Up Front 04/18

Whenever someone begins a sentence with the words ‘I’m no expert but…’ and then proceeds to hold court on the state of the world, or whatever their chosen subject is, there is a strong chance that they wouldn’t want to listen to an expert anyway. In fact, any opinion outside of their own may not really be to their liking. Expert bashing has often seemed like a national pastime, but today, in our digitally driven world, everyone is an expert. The speed at which comments and ideas can be delivered means that even a meme—an image, video or piece of text carrying an often simplistic message—can quickly become the viewpoint to latch on to. When a meme tickles the imagination of a large audience, it can become the collective social judgement, rapidly masquerading as the ‘expert comment’ on whatever the subject may be. Unfortunately, memes tend to be designed more to amuse or to propagate a political or social agenda, rather than to offer an opportunity for wider and more balanced discussion. But they play such a considerable role on collective consciousness—and more recently in the ‘divide and conquer’ game of manipulating people’s opinions—that real expert knowledge is often drowned out. So what is an expert? Most dictionary definitions go for something along the lines of ‘someone who is very knowledgeable about a particular subject or skilful in a particular area’. I see a doctor about illness because he or she knows so much more than I do about what might cause my ailment. I see a mechanic about fixing my car for the same reason and I read the thoughts of a well-educated historian or scientist because he or she will have learned things that I haven’t had an opportunity to learn. In theory, the analysis offered by any of these will supply useful insights, and more often than not they will be able to offer valid and useful advice. The issue of expertise is not one of whether expert opinion is of value or not—of course it is—a problem only occurs when the expert comment doesn’t fit into our own agenda or suit our current prejudice or political bias. In our increasingly polarized world we need expertise and wisdom, and an ability to dissect and analyze, more than ever. Especially the expertise from those involved in ‘information warfare’ who bragg about how easy it is to manipulate emotions using social media, as in the case of executives from Cambridge Analytica when filmed undercover recently. Whether or not this is just braggadocio or sales spiel, these are also experts that it might be best to take note of—if only to avoid the polarization caused by their manipulative activities.