Last week, I was giving a talk at Lancaster University at the invitation of a friend of mine, Professor Mike Berners-Lee, author of the brilliant best-seller, ‘There Is No Planet B’. I pushed the boat out a bit, saying categorically that a reductionist scientific approach was not going to help us create a sustainable future and that instead we need holistic thinking. For example, knowing more and more about climate change is not that useful; we are now unable to see the forest for the trees. Solutions should not only tackle climate change, but also tackle issues of biodiversity, social equity, health, well-being, etc; that is, we cannot solve problems in siloes.
Anyway, after I spoke, I had a fair question, which on reflection, I didn’t respond to as well as I could have done. So I will have a go here. The question was something along the lines of: ‘But surely we must tackle the growing public distrust of experts?’ This is how I would answer it:
‘We should absolutely be distrustful of experts. The world’s problems have not been caused by ordinary people. They have been caused by experts – people with MScs and PhDs. Experts in modern agriculture have destroyed soils around the world. Medical experts have overprescribed antibiotics and created drug-resistant superbugs. Chemical engineering experts have created single use plastics which are now permeating the whole of the biosphere. Engineering experts created the internal combustion engine with is contributing to climate change and air pollution. Economic experts have created an economy that is creating increasing wealth inequality. On top of that, experts change their mind and often don’t agree with each other, even when interpreting the same data. So, absolutely, we must be distrustful of experts.’
But, if we can’t trust experts, how do we navigate the world?
Of course, there is a place for expertise. If we had listened to aboriginal peoples, perhaps we would not have treated the planet so disrespectfully and created the environmental mess we find ourselves in now. ‘Pollute the rivers and you pollute my blood.’ That sort of insight was dismissed by scientific experts, but of course we now know that to be true, literally.
I looked up the definition of ‘wisdom’ online and got the Cambridge English Dictionary meaning: ‘The ability to use your knowledge and experience to make good decisions and judgements.’
However, I wonder whether there is a more fitting definition for the ‘expert conundrum’. I wonder whether wisdom can be seen as the ability to make good decisions when there is a lack of complete information. One way perhaps to bring back a bigger role for wisdom. In reality, we never have all the information – everything is ultimately interconnected, we cant know everything and so we can never make decisions purely on the basis of information.
I wonder, are good decisions decisions that we make based on information but also grounded within our values or the outcomes we want to achieve? Of course, good decisions can and should be consistent with information, but that is not the same as being information- or expert-led. This then puts experts in context. They provide information, which can help us all make wise decisions. But our decisions need to be outcome- and values-led.
And surely today, given the climate and ecological emergency, the meta-outcome we can all subscribe to is enabling everyone to lead happy and healthy lives within the resources available on our one planet.
I would appreciate your thoughts and comments. Feel free to stand up for experts!