Page last updated: Tuesday, March 29, 2005
THE TYRANNY OF EXPERTS
by Morris E Chafetz,M.D.
For most of my professional life, I have been involved in the study of an emotionally charged subject: people's relations with alcohol beverages. I have seen what emotional investment in a subject can do to anyone's objectivity. I have seen alcohol researchers literally shout each other down with conflicting interpretations of the same data.I have seen the preliminary results of small, uncontrolled research studies blazoned across the front pages of newspapers as incontravertible fact.

 When it comes to subjecting objectivity to emotion, I have seen it happen often and am occasionally guilty myself. If I, a physician, a psychiatrist and former head of a Government Agency, can be so misled, how do consumers make sense of experts giving conflicting advice on every imaginable subject from child rearing to pollution?

I believe the answer to this question is the most important one of our day, and I believe that many fall prey to those who claim to have specialist knowledge. Awash in prescriptions and proscriptions but lacking a means of judging the validity of what they hear, people soon find themselves ruled by the tyranny of experts.

Who are these tyrants? Many are scientists, public interest advocates, researchers, lawyers, physicians, psychologists, social workers, government bureaucrats, and others who, through our mass media, parlay their credentials into power bases. From these power bases, they tell us what to eat, drink and enjoy, how to relate to one another, how to live and perchance to die.

People now turn to experts, where once they were more self-reliant, for what they believe is definitive information. In a world reeling from the dizzying pace of growth and change, being told how to act, what to eat, and how to rear children gives people a semblance of certainty that is difficult to come by elsewhere.I believe we are in danger of surrendering our intellectual and emotional liberty to specialists. I want us to regain our right to think for ourselves by withdrawing our consent to their ascendancy.

The irony of our surrender to the experts is that they don't even deliver the peace of mind we crave. Ask yourself a simple question: do you truly feel safer, saner, and more secure because of everything you've been told by the health experts, the enviromental experts, the legal experts, the alcohol experts? Or are you becoming more fearful and less confident about the future? A life without limits is a life dominated by obsession. The obsession with cheating death has turned our pursuit of health into a sickness. Ironically we have become more susceptible than ever to our fears.

The manufacture of "innocent victims" provides society with a simple way to think about complex social problems. When dealing with drug abuse, crime, poverty, traffic fatalities, abortions etc., our surrogate parents, the experts, seem to provide easy and fast solutions. Our social guardians, the policy makers, devise protective regulations, but neglect to address the underlying problems.

The policy-makers give comfort in two ways; first their agenda allows us to distance ourselves from the plight of the victims. Secondly, the victim as an emotional symbol drives their larger agenda: power and conformity.They do that by finding and punishing the person or thing they deem responsible.They also have a simplistic view of good and bad guys, victims and victimisers the innocent and the culpable. Life, as we know, is rarely that simple.

The mythology of science

As children we learn that science is a way of dicovering new information about the world through direct observation. A scientific experiment may begin with a speculation or hypothesis about the outcome, but the goal is not a perceived outcome, but the truth. Children themselves are natural scientists. When a toddler plays with matches, for example, his goal is not to start a fire, but to find out what these funny smelling sticks can do. Even people who study science as adultsoften maintain a child-like belief in the objectivity of science and in its ability to sort out and find truth in the confused messages of the world.

Trends or truth?

Our desire to read meaning into trends is an ancient human trait-we have always seen omens in co-incidence. If the rain came when a chant was sung, our ancestors believed it brought the rain. More recently, when several studies found that young drug experimenters in the 1960's and 1970's tended to use alcohol before they used drugs, researchers concluded that experimentation with alcohol led to experimentaion with drugs. The conclusion seems obvious because we are predisposed to believe it. We could just as well conclude that daily use of alcohol leads to financial well-being since a study of Harvard's class of 1949 showed that those who drank every day had higher incomes than occasional drinkers or non-drinkers. Based solely on the data, we have no idea whether daily drinking has anything to do with the subsequent use of drugs.

Life without delusion 

We shall always want protection from our own fallibility, from our weakness and mortality.It helps us perpetuate our species. Whatever goes wrong in the world, we shall still retain our most important asset: the infinite creativity and ingenuity of the human mind. I believe these ancient gifts that make us rise above all other animals will steer us through the maize of confusion fostered by the twentieth century. Our challenge will be to find new ways of tapping our wellspring of commonsense and our instinct for self preservation. Meeting the challenge requires a commitment to look to ourselves for our own answers, and to be wary of the spoon-feeding experts whose yeas and nays stunt our natural abilities.

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