The cult of expertise

An oddity of modern life is that experts run everything, nothing they do works, and obvious repeated failure makes no difference. Education is an everyday example. Students learn nothing and act badly, but no matter how bad things get nothing can be done. After all, the responsible way to deal with problems is to consult the experts, and the experts certainly aren’t going to make themselves the issue, so nothing can happen. The problem touches on basic philosophical questions. Today people regard formal objectivity, and not loyalty, tradition or faith, as the proper final standard for thought and action. That may seem rational, but it means people are stuck with whatever the experts tell them, no matter how mindless, because formal institutional objectivity requires them to treat expertise as knowledge. What grounds could they have for doing otherwise?

The same situation exists in architecture. The architectural experts tell us what’s good, and responsible officials have to accept what they say even though everybody hates it. Still, things are not quite as bad as in education. The reason is that in architecture real money is involved, not just minds and souls, so it’s easier to get respectable organized backing for critical thought. And that’s what’s happening, according to a very interesting interview at with the mathematician and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros (parts one, two and three have already been posted, parts four and five are to follow). While a lot of the discussion is specific to architecture and design (and is very interesting as such), what Salingaros says about the way dogma has established and maintained itself among experts on architecture applies to other fields, and is well worth reading on that account. He suggests, for example, that architectural dogma is a sort of cult and is guarded by cultlike behavior.
Posted by Jim Kalb at May 05, 2003 10:53 AM | Send


“An oddity of modern life is that experts run everything, nothing they do works, and obvious repeated failure makes no difference.”

What is being described is the replacement of authority and self-government by management. The reign of management arises from the liberal idea that everyone is or should be equal, from which it follows that authority and hierarchy are bad, that the belief in truth and falsehood is bad, that the belief in right and wrong is bad, that the belief in the existence of real enemies is bad. As a result, decisive action to solve a problem or make things work properly cannot be taken, because such action would involve the act of some authority making definite judgments as to truth and rightness and asserting its control (its superiority) over the situation. Instead, we have “experts,” the Hans Blixes of the world, whose very function is to prevent clear facts and unambiguous meaning from being discerned, and thus prevent clear and decisive action from being taken. They “manage” the problem. Decisive action is only taken when the problem becomes so unendurable (e.g. homeless people making ordinary life literally impossible, or Palestinian terrorists committing mass murder every day instead of just once a week) that an instinctive, non-philosophical consensus arises that “something must be done.” Thus, under the reign of management, real acts of government are only undertaken intermittantly and with extreme reluctance, as unprincipled exceptions to the general rule of equality and nonjudgmentalism. But as soon as the immediate crisis ebbs a bit, the society eases back into the mode of managing the problem rather than solving it.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on May 5, 2003 4:18 PM

The cult of expertise has to do with equality and non-coercion, but also with an understanding of what is rational in an organization. Expertise is by definition the kind of knowledge a responsible official should rely on, so it becomes an act of willful ignorance, or a misuse of office for some private agenda, to go against what the experts say even if it’s obvious to everyone that what the experts say makes no sense and doesn’t work.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on May 5, 2003 5:26 PM
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