitments and so have you and your schedules just might not collide.

When you’re an undergrad you’re thrown in together with whole hordes of others in your subject groups and your halls of residence. It’s (usually) pretty easy to have two or three quite large groups of friends from where you live, and nights out, and myriad societies and sports teams. That makes it easier to find people to hang out with at random times of the day when you’re feeling isolated, or to have an impromptu dinner or even to find people to live with the next year. I’ve been looking for one or more people to live with since around November, and I still can’t find anyone. It’s not for want of trying: most of my postgrad friends don’t know if they’re here next year, or if they are then they have partners they live with; and all of my undergrad friends have groups they’re flat-hunting with, and I get the feeling nobody particularly wants someone four years their senior barging into their pre-existing friendship groups. That’s totally fair, on all fronts. It’s just sad.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re considering a postgraduate degree, think really hard about whether this is something you can handle. If you’re really worried about moving somewhere new, maybe consider staying at your current university, or just go to bloody London because everyone seems to move there anyway. I don’t think I regret it (yet), I just wish someone had told me this before I started on a four year degree in a new city.