Against experts

Whether advocating for ‘evidence-based policy’, demanding people ‘respect the science’, or denouncing those who ‘don’t understand the facts’, we on the Left have placed our faith in experts as a way to build our movement.

We use experts in two ways. Either we base our movements and organisations on ‘science’ and ‘facts’ (see Greenpeace’s claim to be a ‘science-based campaigning organisation), or we emphasise the voice of experts to prove that our position is the right one – and then, when we fail to convince people, we blame their lack of understanding of the expertise. For example, when discussing the Abbott government’s position on climate change, Burkard Polster and Marty Ross argue that:

It is clear that many Australians do not have any great respect for the scientific method or scientific practice. It seems way too common to regard science as just another belief system, nothing but boffin-based opinion. The result is that science is permitted no special claim to truth, which is a very dangerous, essentially mediaeval, state of affairs. What on Earth has happened?

The Left has become reliant on experts in an attempt to build authority we lack. We have placed faith in expertise, making it a core focus of our values. Being ‘right’ has become a left-wing value. We are the ones with ‘reason’ and ‘science’ behind us, while our opposition are ‘crazy ideologues’.

This has become a dangerous position, which not only fails to recognise that expertise is based in our power and value systems, but also diminishes the values that should underpin our movement. In doing so, we have entrenched power structures we are supposed to be breaking down.

Expertise is embedded within our society’s power and value structures. Max Weber described this while defining the role of values in the research process. While Weber argued that researchers should be objective in the ‘presentation stage’ of research, he accepted the ‘discovery’ or ‘decision-making’ stage are deeply informed by social values. Our society defines what is to be researched and to what ends. It is up to researchers to develop the ‘means’ to those ends.

This dynamic creates power-structures within the research community. Sasha Vongehr examines this in what is supposed to be the apolitical space of the hard sciences.  Vongehr looks at a number of new discoveries in physics that for years were resisted by the elite in the field. The resistance was subsequently covered up when the new theories became impossible to deny. The elite took ownership over the ideas, pushing out those who had been agitating for change. Vongehr concludes by noting the role the elite play in defining the ‘truth’:

We are to believe that the experts have the best approximation to the truth, which is the only truth we may hope to attain. In reality, the experts have first and foremost one thing: Attained a position of power where they may call themselves experts.

Experts produce expertise that entrenches their position of power. In the case, Vongehr mentions experts blocked change because it was likely to challenge their own research and careers. In other cases experts back up the values that underpin our society.

Up until 1973 the American Psychological Association – the premier experts in the field – deemed homosexuality to be a mental illness. This was ‘expertise’ based on conservative social values rather than any real medical evidence, an expertise that reinforced the power of the straight people who were making the decision.

Similar examples can be found today. For example, a recent Senate Committee hearing found that intersex people in Australia, including children and newborn babies, are often subjected to unnecessary surgery and hormone therapy. The committee heard testimony from representatives of the Organisation Intersex International Australia (OII), who said that every one of their members had at some point experienced non-consensual medical intervention. The OII representatives discussed how an intersex man agreed to hormone therapy after his doctor insisted that it would ‘turn him into a real man’. His testimony is chilling:

It was insinuated, even blatantly stated on occasions, that my life would be worthless; that I would be a freak; that I would never achieve my potential, and that I would never have any self-esteem … So, eventually, from the age of 28, after about six years of constant threats and ‘counselling’ by my medical specialists, I began testosterone therapy. And I found it to be a horrifying experience.

As OII points out, these procedures are not required for the health of intersex people. The experts have defined the ‘need’ based on the social norms and power structures of our society.

While few on the Left would accept such expertise, in other areas we blindly jump on to the bandwagon. Climate change is a perfect example. Many experts have presented options such as carbon pricing and geo-engineering as solutions, solutions that are are fully in line with neoliberal thinking. The Left accepts this logic, often using right-wing experts for support.

In so doing, we have bought in to an elite culture we are supposed to be fighting. We have turned expertise into an article of faith, reinforcing the neoliberal power and value structures it often represents. In trying to create our own authority, we have given authority to the values of our opposition. This is clearest in the way the Left treats those who don’t agree with us on ‘the facts’. Our faith in expertise has lead us to develop a bourgeois superiority complex – a value system that directly contradicts the anti-elitism we are supposed to represent.

Again, climate science provides an example. Despite the claims of many on the Left, climate denialism does not occur because people are ‘stupid’ or ‘don’t understand’ the science. Rather, it’s that the findings of scientists go directly against our social values, primarily those of unimpeded economic growth. Climate change challenges our power structures, naturally leading to those with power to question the logic behind it.

The Left has failed to recognise this, treating science as an objective fact that only a stupid person wouldn’t understand. We have placed ourselves into a position of the elite – the educated – and scoff in derision at those who don’t understand the science. It is no wonder people get turned away.

The Left needs to abandon our blind faith in facts, evidence, values and reason. That doesn’t mean we can’t build evidence and use tools like science to our advantage. Nor does it mean we shouldn’t believe in things like climate change and advocate for action on it.

But we’ve spent too long trying to make ourselves objectively right. Expertise, science and facts can be useful, but they certainly don’t offer the basis for a movement.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Simon Copland is a freelance writer, climate and Greens campaigner and masters student from Brisbane. He has an interest in all things politics, but with a particular focus on the direction of left-wing movements. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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  1. Reason is not the same as expertise. You’re right to argue against received opinion but categorically wrong to argue against reason. Obviously. Facts lie somewhere in between, because they, like experts, can be true or false but at least can be classified and are permanently amenable to reason.

  2. Simon, while I agree with your general thrust of rejecting elitist appeals to faux-objective science, it is not clear from your argument on what basis the Left’s social value judgements should be made. If you are wanting us to appeal to abstract universal standards, then how can we settle a dispute between your abstract values and mine when they clash?

    If we are to be materialists about the matter, then the political and social demands we put forward in building a movement must emerge from empirically observable social reality (and the reality of the material world of which human society is a part). That does mean having a systematic approach to a scientific method, as opposed to imagining we can conjure up a free-floating utopia to use as the standard by which we measure Left projects, strategies and tactics.

    Of course such a method has been at best completely marginal on the Left for a long time. In that sense the question of “building the Left” as a movement similarly starts from an abstract ideal and is, I would suggest, an upside-down way of looking at things. Perhaps we should study more carefully where society (c.f. its abstract political expression) is currently in motion and think through what direction “the real movement” is pointing us in. Rather than starting from “experts”, then, we might start from the potential already-present in the great mass of individuals in our society, and how their social interests might be met through their own activity.

  3. Hullo Simon

    Enjoyed reading this article. Consider myself on the left side of politics, however often feel frustrated and (maybe) even alienated by the ‘elitist’ language used by many advocates of left wing politics etc.



    p.s. I am comfortable with the term ‘crazy ideologues’ when refering to far right wing fundamentalists 😉

  4. Would you concede that a large slice of the population are either entirely disengaged or apathetic?

    If yes, I believe the only problem the Left has in reality, is bringing the obsessive-compulsive organizing ability of the the Right to our causes.

    eg. on climate change, Lewandowsky have shown that it is actually only a small group of people that are deniers-of-the-science. The angry-white-males that make up that group are well financied, hyperactive and well-organised however.

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