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Our confusing relationship with experts

We should make better use of experts, but resist the temptation to regulate them, argues Tracey Brown

We should make better use of experts, but resist the temptation to regulate them, argues Tracey Brown.


If people have a scientific or medical question, should they ask an expert? I don’t mean if they have a strange mole that needs looking at. Rather, if they want to know whether there is cause to doubt the need for polio vaccine or whether organic foods have benefits. In post-Leveson science communication, do we need to improve their use of experts?

Some sociologists of knowledge curl their lips here. Those ‘experts’ are just the modern incarnation of earlier purveyors of folklore. Their ‘expertise’ (lots of inverted commas in this territory) is a pretension. ‘Knowledge’ is subjective.

Badges for experts

But whether sociologists and cynics like it or not, the public seeks an expert. So instead of calling everyone an expert of sorts, surely we should just accept the reality: that most of us do buy into the idea that some people know more than us about particular things and there are times when experts’ views on those things count for more. And shouldn’t we then regulate who gets to be badged as an expert - only the very specialised, qualified people - so that we are not misled?

That was a tempting thought when The Express had its ‘expert’ (I have a few of my own inverted commas to give out now) giving ‘advice’ about alternative cancer ‘treatments’ at the end of 2012. Dangerous advice. We were not told what her expertise was, but we do know that she is not an oncologist, that her advice on everything was wrong and that she has been asked by the Advertising Standards Authority on more than one occasion to desist from passing herself off as medically qualified.

The response of The Express to protests was quite similar to the many-types-of-knowledge-all-equally-valid argument: ‘that was one kind of expert; there will be an opportunity for your experts to have their say.’ Oh, well that’s just fine, Editor. If your doctor gives you the wrong pills, be pacified to learn that she’ll give someone else the right ones next week!

So an approved directory of experts then? Well no, and to those suggesting, post-Leveson, that the press should only be allowed to use ordained specialists, no! You see, the way we handle knowledge and expertise is an area where there are no rules and principles, no substitute for good sense and questioning.

An unavoidable shortcut

Experts are a handy shortcut and a realistic one in a busy life. In fact we all use this shortcut, no matter how much we like to think we evaluate everything.  Even the most relativistic social theorists do this, (and they seem to appreciate their own expertise when they agree to speak at conferences and apply for jobs). The most fiercely independent researchers can’t resist looking at the institution where someone works before reading their book.

The more we help people to navigate the best and most relevant sources the better, but we should stop short of making rules about it because they can only be clumsy and misleading.

The most sensible approach is to push people to use expertise in an informed way. If they can be encouraged to ask a few questions to work out whether someone talking about ice sheets or diets actually knows about ice sheets or diets, great. If journalists can be challenged for asking serious questions of someone quite clearly unqualified to answer them, do it.

Give people insights into who has what kind of training, give them contacts in fields they’re interested in, give them good questions to ask policymakers about how they’ve reached their decisions. But don’t give them cynicism and don't make rules about whom to ask.

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Tracey Brown
Tracey Brown is the Director of Sense About Science
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