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Bernard Williams

Distrust and Expertise—A Brief Note

Jake Goldsmith


irst, I have to give some credit to the philosopher Vlad Vexler, who I recommend as a sound analyst of political philosophy, as well as the late Bernard Williams—of whom Vexler is also an admirer. I can’t claim to have much in the way of original thought and I repeat from memory some of what they might also say, or would hopefully agree with. So I give some due thanks to them.

In today’s society people are pressured to ‘generate knowledge’, talking often, expressing themselves, self-styling, affirming: essentially advertising themselves and their identity long before the real accumulation of knowledge and reflection occur. At some level we can’t begrudge this, and I’m really one to talk. Yet this is troubling considering people’s moral motivations to commit violence. Most of us don’t know precisely how to accumulate knowledge. People feel they must express themselves first, instead. This is, likely, worse than it used to be, due to technological, cultural, and social developments. It results in the proliferation of diffuse ideas and ideologies or a greater, dissociated scale of ideas and action that will be much more difficult to regulate or ever control using previous methods. The implications are anti-democratic—further democratic degradation, despotism, more conflict and violence.

Experts deal with this about as well as the public, which means not very well at all. They are pressured, consciously or implicitly, to speak grandly on things they know little or nothing about. Staying in one’s lane becomes difficult, when it is sometimes advantageous to actually do that and not fear the limitations of one’s knowledge or deferring to others. When experts, and not just the public, feel such a need—an almost righteous, narcissistic or otherwise arrogant compulsion—to comment about what they don’t know (always a common phenomenon, though not so exaggerated in the past), this has wide implications—many of which are worrying or detrimental.

Speaking of expertise in general, academic expertise, people with some real brilliance or quality, or at least a perceived intellectual weight—such experts are commonly invited to speak about anything on the basis that they are knowledgeable people. But their knowledge is limited to a specific area; they are not omniscient. And many speak embarrassingly about what they know less about. When invited to express an opinion, experts are valuable. Especially valuable when they really are intelligible and cogent on a particular subject—and speak with confidence. When asked a question one doesn’t have a good answer to, or which one has no answer to, it is more important than many think to say one does not know something, and to defer one’s expertise. When experts talk outside their realm of competence, and do so poorly, they obscure what they are genuinely knowledgeable about. It is much more difficult for others to recognise real expertise when an expert expresses obtuse opinions that have a diffusing and dissociating effect. This is more important than many think.

Expertise matters. Without it we have a crisis of trust and a real threat to democracy. Speaking with Bernard Williams, we might say that democracy is bound to the practical virtue of truthfulness. And associated with trustworthy institutions. There exists a great crisis of trust in institutions today, as the world grows and things move very quickly, resulting in the proliferation of conspiracy theories and, further, greater conflict and possible violence. This is, in part, a self-inflicted wound as institutions struggle with how to conceive of themselves in contemporary society, with the greatly increasing demands and contradictions of a developing modern society, and this struggle contributes to distrust, made worse by the social climate and other nefarious interventions.

Experts talking about anything they like within this climate are more dangerous than they may consciously imagine. We can, or should, have a wide tolerance for speech (even destructive speech), but the contention here is the responsibility of the expert we fail to consider, or for that matter its wider implications. Experts talking about anything and everything, when their realm of expertise is deep but narrow, renders their virtues less clear and makes them appear less trustworthy. With the result that experts generally are then perceived as less trustworthy. Our struggle to make sense of things is compounded not just by the irresponsible talk of experts idly pontificating outside their domains, but by societal and technological demands.

Wide talk is sometimes useful, but there is, in part, less real dialogue and collaboration when we are subjected to a narcissistic broad expertise. People struggle to understand when an expert is truly knowledgeable and how, or when, to defer to whom. Greater societal distrust is a crisis for democracy—a lack of intellectual humility has troubling implications.

These thoughts are partly abstract, but they indicate that we are dealing with a moral climate influenced by the practical, industrial, technological demands of society. Which means, moreover, that solutions to some of our worst problems are not easy, though perhaps they would have been easier to rectify or mitigate in the past—in, again, a different social, technological, and cultural climate.

Many of us, whether or not experts in some field, wish to apply generalised or abstract rules to the world, predicated on how we think actors and powers should behave rationally, or based on pre-conceived notions, with very broad demographic and logistical considerations—rather than considering very particular and individual ways that nations, societies, or leaders, behave depending on their local and regional history, or their acute idiosyncrasies. This is closer to a game with set rules, or a formula, a scheme, a plan, than it is to reality. One cannot routinely apply a general rule of politics that would function in one place—say, the USA, or Russia, viewing the nations at a low resolution from far above—rather than more intimately investigating local developments and history. This is a type of cultural narcissism, manifest in American foreign affairs (consider American leftists thinking nations are only reactive to American activity, and without their own domestic considerations and history) or typical of Europeans when viewing America (snobbery), a projection of their own values and ideas, deemed obvious and evident, that makes Europeans think things should work according to their own criteria and worldview, without a more intimate reflection.

Responsible experts in specific fields exist. And we do better if we act with a greater intellectual responsibility to know this. The world is uncertain and trust has become rarer and rarer. It should still exist, and untactful relativism is an easy tool in the arsenal of autocrats and dictators—just as strident propaganda is. But truth, as Democritus once said, is in the depths. It isn’t easy and requires prudence and responsibility—both resources in short supply across the world. We fail if we don’t consider how to navigate this world, and mitigate its dangers.


Jake Goldsmith