Tag Archives: expertise

Brain Train Podcast

Largely gratuitous picture of a steamtrain.

Martin Austwick (physicist, podcaster, musician) and I have just launched a podcast called Brain Train.

Each episode an academic interviews another about their work, then in the next episode the interviewee becomes the interviewer (and the expert becomes the novice) and so on. It’s a bit like Chain Reaction on Radio 4, except our focus is more on knowledge rather than performers’ lives. The pilot had me interview a water systems engineer. Then she wanted to know about autism research, so we found an expert on that. Now the autism researcher wants to know more about philosophy…

Visit the website, or you can subscribe directly in iTunes. We’re still finding our feet a bit, and each episode with vary just because of the nature of the project, but I hope it’s going to build into something fun.

Welcome our expert overlords…?

magic beans? popular economic booksWith the various Eurozone happenings, there’s been a lot chatter around the word “technocracy” over the last week or so. I’m used to feeling a bit marginal in my obsession with the role, status and accountability of expertise in society, so I find this interesting. I do worry, however, if too much of this debate has placed an idea of experts against one of democracy.

A technocracy, if you’ve been puzzled by this term, is probably best understood as a society run by experts. It’s not a democracy, supposedly by the people, or a monarchy, by people who inherited or battled their way to a crown. It is, in a way, governance by people who know best, which may seem attractive. Or rather, it is governance by people who are thought to know best (or say they know best…) which is where it starts to get unstuck.

The FT’s Gillian Tett, in an interview with the Guardian last weekend, says we need technocrats right now, that “a rowdy democratic political system” isn’t really possible. Maybe she’s right, but it’s not a view that goes down well with everyone. Paul Mason (Newsnight), offers a very different response to the same question: “Don’t kid yourself these are technocrats”. I think he has a point here, this word technocracy could all be a bit of a red herring, a bit of a rhetorical appeal to a sense of knowledge, a neat way to obscure the usual business where various forms of politicians aren’t nearly as efficient or democratically accountable as they pretend to be. Still, I’m also inclined to say such politics is always there, “Don’t kid yourself about technocracy.” is maybe all we need to say.

Experts aren’t appointed or defined by God, as some might imagine a King or Queen. Or, more simply, experts aren’t born: they are made. People in power get to decide what counts as experts and there are various forms of political play that put one expert or another in a position of power. If someone appoints an expert to a position of power, you should always ask whose definition of expertise are they applying. This isn’t to suggest experts aren’t worth listening to – just because something is socially constructed with political connections and bias doesn’t mean it’s not real, useful and meaningful – but it doesn’t make them obviously or straightforwardly our leaders either.

Working out if we have the right or wrong experts is hard. Very, very hard. Even putting aside philosophical questions of “unknown unknowns”, the nature of the specialised expertise we all rely upon means a lot of us have to spend a lot of our time in ignorance of what other people know and do. A brain surgeon’s ignorance of quantum mechanics frees them up to be terribly clever about brain surgery (and vice versa), but such specialisation is also limiting. It creates some intellectual distance between us, making it hard to comprehend each other, which can be problematic when it comes to forming the group decisions of policy-making. That’s why I headed this post with a picture of some popular economics books. Much as I’m all for openness and sharing of specialist knowledge and like the idea that we could all be brought up to speed with things quickly, I don’t think a promise to learn economics in 30 second bites is going to do it. The world we’ve made for ourselves is simply too complex. Perhaps we have to sacrifice the benefits of specialisation for a more readily comprehensible society, that we simply shouldn’t do things if it can be understood by enough people to be democratically accountable. Or maybe we need this specialisation to get us out of the various messes we’ve made for ourselves (yes, I have read Ulrich Beck…). I don’t know.

To leave Eurozone aside for a moment, there’s an interesting related issue brewing in terms of House of Lords reform. The Lords has traditionally be a repository for a lot of research expertise. Make our second chamber more democratic and we might lose that. Or we might find a way to have democratically accountable experts. Again, I don’t know. I look forward to watching the huge bunfight it’ll inspire terribly clever ideas people come up with to deal with it.