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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: February 2018

2 - Is There a Literature on Experts?




Experts have knowledge not possessed by others. Those others, the laity, must decide when to trust experts and how much power to give them. We hope for a “healer” but fear the “quack,” and it is hard to know which is which. Experts may play a strictly advisory role or they may choose for others. Psychiatrists, for example, may have the legal power to imprison persons by declaring them mentally unfit. There is, then, a “problem with experts,” as Turner (2001) has noted. When do we trust them? How much power do we give them? What can be done to ensure good outcomes from experts? What invites bad outcomes? And so on.

Different people know different things, and no one can acquire a reasonable command of the many different fields of knowledge required to make good decisions in all the various domains of ordinary life, including career, health, nutrition, preparing for the afterlife, voting, buying a car, and deciding which movie to watch this evening. Each of us feels the need of others to tell us things such as which medical therapy will best promote long-term health, which religious practices will produce a happy existence after death, which dietary practices are most likely to postpone death, which schools are most likely to launch our children into good careers, what hairstyles are the most fashionable, and which car will be the most fun to drive. In our work lives, too, we rely on the expertise of others. Corporate managers require the opinions of experts in many areas, including engineering, accounting, and finance. Investigating police officers require forensic scientists to tell them whether there were “latent” fingerprints at the crime scene and whether any such prints “match” those of the police suspect. A civil attorney may seek expert opinion on the risks of using a product that harmed their client. And so on. We rely, in other words, on the opinions of experts. We rely on experts even though we are conscious of the risk that experts may give bad advice, whether from “honest error,” inattention, conflict of interest, or other reasons. The “problem of experts” is the problem that we must rely on experts even though experts may not be completely reliable and trustworthy sources of the advice we require from them.

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