According to Peter Ustinov, if the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can't be done. With global warming competing with natural disasters and nuclear power back on the agenda ‘with a vengeance’, at least according to Blair (1), then the world blowing up is long due. Clever Peter. What a great actor.
Well, he was. An actor, that is. Not a climatologist. But you can’t turn on a television or open a paper without suffering a sense-assault from someone bewailing ‘so-called experts.’ Two weeks ago Deborah Orr was at it in the Independent: ‘How can so-called experts still be so clueless’? she demanded, apropos of bullying in school. Someone had done some research she didn’t like.
But I’d sooner trust the five minutes of toothy arm-waiving that occurs after the news than ask, say, a tramp.
Expert-rubbishing is rife. Judges pass sentence on criminals, some lackwit sycophant from the Home Office pops up and lambastes them with an outraged snigger for being out-of-touch and old. Every last person has an opinion on climate change, the criminal justice system, architecture, television programming, binge-drinking, nutrition or Africans and why shouldn’t they? But it’s not necessarily an informed opinion. Fact may be either correct or not. All opinions, we are too often told, are as valid as each other. Nope.
Predictions, for example, are all opinion. The weather forecast for one. But I’d sooner trust the five minutes of toothy arm-waiving that occurs after the news than ask, say, a tramp. If I wanted to know about the financial climate for the last quarter of 2006 I’d ask an actuary in preference to a vicar. Unless he was an actuary as well. Of course opinion comes in different shades of expertise; an opinion based on prior knowledge and study of the subject will always be worth more than that of a mouthy tit in your local.
And it is noticeable that this attitude to learning is shot through with snobbery. Rarely do you hear someone say that their pipes have frozen, their water heater’s fucked and bathroom flooded but “call in a plumber? what do they know?” Nor do hoards of our stay-at-homers drag sacks of household waste down to the landfill because they don’t trust these so-called bin-men to do it. But spend five minutes on a bus to overhear someone having a go at doctors.
The real experts beaver away in airless rooms deep in the bowels of Whitehall or Walthamstow, the minister is just the poor sod pushed out to the cameras.
Why do we hate experts so much? It might well be because expertise is not – cannot be – democratic. It can take a long time to discover enough facts to build up a decent knowledge-base from which to pontificate. It also demands intelligence, dedication and will. It can be boring, and it can cost money. How dare they? How dare people have the temerity to know what they’re talking about? We live in the age of the ‘reality star’ which idolises stupidity and ineptitude, worships at the altar of fecklessness and gleefully chomps on the chrism of prejudice. We live in a classless society, so it is distinctly off-message to elevate yourself above the mediocre of the populace by prizing something so elitist as knowledge.
It started with the rubbishing of politicians, which – to be fair – was long overdue. But that was unfortunately a false premise. Politicians are not experts in the subjects they speak on. The real experts beaver away in airless rooms deep in the bowels of Whitehall or Walthamstow, the minister is just the poor sod pushed out to the cameras. That some of them are deeply repellent individuals is quite another matter.
Perhaps society was grown-up enough to hate the sin and not the sinner, but it chose the wrong misdeed, and opted to despise authority in any form when it should have gone for hypocrisy, falsely assumed power and arrogance. Experts have been replaced with commentators; every news event sees a range of disparate single-issue spokespeople dashing to grab the bandwagon tail. Columnists fill papers with ignorant crap, from the woolly prolixity of the broadsheets through the mawkish mid-markets to the red-top rednecks. And where once we might have had some small insight, we get rabble-rousing from all denominations aimed at the lowest commoner.
Is there a solution? Perhaps, but it will take determination. We will have to sacrifice our dearly-held, if somewhat bizarre, conviction that we have the right to have our ill-formed knee-jerks taken seriously; even when we’re talking any old balls. We will have to accept that when you know the square root of sod-all about something, your opinion isn’t worth much. But the alternative is a vision of a Daily Mail columnist stamping on a human face – forever.
1. and why can he manage to make everything sound like a poorly-planned action-movie sequel? The man who brought the concept of the soundbite into popular consciousness now reduced to sound-nibbles, little dimity sound-nips like an octogenarian making tentative passes at a satsuma.