20 Oct

The Crisis of Expertise

Posted By polity_admin_user

By Gil Eyal

I grew up not far from the Mediterranean coast. As kids, going to the beach, we were warned by the adults about those hidden whirlpools that sometimes formed not far off the shore. We were told that if we happened to be swept into one of these, the surest way to drown is to attempt to fight one’s way and swim out. You couldn’t do it, the adults said, and you would quickly expend all your strength and would no longer be able to keep your head above water. The adults told us that our best bet would be not to fight the vortex but try to “ride” it, so to speak, until it spit you out or until somebody came to help you.

Whether this was true or not, I do not know, having been fortunate enough never to be swept by one of these maelstroms. I believe, however, that this story can serve as an apt metaphor for what it is like being in the midst of the current crisis of expertise. As I try to show in the book, the current crisis is a recursive, tangled process, where every attempt to check the vicious spiral ends up lending it momentum, yet the attacks designed to accelerate it often strangely land flat and have the opposite effect. It is a strange crisis that feeds off the attempts to prevent or to fight it, yet its recursive spiral often ends up sapping its own strength. Our best bet may yet be not to fight it, but to find a way to “ride” it.

In the book, I describe four different strategies currently devised to prevent or to fight the crisis of expertise – boundary-work, inclusion, mechanical objectivity and outsourcing. I show how each one, in its own way, backfires and tends to amplify the crisis. Moreover, not only do they have their weaknesses, but they often undermine each other, representing sources of implicit, and often explicit, criticism of one another, thereby contributing to a climate of mistrust in science and expertise. The strategies of crisis management, if you will, have become indistinguishable from the dynamics of the crisis itself, incorporated into its swirling vortex and lending it energy and momentum. The attempts to organize, pluralize, mechanize, or outsource expertise are all caught in a self-reinforcing vortex of mutual pollution and mutual undermining. Yet, albeit tension-ridden and crisis-prone, the entanglement of science and the state survives and even expands. However mistrusted or doubted, expertise is even more indispensable and essential than ever before.

Gil Eyal is Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. The Crisis of Expertise is now available from Polity.

Also available on Amazon and Wordery. Or ask your local bookshop about availability.