The experts exposed

Lenin allegedly said, "there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen". Living through placid times just as we gave up on history, it came alive in 2020. But that's not the only comeback worth noticing. Prime Ministers, including those who regularly trashed experts or promoted health benefits of cow urine, came to hide behind 'science' to justify what they are doing. Scientists on television, even if only things they are permitted to do are to sheepishly nod or parrot platitudes, have become a regular spectacle. The pandemic seemed to have brought them back from oblivion.

But is this the moment of experts or the twilight of expertise? The great hurrah for science may be misleading when its appreciation extends only upto speculative statistics, which, with its magic wand of models, can produce any result that one may want to see. In fact, as this great catastrophe came knocking, it was clear that we were looking the wrong way in the experts-vs-plebeian struggle. It is not a straightforward light and darkness battle - not many people today would be jumping off a cliff expecting divine intervention - but rather a nuanced perversion of the idea of 'science' itself. The more we accept the speculative art of financial prediction as the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, the more we lose the commitment and humility that comes with true expertise. As the salesmen-CEOs dent our universe with bluster, the lab-coat guy has not only been obscured out of the view, but lost his profession to an army of smooth-voweled consultants and accountants.

This is an easy point to forget, particularly after all the belated science-worshipping, but only recently we have been bemoaning a popular revolt against the experts. That revolt, in perspective, was really about people resenting expertise of this self-serving and speculative kind. Some people started seeing that the invisible hand of the market isn't that invisible or impersonal at all; rather, the words 'market', 'law', 'freedom' and 'fairness' were all used to serve very entrenched interests. Yes, there was a lot of maths, but a lot of that was voodoo, more for keeping people out. And, indeed, as money could be made at will, few people had all the money and all the power. Sure, one could 'mine' coins with a Raspberry Pie, but the pretension that it was changing the world for better was a bit too much for some people.

However, now that such distinctions appear plain - the difference of work of those millionnaire bitcoin-miners and food-bank-fed zero-hour nurses - it is still an easy point to forget. We are programmed to think that things we don't understand are higher-order stuff, though most of it could just be plain nonsense. Just as adults make up code-words that children can't understand, a lot around us is just babble to keep people out; an elaborate ploy supported very sincerely by universities and colleges who foist the banner of meritocracy to keep plebeians plain. It's no wonder that one thing that 2020 may be remembered for is the huge spike in publications exposing and criticising the ruse of meritocracy.

No one, of course, wants to talk about it. But the virus has taught us one thing: Even if all humans may not have an equal level of understanding of all matters, all humans have a requirement - and a right - to understand things that matter. No matter whether you support public education or you want it destroyed, you know that some people not understanding the science stuff may directly impact you. And, that, the freak show of speculation will come up, from time to time, against events such as these when real expertise, and not the pretend kind we have been worshipping lately, would be needed. We may need a new word to differentiate the Experts from the experts, something that strips the men with smooth vowels of the claim to know-it-all.


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