3:1 — Experts Everywhere? Experts Nowhere? — 3 of 3


Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink … 

Earlier this week, Jacob raised the provocative notion that “terrorism expert” was something of an oxymoron drawing attention to how supposed terrorism expert Steve Emerson made some irresponsible public remarks about the concentration of Muslim persons in a number of cities.

But Jacob also shed some light on how the very notion of terrorism does not lend itself to a clean/clear subject to be an expert in because terrorism, on the one hand, has a political dimension that can never really be excised to form a “pure” science (cough) and, on the other hand, terrorism is often in the eye of the beholder (or as Jacob said somewhere, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter). It all reminded me of some readings in my Social Problems class about terrorism – during class discussion a student (perhaps unknowingly) raised a really important question: “Hey, Dr. Rowland, does it matter that the author of this piece is not at a University and instead works for the government military complex?” (not a perfect question, obviously, but it lead to a great discussion, and, at times, a heated one). Returning to the crisis of expertise in terrorism: my hunch was that some serious traction might be gained by thinking about how persons in this line of work get said expertise during training – given that, as Jacob noted, certificates in this line of work are a dime a dozen – or what sorts of activities a person can be involved in – journalistic work with terrorists inside prisons, for example – that justify their expert status. On Monday, we were questioning the very possibility of an expert of terror(ism); the supposed experts, whom get a good deal of public and political attention, seem not to be experts in the scientific context that the term typically is used (thus, science is used in name only).

On Wednesday, while Jacob’s terrorism experts are rarely questioned and get tons of public attention, Stef’s climate experts are seemingly always questioned and get little public attention (at least, positive public attention, or they are pigeon-holed as participating in some grand debate about “warming”).


So what makes Jacob’s experts – who reach ecstasy on a daily news show – legitimate experts and Stef’s experts – who cringe at the thought of a daily news show – illegitimate experts?

If Lyotard was right about one thing in “The Postmodern Condition” it was his commentary about scientific expertise, especially about how “old fashioned” scientific expertise was being gradually replaced a parallel somewhat pseudo-scientific enterprise that serviced capital interests (think business scholarship and that ilk) and the state (Jacob’s terrorism experts will do). The net result was a plurality of experts, but what Lyotard did not tease out (he was too busy indicating that this was undermining the grand narrative that Science worked so hard to erect over passing centuries) was that this gradual shift toward a plurality of expertises allowed for a whole new game to be played in public arenas: You could have your cake and eat it too, so to say, you could have your (essentially unquestioned) experts while simultaneously challenging the expert-status of some other expert on the grounds that they claim to be an expert. There is a split; a fissure. This crisis of science, as Jacob pointed out in a comment to Stef’s post anticipates my response: Mertonian norms have failed us under precisely the postmodern conditions we live in!

What do I mean by “water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink” as it applies to experts? My meaning is simple: The split in expertise means that experts are somehow all around us all the time, but none is to be trusted outright, unless of course there are other non-scientific reasons for doing so.

Consider the anti-vaccination controversy (or movement, though I shudder to call it a movement). Now, it is worth noting that this is nothing new – anti-vaxers have been around for nearly a century (as long as we’ve had vaccinations to be against, folks have been against them). While there is a lot of attention directed at the US these days – because of the thought link between vaccinations and autism (where “evidence doesn’t dispel doubts”) and the recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland – there have been similar international examples in recent history in Sweden, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and so on. What is it that makes Jenny McCarthy expert enough for a documentary film about “The Vaccine War”?

My sense is that it is precisely the fissure between expertise in the name of science and other expertises in the employ of capital or politics that opens-up seemingly legitimate space to reroute a general sense of skepticism and then target it so that, on the one hand, we can make the calm, sober, and public claim that a climate scientist is biased on account of being an expert (i.e., those scientists can cook-up any data they want, or that they are in a staunch debate that will never be resolved showing that, in fact, they don’t “know” anything definitively anymore), and, on the other hand, we also make the calm, sober, and public claim that a terrorism expert is unbiased because all s/he wants it to protect the nation and “our way of life” (i.e., the terrorism expert is unbiased on principle account of being obviously biased toward his/her home country, a bias “I can get behind”). This compartmentalization of expetises in relation to how bias operates in public appears to be at play; a bold corruption of Mertonian norms.

10 thoughts on “3:1 — Experts Everywhere? Experts Nowhere? — 3 of 3

  1. one of the things that the ongoing academic philosophy blogwars is making public is all of the politics that make up even the most speculative/hot-housed of enterprises, so not exactly the same as engineers trying to find DARPA free work/money but also not above the fray, and if Stengers and co. are right that we are always already pursuing our own interests, making our ways in/of the world, than the questions for me become about how effective we are at doing what we are doing, what might we rather be doing, what are the unintended consequences of what we are doing ,etc.
    Enough of the sort of Kantian puritanism of for itself, for the pure___ of it, etc.
    We aren’t serving some It but ourselves and better to own it.


  2. I’m trying to tackle your final remark, about the “there is no fissure; only Zuul,” and I am a little bit stuck. For Lyotard, one just gradually overtook the other under the crisis in Science. Perhaps I overstated the case when I said fissure, because, upon reflection, it was exactly those post-WWII scientists that bellied-up to the Defense industry and other government fundings mechanisms who I now think of as an old guard of hired guns working for the government (they were, as it happens, fueling science but also clearly in the employ of both capital and politics). As those funding agencies “dried-up” or “redirected” a different subset of thinkers/experts benefited by being more fit in the funding environment to capture those interests and garner those funds (whether, as Jacob notes, we are taking about hard currency or the currency of “attention”). I’m putting words in Lyotard’s mouth — which isn’t nice, I know — with regard to the funding issues, but they are relevant, and I think he’d agree.

    It may sound like a stretch — and I’m teaching Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism so bear with me — but it reminds me of Weber’s remark:

    “at its beginning, Christian asceticism had fled from the world into the realm of solitude in the cloister. In renouncing the world, however, monastic asceticism had in fact come to dominate the world through the church. Yet, in retreating to the cloister, asceticism left the course of daily life in the world by and large in its natural and untamed state.”

    If you recall Weber’s thesis, this opened the door for Puritans and Calvinists to reposition asceticism as applicable to all manner of mundane activities in everyday life. I guess because I am reading these things in tandem, I can see the current state of the University as sharing a similar form of fate as the old Catholic church. Much of our “purity” in the academic world was born of claiming to be once removed from all these worldly concerns so that bias could not find an inlet through which to spoil our good works. However, we are now left — to some extent — in the Ivory Tower of our own making, our old expertise seeming just that … “old.” It is a bit of a stretch, I realize, but I like the parallel between a monastic order cloistered-up in a church while Puritans gather-up the gold AND an academic order circling-the-wagons around the Ivory Tower while a new generation of “experts” soak-up what little funding is left and dominate media discourses (that we, in the University, are not even invited to).


  3. The “everybody is an expert thanks to Google” was hinted at in the piece, but I did not want to take up even more space getting into it. Glad it sort of came across.


  4. on the academic front I’m part of an serial workshop on research methods with some bioinformatics folks at a university research-hospital and they spend a huge amount of our time talking about how to game funding/publications/institutional-support/etc


  5. so Foucault aside, isn’t this “Serving science (or knowledge) and serving capital (or power) is serving different sides of the same coin. I would instead direct skepticism at the ideological feat that suggests there is a difference or a fissure between them” exactly part of what STS/ANT brought to the forefront that part of the ‘infrastructure’ of research is funding, connections, publics/consumer-bases, etc?
    I think the matter is more are we finally ready to own up to the limits of the promise/fruition of “social” sciences/engineering?


  6. Nic –

    You’ve done exactly what I should have done in my post. I ended by suggesting that expertise reveals the politics of our age but I did little to demonstrate that. I think you’ve shown us that splendidly.

    I suspect that a lot of people will blame the Google effect in reaction to what you say. Here it might worth specifying what is actually new. I think the new ways in which information is now commodified might be revealing. The primary information commodity today is attention not knowledge. Access to knowledge today is unparalleled in human history. The performance of expertise is no longer contingent upon one’s ability to hoard and monopolize knowledge but rather one’s ability to marshal and display knowledge in effective ways. This might signal, in line with your thinking, a change in the performative side of expertise. If expertise is best understood as something performatively constituted by claims to it (in a Butler sort of way), which calls into question issues of power (i.e., whose claims of expertise are heard and believed, whose are not), then I think you’re right: we’re entering a strange new world.

    But are the manifold crises in expertise that we’ve been talking about this week particular to our age or are they perennial? Does the democratization of access to information entail the birth of a new kind of expert or does it simply amplify something that has been going on for a long time? I suspect that if 9/11 had happened in 1991, there would be truthers out there but they wouldn’t have the same powerful means to organize nor the same access to video data to relentlessly pour over. They would have newsletters and zines, and perhaps even a BBS. And as you mentioned, the anti-vaccine ‘movement’ was not invented in an internet chatroom. Every age has its charlatans, soothsayers, and implacable skeptics, just as every age has its high priests, adepts, and Kissingers. More importantly, there is no given distinction between the two; the distinctions are performative. Serving science (or knowledge) and serving capital (or power) is serving different sides of the same coin. I would instead direct skepticism at the ideological feat that suggests there is a difference or a fissure between them.


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