Expert culture vs. civic engagement

Functioning of modern societies has become increasingly specialized rendering decision-making very complex. Because of the speed of the processes experts are often called in to give their insight. Is it wise to always rely on expertise or should civic society take up a more active part?

Complex societies need expert knowledge

08/07/2013 - 17:35
Nowadays we as individuals and we as society face numerous challenges to which we have to respond by making decisions. Given the complexity and the rapidity of the processes in modernized societies we have to rely on experts' knowledge to find better solutions.

Societies we live in are increasingly more differentiated. The ability to continue living the kind of life-styles we are used to in modern times requires a wide range of different spheres to function simultaneously. Some of them seem to function independently from the others. Some intersect at certain points or areas of concern. Yet, at the end of the day all of them have impact on the world we live in and on the life of each person. Therefore, one might argue that such spheres of large-scale impact should be regulated by everyone whose life is influenced by them instead of leaving it up to a few insiders, experts of the fields. This possibility of making key decisions together seems very promising at first sight, however in nowadays it is hardly feasible. We do not live in a direct democracy where every citizen could have a say on every issue on the agora. On the contrary, the division of labour and responsibilities, forms the ground for many accomplishments of our civilization. And expert-culture can be viewed as a mechanism for communication and collaboration between representatives of various spheres in a highly specialized society.

Need for cooperation between different spheres in specialized societies

It is hard to imagine a person who would be well-acquaintaned in every area of societal life: from different business features to social issues to cultural tendencies and art movements to scientific and technological innovations and political matters. Most successful people of our age specialize in one of few narrow fields, and are experts in it. When it comes to decision-making in their sphere of expertise, no outsider can see the whole range of possible outcomes from a generalist point of view. This does not mean that the experts should have an exclusive right of deciding on key issues in particular fields, however it does mean that they should have a say in it because of their ability to bring into consideration a wider spectrum of hidden points and possibilities.

Experts might be self-interested…but everyone else is even more so!

The role of personal contacts decreasing in organizing our social reality as they are substituted with formalization and institutionalization of a big part of all the social interaction we are engaged in. Therefore there is a high risk of losing trust in common citizens.

It sometimes feels very appealing and rational to pretend as if everybody around us pursued only and exclusively personal wealth and is not concerned with the common good. On the one hand, it may justify one's own effective but not always ethically responsible acts. But on the other hand, such an assumption makes the distrust a default mode of social interaction, which might be effective in certain settings, like market competition, but is not very effective for resolving big issues that require cooperation, climate change for instance. And since it is usually a serious challenge in search of solution to which we ask for experts' advice it seems necessary to abandon this “distrust mode” of communication and to get ready to listen what do different people have to say instead. An important thing to remember in such case is that an expert proposing a certain solution is a part of that society or community that faces the challenge. And therefore even if this specialist is oriented towards his own profit, we have to keep in mind that it is inseparable from the effective resolution of the current issue.

Experts: enlightened advisors rather than prophesiers

At last it has to be pointed out that all the knowledge one might posses may not be a sufficient ground for making predictions. And certainly predicting is not an expert's objective. His/her job is to apply specific knowledge to specific problems along with communicating with bearers of other specific knowledge and hearing the concerns of the general public, that is to say of those who are not very well familiar with the specific issue. Because after all, in our rapidly changing world we can neither hope for nor aim at “ultimate” solutions. Instead we are to make decisions effectively for now and be ready to re-think those that do not correspond anymore to changing social reality. And considering what experts have to say might be helpful for choosing the solution that would last longer and cause fewer discrepancies with other spheres of our lives.


This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

Democracy needs a participatory culture

08/07/2013 - 17:35
Non-expert advisory seems to be problematic at first glance. The lack of understanding and indifference of the masses are the most common excuses to deny the role of non-expert, non-professional advisors in the decision-taking process. But are experts actually more entitled to the confidence of the public?

Experts, even the most experienced ones, can in some cases be mere stage players, fulfilling someone’s order when giving their opinion.

This is well illustrated through the example of mass-media. Every channel of media is connected to a private interest: to its owner's or to some financial or political group's. That is why most media methodically represent a single point of view. ON the one hand that is why it is very hard in general to find a comparison of different experts’ opinions in a common forum. On the other hand, could two real experts have such contradictory opinions about on one issue? Could one expert say argue that shale gas production is dangerous and another one that it is not? Nowadays that is what they do. Because every person presented as an “expert” has his own interest at heart. They are all involved and subjective in one way, but the most important thing is that their interests are representing only a particular path. It is completely unfounded to expect from them a decision that would be in the best interest of the whole society.

That is also the problem of our laws: there is no doubt, they were written by professionals…but in whose interest? They may write them to be beneficial only for them. The only expert who could possibly conceptualize common interest may be a sociologist. But could sociologists be at the heart of decision making?

The latter argument was prooven by Sir Francis Galton's experiment as well. In 1906 he visited a stock-raising exhibition where he observed a competition between the visitors. People tried to guess the weight of a bull after his was beat dead and flayed. Participants were of different professions and backgrounds: butchers, farmers, and random visitors of the exhibition. Sir Galton believed the real experts will give the most accurate result. In his experiment he compared the results of the different groups. The most interesting finding was that the arithmetical mean of all answers was the closest answer to the right one!

Non-expert advisory culture for social consensus

The involvement of every citizen in the decision making processes is a fundamental principle of a liberal democracy. That means that democracies should also include people with no expertise.

Moreover, an expert is not only the one with knowledge, but much more the one with experience. However, daily life experience is also a type of experience which can be important, since it incarnates the practical knowledge of the society. Of course, there is no freestanding person. No one could know what all the others think. But there are many examples of successful collective decisions-making processes: for example how trade unions or mass parties work or how group decisions in local communities or within bodies of NGOs are taken.

Of course, certain things are less obvious to people who have no specific education in the topic, but non-expert advisory is important because it reflects the public opinion. Non-experts may facilitate open discussions of all sorts of arguments and controversies. Those are often the most fruitful forms of communication.

Public councils - the future tool of civil participation?

Nowadays it would be hard to weigh the opinion of every single person involved: asking each to give their opinion from case to case seems hardly feasible. However, it could to be done in special cases, for example when a new law affecting a great part of the society has to be formulated and adopted. A mechanism has been already invented for this in the Ukraine – the process of public councils.

The councils under this name were introduced in the Ukraine in 2009 but they played only a marginal role till now. Some experts say that it is due to the underdeveloped civil society in the post-communist country. But it may not be the main reason in fact. There are a lot of NGOs, professional associations, local communities who could represent the interests of different groups of Ukrainian society and who want to, but the procedural mechanisms of these public councils makes them inefficient, although they still play some positive role as institutions reinforcing the the civil society.

We can only hope that changes in procedure and the maturing of the civil society will result in the development of a participatory culture in the Ukraine.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

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