The Paradox of Expertise

» January 22nd, 2015

Noah Berlatsky writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

RECENTLY I WROTE a story about Star Wars and science fiction for The Atlantic. The comments section, as these things will, featured a large number of people telling me that I was unqualified to write about the topic because I hadn’t read enough sci-fi books, or hadn’t read enough recent sci-fi books, or hadn’t read the right sci-fi books, or hadn’t seen the right sci-fi movies.

I’m sure this is a familiar experience for anyone who’s published work on culture. 

Culture? Try agriculture.

I’ve been writing about the topic for many years and perhaps the biggest blowback question I get is “are you a farmer”?

“No,” I respond, “which is why you should trust me.”

There is a paradox at the core of expertise: those who really know something well, be it sci-fi or growing corn, are often too wrapped up in it economically or emotionally to register opinions that are free of self-interest. Not always, but most of the time.

Critics can say what they will about my thoughts on agriculture but, at the end of the day, I’m a history professor who, although passionate about the topic, has no economic stake in the game one way or another. Zero. I get my paycheck from the state of Texas.

By contrast, take a close look at those who are delivering the most persistent pleas for various forms of agricultural reform, one way or another.

I’m too tired to name names, but when beef ranchers promote the beauties of grass-fed beef, or pig-farmers promote the beauties of pastured pigs, or egg-farmers promote the virtue of Humane Certified eggs, or food writers promote foods that happen to be central to the recipes they write in best-selling cookbooks, I balk.

To be fair, I also balk when—again, without naming names—animal advocates link their activism with their own entrepreneurial product development. I’m not begrudging anyone their quest to make some crumple, but I have no choice but to assume their expertise is compromised as well.

Odd as it may sound, expertise is enhanced with distance from the topic under consideration.


6 Responses to The Paradox of Expertise

  1. Marc Bedner says:

    The whole concept of expertise is suspect. As a wildlife advocate, I notice it particularly in the way state game departments (some of which call themselves wildlife departments) are set up. They act on behalf of hunters, are typically active hunters themselves, and frequently have a financial stake in the hunting industry. Yet they call themselves biologists, and are recognized as experts by federal agencies as well as many environmental lobbies. Even endangered species programs, such as the Mexican wolf reintroduction program, are placed under the auspices of these alleged experts.
    I can identify the exact date I lost trust in the concept of expertise. On March 28, 1979, when I was living in Pennsylvania, the experts assured me that the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island was nothing to be concerned about.

  2. John T. Maher says:

    We are all a priori compromised, economically and politically, and should admit this to ourselves as well as others.

    As far as the state of grace of academia in Texas you are fortunate to be one level removed from the fray and therefore better able to contemplate the bigpic. However, I believe we should report you to law enforcement for possibly running afoul of the False Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act of 1995 of the Republic of Texas for raising ethical and other grounds — not mentioned in the Bible, mind you — for not eating meat. The sheriff we a be a bringin’ you in.

    Seriously, there are well-known subtle and not so subtle efforts to marginalize and thus exclude vegan oriented viewpoints in and out of academia and inside the entire spectrum of debate. Rumours abound of careers ended, certain professors forced out, research not funded, defunded and lives and discourse controlled and altered. Best and Nocella wrote about this.

    Should all journalism claim to be unbiased as in America? Should it be overtly and upfront labeled as partisan as in Europe (this is changing)? What about the double slit experiment applied to journalism and advocacy? The observers is an actant who changes the outcome of the observation. These are questions so meta we might need Mountain to weigh in on them. Is it not more honest, in effect, to invest your human and economic capital in line with your beliefs? That said Pollan and Bittman and Niman Ranch and bacon loving Gen Z journos all still spout obvious nonsense designed to enable their business models.

  3. Dave Wasser says:

    Great post, James. I couldn’t agree with you more. I am always infuriated by people who claim to be experts simply because they have some experience in a field. Experience does not equal expertise.

    Here is one example that comes to mind. When William Bennett was Director of National Drug Control Policy (the “Drug Czar”) he said that he was for the beheading of anyone who sold drugs. When asked to explain himself, he said “I taught ethics, so I know what is right.” Actually, teaching ethics does not mean that you know the answers to ethical questions. It means that you know what the questions are, and what the potential answers could be. But that’s it.

    I bet plenty of people who heard Bill Bennett say that thought that he must be right because he has so much experience in drug control and ethics.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Some thought Bennett might be correct under certain ethical ‘If P then Q’ formulations, such as Utilitarianism, if we assume (as humanists) that human life is worth preserving and that beheading would serve the greater good by denying many humans illegal drugs and consequent deaths and is therefore justifiable. I actually think Bennett had not thought any of this out and was grandstanding to the right wing by using rhetoric to bolster his identity as a tough on crime dude. What you refer to are tautological assumptions of competence and, economically, branding issues. You are spot on about teaching ethics and its framework.

  4. Mountain says:

    It’s a question of blindness. If you haven’t practiced agriculture, it doesn’t disqualify you from writing about it, but it means you’re limited by massive blind spots. At minimum, agriculture consists of the relationships between the three kingdoms (plants, animals, fungi) and their relationship with the soil. Your blindness in these areas is not unlike the blindness of meat eaters who know nothing (intentionally or otherwise) about the animal who was an animal before s/he was meat.

    Not that you’re unique in your blindness. The ranchers who criticize your blindness are themselves blind– not just because of the self-interest that you mention, but their ignorance of any aspect of agriculture other than the one they practice.

Leave a Reply