Experts, Trust, and the Need to Teach

There are some things that require an expert, and other things which require an expert in order to either:

  • create a tool
  • translate it

such that a layman can accomplish the same thing without an expert. Whereas an expert simply doing something has the advantage of likely being of better quality and probably more efficient, it has three crucial disadvantages:

  • The expert is not familiar with the whole of the situation like the layman is
  • Expertise is by its nature finite, and therefore there is no guarantee of having sufficient quantity (and it will likely be expensive as a result)
  • Dependence on the expert is maintained or increased.

By creating flexible tools or simplifying complex knowledge, the expert avoids all three problems. The problem of dependence is a particularly important one politically. The less the layman understands the experts the more dependent they will be and the less able they will be to gauge whether or not they should trust them.

Since dependence naturally breeds resentment, the tendency will be towards mistrust which if it gets bad enough (either justifiably or not) will result either in turning away from the expert or calling for greater policing of the expert. If they turn away, they will either:

  • turn to another expert or fake expert, or
  • turn away from expertise as such asserting either a folk knowledge or other form of “egalitarian” epistemology.

If they call for greater policing, it will be by other experts or by laymen. The drawback of turning away is that they will lose out on what the expert genuinely has to contribute and may fall prey to charlatans besides. The drawback of greater policing is that it does not solve the essential problem, but merely recreates in the trust relationship between the layman and the watchman (who watches the watchmen?). Nevertheless, both these strategies do have a place in holding the expert accountable.

What can the expert themselves do? Trust, is fundamentally relational and there are many relational strategies that experts can use to maintain the trust of the layman despite the above mentioned fundamental tension. However, it only takes one scandal to shock the public. A more sustainable, if much more difficult solution is to make sure that expertise never so completely surpasses the layman that they feel they:

  • cannot judge whether or not to trust the expert
  • are forced to turn to the expert to do things they could do themselves.

This requires educating people not so that they can become experts but so they can understand them and take over from them what doesn’t really require the expert. The closest we come to talking about the need for this kind of competency is “literacy” (e.g. financial literacy, science literacy, etc.). Its importance for a healthy democracy, as well as accessible services, cannot be understated. Where this gap between the expert and the layman gets too wide (in any of the three respects cited at first but especially the third), you can bet that the public will fall back on either of the two strategies mentioned with a very real risk to themselves.