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What is wrong with experts?

Sam Murray, our National Policy Coordinator, takes a look at whether we are valuing expertise wrong.

Last year during the Brexit debates, a conservative politician was asked about whether economists supported his stance. His response was that people have had enough of experts (despite being an Oxford graduate and senior Minister himself). He is not alone in stoking distrust in experts. Populists politicians across the globe have seized upon public discontent with experts (often with a message of do not listen to the experts, listen to me instead).

So what is wrong with being knowledgeable about something; an expert. Well I think there is nothing on its own. There have been long standing problems, however, with experts and how we value expertise. One problem is we have not recognised and valued people’s lived experience (the experience they gain through living everyday life). This has particularly been a problem with disability policy. We have often grossly undervalued disabled people’s lived experience of disability. Meanwhile the expertise of medical and other professionals has been overvalued. As a result, sometimes disabled people are seen as knowing less about themselves than an officially trained expert.

This is wrong. Everyone is an expert in at least one area, their own lives. It is important to recognise this and to think about how this lived expertise fits with other forms of expertise. It is not enough to know how something should work in theory; you need to listen to people on the ground, especially those directly affected. A failure to listen to people affected or take seriously their experiences has fuelled this distrust of experts.

This failure to listen has also led to mistakes. How a policy or decision looks from a big picture point of view, can be very different from how it feels to those directly affected. This was the case with the historic mass institutionalisation of disabled people. I feel mass institutionalisation would have stopped a lot sooner, if those in charge had done more to listen to people living in institutions.

How do I know this? When I was growing up I got the privilege to talk to people who had come out of the institutions. It was clear listening to them how dehumanising the experience had been. Their potential and opportunities had been severely limited. The actual experience of living in a mass institution sounded a million miles away from how people should be, and deserve to be, treated.

A second problem has been a failure to recognise that combining lived expertise with trained expertise can be powerful. One of the early pioneers, experts, on Cerebral Palsy was a doctor who had Cerebral Palsy himself. Yet other doctors initially tried to discourage him from specialising in Cerebral Palsy because they thought it would compromise his objectivity.  Luckily, he thought his lived experience would actually make him a better expert on Cerebral Palsy and went ahead anyway. There is real value to be had from people combining lived experience with training and education.

A third problem is how limited we set the areas in which someone can be an expert. I said earlier that everyone was an expert in at least one area. Ideally, however, we should give everyone the shot to be experts in additional areas as well. One of the original experts; was the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle said a key task for society was to provide opportunities for people to excel in what interests them. He warned, however, that it was important that society provide a wide range of opportunities. This is because people have a wide range of abilities and interests. If only a narrow range of opportunities is provided, then many people will never have a realistic chance to excel and will remain unsatisfied.

Society could provide a diverse range of opportunities for people to develop their expertise based on their abilities and interests. There could still be competition as well as winners and losers (after all losing, often spurs us on to greater things). It is also not about everyone being an expert at everything. It is about us recognising that expertise comes in many different forms and across many different areas. This I think is the key to solving the current problems with experts. I do not think the solution is for us to turn our back on valuing knowledge and expertise. Instead, we need to value, and encourage, a more diverse range of knowledge and expertise.

6 Responses to “What is wrong with experts?”

  1. Tania-Rose MacPherson says:

    Yes I agree. Too often people think they are right when there is more than one way to do the job. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. some won’t have the strength or patience while others bound ahead. Thanks.

  2. Hi Sam

    Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with experts. The difference between experts in one field and those with the insight and clarity to encapsulate ideas is interesting. There are many people, for example, true polemicists who speak from a knowledge base that is amazingly rich and cultured, often based on real life experience. These people often rely on experts in other fields, like physics and biology to inform and illuminate real truths.

    Personally I did not feel your article spoke to any one group at all, but merely pointed out the fact that we can all have expertise. It is in the articulation of ideas and pointing out of salient information that we do need experts.

    When it comes to experts our ability to sought the wheat from the chaff can rely on our own intellectual capacities. It is those people, few and far between these days, who are able to cut through a debate as a knife, who deserve the reverence and accolades.

  3. The disabled are experts on being disabled, each one with different limitations know first hand.

    A person who has been put in a govt top position as an “expert” is not an expert.

  4. Lola Ester says:

    Accountants cannot run hospitals, they lack the expertise needed and their focus is on money not on health outcomes.

  5. Experts are fine if they can add value to the life and personal choice of a person with a disability. Historically the ‘expert ‘ is seen as a person who holds the answers. But this is not the case. The person with a disability holds the answers. They know what they want and need. An expert merely offers them opportunities to achieve what a person with a disability wants.

  6. No one and no expert can add value to or place a value on life.
    The “expert” may try to make the disabled person do or desire what they or the funder wants.
    The voice of the patient/disabled person has been silenced by the system ruled by media experts (bureaucrats) and the accountants that now run the NZ healthcare system.

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