Monday, June 02, 2014

More Than Just The Facts

Matt Fitch on The Paradox of Expertise:

Right now, a pregnant woman is chained to a wall in Sudan for the “crime” of marrying a Christian man who is an American citizen. She is scheduled to be hanged following the birth of her son. The United States government has yet to even hint at making any kind of demands against this action. An expert in Sudanese culture and Islam may be able to explain to me why she is being put to death and particulars about the legal system of that nation. An immigration expert might be able to tell me that she is not technically an American citizen merely by marriage and that we have no legal right to interfere. An expert on international law and foreign relations may tell me that we have no right to act internationally to prevent this from happening. But none of that would matter to me, because the truth of the matter is that what is happening to this woman is wrong and evil and antithetical to everything that our nation professes to believe. None of the explanations would amount to the final judgment of right and wrong.

This is where experts get into trouble. Some – not all, of course – believe that knowledge and information equal an elevated position of making right/wrong, good/bad judgments. However, these judgments are moral and value-based judgments. They are within the comprehension of the average man or woman and, indeed, the average man or woman’s judgment in this matter holds just as much validity as any expert’s.

Part of the issue lies in the politicization of everything in our current society, including experts. Part of the issue lies in the politicization of everything in our current society, including experts. The greater knowledge and information that experts possess often affords them the ability to be elevated by both media and politicians to positions that presuppose wisdom. Thus, the passive public may just sit on their haunches and suppose that an expert is a better judge of morality than themselves. But this is an illusion brought about by their elevation in the public eye. Politicians try to piggyback on the knowledge and credentials of an expert to say that their position is ultimately the informed and morally right decision.

Knowledge and information are good to have in complex situations but they are not the final arbiter and, in some cases, may matter nothing at all. The costs of the ACA can only be judged in terms of how much we are willing to pay to administer healthcare to an individual. Everyone wants to pay for the healthcare of a little girl with Leukemia; we might feel differently about the alcoholic wife-beater who is still smoking through his tracheotomy. Likewise, intervention in Crimea or in the case of the Sudanese Christian comes down to moral right/wrong value judgments. To this we welcome the information, knowledge, and predictions of the experts but the decision on how to act and whether or not to act is ultimately a decision that can be made through a rationality available to all average men and women.

Expertise isn't the same thing as wisdom which is far more important when it comes to determining what is right and wrong. Our world would be a far better place if we placed more value in the latter rather than the former.