Letter to an Expert

“Arguments from authority are rarely made by authorities.”
—Aaron Haspel, Everything: A Book of Aphorisms (2015)

Dear Mr. Expert,

You say that the people most critical of any job or pursuit are most often those who don’t have to actually do it. This is to a large extent true, and, at times, as you say, annoying. But I’m worried about how this argument is customarily used: namely, as a convenient way to silence critics and avoid answering difficult questions. “Trust me,” says the spook at the dinner party, “if you saw the scary intelligence reports I see every day, you’d know why we’ve gotta suspend civil liberties for a little while and wiretap grandma.”

Paternalism of this stamp works in healthy societies with a high degree of social trust, societies with well-functioning elites. It breaks down when that trust is betrayed and the people lose faith in their elites. For instance, if the power elite running the show in my society seems, for the most part, to know what they’re doing, if they seem to be doing a fairly good job, I might be inclined to accept the spook’s explanation on faith. But, as it happens, I don’t trust my government. Not now. Not recently. Because they’ve betrayed my trust on numerous occasions in the last decade. So, if it’s not too much trouble, I think I’d like to take a look at those intelligence reports you mentioned. If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d like to see them files, with my own two eyes. Okay? That cool with you?

Didn’t think so.

But seriously, I’m willing to accept that there are some things that I simply cannot see (e.g., for reasons of national security). And I’m equally willing to accept that there’s a short list of things which are simply beyond my ken, things which are so complicated that I simply won’t be able to grasp them regardless of how hard you try to enlighten me. I have limitations. I get that. And I’m okay with that. But, still, Mr. Expert, don’t be too hasty! Don’t be so quick to conclude that you’ve smacked into the plexiglass of my intellectual limitations just because I don’t “get it” the first time around. If I don’t seem to be getting it, it could be because I’m just not that smart; but it’s probably because you’re just not very good at explaining yourself.

If fifteen years of teaching has taught me anything, it’s this: if the student isn’t getting it, it’s almost always the teacher’s fault. If I can’t seem to grasp what you’re saying, it’s probably because you’re using weird language that’s unfamiliar to me (e.g., professional jargon). If I’m not getting it, it’s probably because you’re leaving out vital parts of the explanation. So, then, the idea you’re trying to convey isn’t the problem; you, sir, are the problem. After all, let’s face it: the experts working on the really difficult stuff—the Nobel Prize winning stuff, the stuff that many of us are simply incapable of understanding—are now, as they have always been, a small subset of those known as experts. That’s the dirty little secret the high priests of expert worship don’t want us to know: namely, that most of what so-called experts do isn’t rocket science.

The list of things that I cannot see, or am incapable of seeing, is a short list. And it ought to be a short list. But it’s not a short list in 2016. All to the contrary: it’s a long list, and it’s getting longer and longer with each passing year. Why? In part, this is because our governments are moving in scary directions: towards a kind of Orwellian surveillance state that ought to give us all pause. But in many ways our governments are just mirroring a larger social trend. We are moving, with shocking rapidity, away from the open society our grandparents fought for, and towards a closed society ruled by experts. Winning an election, toppling a shitty government, bankrupting a corrupt corporation: these are all good things, and they’ll help, but they don’t go far enough, not nearly far enough. We need to reclaim and reassert the right of the citizen to doubt, question, and expect answers from experts.

That being said, what I’m saying doesn’t apply to all experts. Because clearly some of them are benign. For instance, if you’re studying ancient Egyptian scrolls (or something equally arcane), you can do whatever you wish. I don’t care. Knock yourself out. Have your little private parties, with your secret handshakes: it’s all good. But if you’re an expert whose work has a direct bearing upon the health and well-being of people I love, if you’re entrusted with the care of my children, my aging parents, my environment, my food, my water, my economy, well, then, you’re going to have to get over yourself, reach outside of your comfort zone, and tell me, in plain speech, what the f*ck you’re doing. And why you’re doing it. Telling me to sit down and shut up. Telling me to calm down and go home. Telling me that you’ve “got this” . . . well, that’s just not gonna fly anymore. Why? Because if the history of the last half century teaches us anything, it’s that you guys don’t always know what you’re doing. Nor do you always have my best interests in mind.

Still, fear not! I’m not about to go off on some wacky anti-vaccination rant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you (or at least most of you) have worked long and hard to gain the expertise you have. Indeed, I’ll happily go much farther than that: most experts know,really know, a great deal more about their area of expertise than I ever will. And I respect that. But you need to respect my right to ask questions and expect answers. Does this mean that you’re going to have repeat yourself often? Yep. Does this mean you’re going to have to field some really stupid questions? Yep. But so what? Seriously, suck it up: because the alternative isn’t pretty. Open societies have always been societies filled with dilettantes and generalists: societies filled with soldiers who can write half-decent poetry, shopkeepers who moonlight as amateur entomologists, and stay-at-moms who can talk intelligently about foreign policy.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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