If we trust experts, do we then elevate them as determiners of the truth? When we trust our surgeon to do a good job in surgery because he is an expert, do I forfeit my right to criticize experts on pain of being a hypocrite?

What happens to our right to own the truth if we place a lot of trust in experts?

  • 3
    yeah this is one of the biggest problems of our age. Professionals may spend 20 years learning something a member of the public has almost no knowledge of. One would have to be a fool to ignore their honest opinion on subjects in their area. But sadly there are charlatans, shysters, sophists and straight up liars in all walks of life. Your job as a seeker of wisdom is to determine whether the professional is honest. the question is how? And here, philosophy can help.
    – Richard
    Feb 23, 2019 at 11:35
  • Expertise, like authority, is a social construct. To give blind trust to total strangers is to roll the dice every time they have or are allowed any effect on your future survival.
    – Bread
    Feb 23, 2019 at 12:31
  • 1
    How is trust excluding questioning and criticism? They do say trust but verify and trust must be earned.
    – Conifold
    Feb 23, 2019 at 13:50
  • What do you mean by 'own the truth'?
    – E...
    Feb 23, 2019 at 19:38

1 Answer 1


Distinctions between experts

We need to draw some distinctions. A surgeon is an expert whose special and specialised knowledge is verifiable and has been confirmed in definite ways - we have firm criteria of success. This is a generalisation but largely true.

The widespread popular complaints against experts centre on professions or practitioners who cannot reliably accomplish what is expected of them. Political scientists largely and indeed overwhelmingly failed to predict events in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 90s. Economists (largely) failed to predict the financial crisis of 2008 and unlike a surgeon dealing with a heart attack patient had rival remedies not based on any body of consensual knowledge of the kind on which heart surgery relies.

Criticism of experts can also rest on unrealistic and unfair assumptions of what level of accuracy different expertises can offer in their current state of development. 'Experts ! You can't even trust weather forecasts'. In fact you largely can trust weather forecasts at the level of detail on which they operate. A meteorologist can't say whether it will rain in my part of town next Wednesday at 10 a.m., but almost certainly can successfully predict the range of temperatures over the UK in the next two days.

Summing up so far : there is no inconsistency, let alone hypocrisy, in trusting experts in one field and distrusting them, or adjusting what we can reasonably expect from them, in others.

The place of experts in a democracy

But there is another dimension to your question. It concerns the problem of trusting experts beyond their expertise. There used be calls in the 1930s- 50s for 'a government of businessmen (sic)'. And we still catch the phrase, 'UK PLC'. The UK, the USA, the EU and other political units are not economic enterprises and they cannot be properly run as such. Politics is not a matter of profit maximisation, higher productivity, the minimisation of costs.

Even if the business community has commercial expertise, that expertise is of limited relevance to politics, certainly to democratic politics. Economic resources set limits to politics - to what is politically practicable - but we cannot make normative political decisions purely by reference to them. If I want to know at what age (if any) to set retirement, I need data on economic consequences but not only such data : non-economic values enter crucially into this decision - as they do as regards the kinds and levels of medical provision for the elderly or the terminally ill. 'The expert [here the the entrepreneur or the academic economist] should be in tap but not on top', as Harold Laski said. Our political plans and arrangements have to operate within our economic means, at least over the long term, but how to run politics within those means is not a matter for commercial experts or experts in academic economics. It is the proper domain of collective decision-making.

  • I think thats the key. it's possible to be an expert in Metereology. But asking them to predict the weather in a months time is pointless. Though i'd still defer to their judgement in that particular example.
    – Richard
    Feb 23, 2019 at 11:45
  • @Richard. Thanks for confirmation. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 23, 2019 at 11:59

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