The diminishing authority of experts

As the world becomes more complex, merely observing it objectively becomes a huge challenge, never mind trying to actually understand it.

You can, of course, reduce complex systems to a few generalised basic principles, but how useful are these, really?

For example, a film critic from 1900 could have been a true expert because they could have seen every film that had ever been made and compared and contrasted the various merits of each if they so wished. Today, there aren’t enough hours in a human lifetime to see even a fraction of the films that have ever been made. Your knowledge, as a film critic, has to be forever inadequate and that inadequacy can only increase with time.

Of course, basic principles of film craft can be used to assess any film that is viewed but it must be annoying for a film critic to be constantly told, “Ah yes, but have you seen so-and-so? That does overcome the <insert the critics objection here>.” The film critics area of expertise is limited only to the films he or she has seen.

Now extrapolate that to the field of experts as a whole. In the financial arena, for example, an expert is only an expert in the processes and products he or she is familiar with and as the world becomes more complex, that means their field of vision becomes more and more narrow.

The causes of individual riots are many and complex. A basic principle however, is that inequality is usually a good starting point. But that doesn’t really explain anything, it just points out the obvious. The concept of someone being in charge or being able to make pronouncements of what is really happening in the world is just an illusion.

Today, David Cameron is attempting to perpetuate that illusion by making ‘knowledgeable’ speeches about a subject that he has absolutely no experience of or is ever likely to have experience of.

Nobody knows anything.

2 Responses to “The diminishing authority of experts”

  1. Imran Ali says:

    LOL, that’s kinda bleak!

    Expertise evolves like anything else. The business of being a 1900-era film critic obviously requires a different set of skills than 2011… synthesis & impact, rather than aesthetic analysis perhaps.

    Empirically understanding complexity is a great skill to have in the modern world. For example, the work of Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt on the physics of cities is a great example of emerging understandings of complexities.

    I’d assert that there isn’t a diminishing of expertise, but that one form of expertise gives way to another… all of expertise has a half-life :)

  2. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Imran, your last sentence reminds me of the first sentence that medical students often hear at the start of their studies—”In ten years time, 50% of what you learn on this course, will be wrong.”

    Of course, no one knows which 50% is wrong so at any one time, a diagnosis has a 50/50 chance of being right. Um, isn’t that the same odds as guesswork?

    OK, I’m being flippant, but the principle still holds. The one area that I am prepared to accede is the field of mathematics. More and more evidence suggests that numbers play a crucial role in the structure and organization of the universe and the study of cities is indeed a fascinating insight into this reality. It could well be that we could gain some profound insight into the origins of complexity through mathematics but any subsequent complex structure created from the principles will still be hard to predict and therefore difficult to understand.

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