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.


3:1 — Experts Rule? Terrorism & oil in question — 1 of 3

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Fox News issued an apology and retraction that gained some attention the following week. Terrorism experts had made several outlandish claims about the prevalence of Islam in Europe, including the idea that there are “no go zones” ruled by radical Islamists and Sharia law. Le Petit Journal had an amusing send up:

The Daily Show had a reliably funny take as well.

Bearing the brunt of most of the criticism was terrorism expert Steve Emerson, who made the claim that the city of Birmingham is now almost entirely Muslim. The claim was then repeated several times by the network before being fact checked. Here’s Emerson on Fox:

Emerson gained notoriety for his 1994 PBS documentary “Jihad in America.” Critics of Emerson like to point out that he was one of the first terrorism experts to allege a Middle Eastern connection to the Oklahoma City bombing. His proof? Only Islamic terrorism was capable of such wanton destruction and reckless disregard for life.

In its retractions, Fox News essentially threw Emerson under the bus. But this did not stop others from calling into question the very notion of terrorism expertise.

For example, Glen Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Lisa Stampnitzky discussed the controversy and the broader problem of terrorism expertise on Democracy Now! Here, the main allegation against terrorism expertise is its lack of academic rigor, proper institutional accreditation, and political manipulation. Significant attention is also given to the subjective concept of terrorism. The charlatan profile of the terrorism expert reflects the dubious standing of terrorism as a coherent, uncorrputed idea.

Scahill took things further in a subsequent CNN appearance. There he excoriated all of the major TV news networks — his CNN hosts included — for using terrorism, security, and military experts with questionable credentials and financial incentives.

Implicit in such criticisms of the “terrorism industrial complex” are distinctions between real forms of expertise and false ones; good experts and bad experts; real forms of political violence and ideologically fabricated ones.

Indeed, the alleged crisis of terrorism expertise is not simply the corrupt motives of some experts but also the bankrupt nature of the concept of terrorism. How can one have a reliable field of expertise when the object at the heart of the field is so intensely contested? If one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, perhaps the concept should be abandoned. But the fact that we don’t abandon it must be suggestive of the fact that terrorism — and so terrorism expertise — serves a political function, not a scientific one. Hence the theory that terrorism is simply a discourse that legitimates US management of the Middle East.

Amid this crisis in terrorism expertise, a much more profound failure of expert knowledge is taking place, one that will likely have massive and far-reaching effects. This is the failure of oil expertise, and it calls into question some of the assumptions driving criticism of terrorism expertise.

The recent decline in oil prices has been largely seen as a boon to US consumers and the bane of Putin’s ambitions. The current glut of oil on the market is often interpreted as a Saudi led effort to undermine the new energy confidence of the United States, green alternatives, Iran, or all of the above. The effects of price crash have yet to be fully understood; the geopolitical ramifications could be enormous. One effect of the 1985-85 oil price collapse — to which the current crisis is drawing comparisons — was the economic undermining of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War soon thereafter.

What is surprising about this new reality of $2 a gallon gas is that we are surprised. The main allegation against terrorism expertise was the subjective idea of terrorism. Oil, on the other hand, is objective.

But for all the purported objectivity of oil — its finiteness, its quantifiability — no one seems to have any idea how much is out there. We will never see $100 oil again or we will soon see $200 oil. Just as the shale oil boom in North America seems to have taken the global oil industry and US politics by surprise, so too has the recent collapse in oil prices — and with it the temporary mothballing of the US gas industry in some areas.

How can these surprises keep happening when the resource is supposedly fixed and — unlike terrorism expertise — the experts are incredibly well trained, objectively credentialed, and housed in the world’s most prestigious universities, corporations, and government bureaucracies?

Next to defense, communications, and space research, it is difficult to think of a modern industrial sector that has more techno-scientific expertise and state power behind it than the oil industry. By oil expertise, one should not think of the handful of neomalthusian or cornucopian writers and academics who extol the virtues and vices of our modern global civilization being premised upon oil. When we think about oil expertise we should be thinking about a class of expertise that includes thousands of geologists, engineers, cartographers, highly skilled laborers, and government officials. Collectively these represent the highest capacities of modern science, technology, and management. And they consistently fail us.

In the case of terrorism and oil expertise, it might be suggested that the common variable that corrupts both fields is state power and geopolitics. That is, whatever objectivity terrorism expertise seems to have and whatever objectivity oil expertise seems to lack is a reflection of the corrupting influence of politics.

The film Syriana is perhaps the ultimate synthesis of these two corruptions.

Robert Baer (played by George Clooney) is a top Middle East terrorism expert with the CIA who is driven to an insignificant desk job because he sees things as they are, not as politics would want him to. Bryan Woodman (played by Matt Damon) is a private sector expert, an energy markets analyst who watches his dreams of helping a Gulf prince liberalize his country go up in smoke — literally. A CIA drone shoots a hellfire missile into the prince’s motorcade just as Baer is attempting to warn the prince. Baer’s bosses in Langley are out to assassinate the prince for being a free market pragmatist who will sell our precious oil to the Chinese.

The corruption of terrorism and oil expertise by state — and corporate — power is a seductive thesis but ultimately unsatisfactory. Both are premised on the notion that uncorrupted expertise is not only possible but desirable. That is, there seems to be a collective expectation that scientific, technical, and managerial expertise — terrorism, oil, and otherwise — should work, and can work under the right circumstances. That expertise doesn’t work is chalked up to distorting outside influences.

To invent nostalgia for the untainted expert reveals the antipolitics of our age. Often the heroes of our culture transcend politics through their expertise in science, technology, and management. Through and with them, we are tempted to imagine and create a world in which government is left behind. Power naturally devolves to the empowered and emancipated individual as we all become global citizen-experts thanks to Google. Lurking behind most criticisms of expertise is an implicit vision of the world that was perhaps first and best articulated by Ayn Rand.

But imagining and making such a world would mean there is nothing to fight over, a world in which there are no secrets and, more importantly, a world in which nature is infinite. As Timothy Mitchell argues, it was oil that allowed us to first create a world in which nature was counted on not to count. Modern economic science then emerged to exclusively render and manage this strange new world. This impoverished, anatural, and yet highly productive understanding of political economy that we call Neoclassical Economics would soon insinuate itself into the very heart of modern governance as Neoliberalism.

The true crisis of contemporary terrorism and oil expertise is the untenable world hiding behind our criticisms of them. It is also the experts’ inability to account for their mutual imbrication. That is, these failures of expertise are the result of oil and terrorism experts’ embeddedness within the imperfect politics of necessity that emerged at the end of WWII when the previous system — direct European control of territory justified and maintained by overt racism — could no longer underwrite the emerging international energy system. To preserve the productive contradictions at the heart of the oil age (its unimpeded flow and the illusion of its scarcity), US power has had to be asserted in the Middle East on an increasing and increasingly haphazard basis. These US assertions of power, to maintain the particular set of relations dictated by oil’s nature, has of course involved violence, of which terrorism is part of the story.

Experts are not above politics nor can they save us from it. But at least they shed light on how power operates.