2017 and the Recalibration of the Expert image

2017 and the Recalibration of the Expert

A cartoon in the New Yorker, showing a man in a plane with his arm raised: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” All other arms are raised.

That cartoon was much retweeted, and captured much of the spirit of 2016, but I think the New Yorker may have been missing its own irony. The thing is, no one questions the expertise of airline pilots.

2016 marked the ‘death of the expert’ and I am not so gloomy about that as many commentators; probably less so than the New Yorker. A positive outcome of the cultural shakeup of the past twelve months would be if expertise is put back within its proper limits – rather than the death of the expert, perhaps we are seeing the recalibration of expertise.

Expertise is valuable in areas where we are confident it produces consistent and predictable results. No unqualified passenger thinks they should take control of an airliner – every time we get on a plane we willingly entrust ourselves to experts. We trust this kind of expertise because a pilot is performing functions for which he has been well trained and which follow well tested protocols. That is the kind of expert we trust.

But the limits of the expert have been cruelly exposed when it comes to things less predictable than programming a flight path. From Gary Lineker promising to present Match of the Day in his underpants if Leicester won the Premier League, to all those experts who called Brexit and the US election the wrong way, we have been firmly reminded about the embarrassingly small capacity of human beings to accurately predict future events. In fact, we are so consistently poor at predicting the future the really surprising thing is how enthusiastically we continue trying to do so. 2016 simply underlined that even the cleverest and most informed people (would it be cruel to draw attention to Andrew’s predictive abilities again?!) are not expert when it comes to accurately predicting the future.

A backlash against the arrogance of experts who think they can predict the unpredictable might be a very useful recalibration. It doesn’t have to mean that we all become ‘post-truth’. Actually, it might enable us to be more truthful. More humble and honest, “I really don’t know” commentary would be welcome, and more true.

This morning I was reading Proverbs 16. There is some good advice for us all there, especially those who consider themselves to be experts: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” 2016 demonstrated that in spades – that’s not post-truth, it’s gospel.

Oh, and for those who have fallen into the “2016 was the worst year ever” trap, take a look at these statistics, and begin the year with a smile: it’s almost enough to make me post-millennial.

Happy New Year everyone!

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