March 20, 2010
Beware the 'Expert'
The late French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) is not exactly a household name. Yet this iconoclastic academic and veteran of the French Resistance predicted the current "cult of the expert" and its use as a means of directing public policy and silencing dissent.
In The Technological Society, Ellul discusses at length what he calls "technique" -- i.e., the social, political, and economic uses to which science and technology are put.
"Technique" aims to find "the one best means" of performing whatever the task at hand may be. This is the factory method of Henry Ford applied to politics and society. "If there is one best means of making a car," the reasoning goes, then "there must also be one best means of ruling a people."
This thinking is reflected in the cult of the expert, perhaps best exemplified by Woodrow Wilson's exaltation of abstract academic theories over common sense and experience. Wilson often bemoaned what he considered the less-than-salutary restrictions placed on the implementation of the ideas of "experts." Democracy was so inconvenient. Why should the elite have to bother explaining themselves to those hick yokels, who are neither intelligent nor enlightened enough to understand the wisdom of their betters?
Such moronic mouth-breathers should stop clinging so bitterly to their guns and faith and prepare to receive the latest Sermon on the Elitist Mount. Just smile and nod, Gomer. Then sit down and eat your low-fat, sodium-free, FDA-approved plate of crow, you flyover-country Rube.
Anyway, Ellul sees such "experts" as political "technicians," and he warns about the subversion of the democratic process (and of democracy itself) that accompanies their gradual rise to power.
Politicians are decision-makers. They control the levers of power. The trouble, according to Ellul, is that in an increasingly complex environment, they often don't know how to use them.
This is where the expert, the "technician," comes in. At the outset, the expert's role is merely to advise political leaders on how best to accomplish politicians' stated policy goals. The experts' role soon progresses to determining the "one best means" of accomplishing those goals. Finally, the expert technician decides on not merely the means of pursuing the "one best means," but also the policy goal toward which "the one best means" is directed. Once these experts have spoken, "the debate is over" (as our silver-tongued president is wont to say).
As the power of the technician waxes, that of the politician wanes, until he is little more than a rubber stamp.
Thereafter, differences of opinion are effectively banned. From the perspective of political technique and its practitioners, such dissent is nothing more than slander, lies, and deliberate distortion. The expression of differing opinions is dangerous, and it is thus no more justifiable than yelling "fire" in a crowded movie theater. Just as the Second Amendment is not a license to bring an AR-15 on a tour of the White House, neither does the First Amendment allow one to tell deliberate untruths about something that the experts "know" to be true.
This bizarre new form of anti-intellectualism is most clearly seen today in the global warming/climate change arena. The thesis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) demands obedience. The "consensus" of "experts" has coalesced around the ludicrous idea that the simple act of breathing, and thereby expelling CO2, can destroy the planet. Case closed.
Thus, there is no point in allowing further questions or debate. The experts have spoken. To put this in Ellul's terms, "the one best means" of avoiding a fantasy apocalypse has been settled. The plebeians need to sit down, shut up, and open their wallets in order to bring to fruition what Thomas Sowell calls "the vision of the anointed."
At this stage -- in which we currently find ourselves -- the technicians turn science against itself as part and parcel of a fascist enterprise that actively subverts and undermines the foundations of science itself. Once the basic (false) premise of "settled science" has been accepted, there is a certain perverse logic to it: "We already know the truth, so further discussion is not merely pointless; it is actively pernicious. All of those lying 'Denialists' are just trying to jiggle the lens of truth. The picture is clear, and they want to blur it. We must stop them. To let them continue to lie about the 'settled science' of AGW is to do a disservice to truth. After all, don't those who love the truth oppose liars?"
Thus, shutting down debate by any means necessary is actually a virtuous, truth-preserving act.
This is what the sublimely gifted Dr. Sowell calls "lying for the truth."
Although the leaders pushing the rickety wagon of AGW certainly knew that they were perpetrating and perpetuating a hoax, many otherwise decent people have been duped into accepting "lying for the truth" as a legitimate way of making their case. Straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks, and deliberately distorted data are made to seem every bit as justified as were the "fake but accurate" forged memos used by crotchety old Uncle Dan "Watermelon" Rather to impugn the military service of President George W. Bush.
The ends justify the means. The theory trumps the evidence.
Therein lies the danger of putting the collapsing cart of AGW before the "horse" of science. Once discussion ends, so does the accumulation of knowledge. Given that even the most brilliant and productive of scientific theories are nearly always found to be "wrong" in part (even Newton's and Einstein's), there is no justification for calling even the most universally agreed-upon science "settled." If it's science, then it's never truly settled; and if it's settled, it was never truly science.
Finally, then, what of Ellul's prognosis? Although generally pessimistic, he holds out some small hope that a generalized awareness of technique and its ubiquitous insertion of itself in all facets of human life could lead to a genuine revival of critical thought that would stop -- or at least slow -- the progress of technique.
It's a slim hope, perhaps, but better than none.
The good news is that millions of people worldwide have woken up to the scam and are fighting it. As Ellul would have predicated, we are also learning that this kind of academic malfeasance and skullduggery is too much the rule, not the exception.
We are thus morally obliged to be more than passive observers of the process. Science is too important to be left to "experts." We are called upon to be critical thinkers, independent minds, and informed debaters, not merely with respect to AGW, but more generally.
No matter the number of ad hominem assaults, regardless of how many slurs and smears are hurled by the self-appointed expert technicians in lab coats, no one has any claim on our minds, beliefs, or consciences, except through rational argument respectfully presented.
The author holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and rhetoric from Emory University and is an Associate Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea. The author of over twenty scholarly publications, including two books, he has taught and lectured worldwide. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.