Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Tyranny of the Non-Expert

It is one of the ironies of our modern society that we are simultaneously far more reliant on experts than we have been in the past and far more distrustful of experts. Our technology is so complex that most people simply cannot understand it; we drive cars that we cannot fix ourselves and I am writing this using a computer the working of which are to me a deep mystery. So we rely upon the expert. On the other hand, resenting this, we do not trust the expert. This can be a good thing; sometimes the expert is a rogue as well as an expert, and sometimes he is only pretending.

The trouble comes when non-experts try to be experts. Since about 2005 I have followed with interest the conspiracy theories surrounding the terrorist atrocities of 9/11. I first came across them in that year, with people remarking on how things "looked wrong". Being me, I immediately asked "in what way?" What it came down to was people on the internet who are not air crash investigators drawing conclusions based upon what they thought the incidents should look like, without any actual understanding of what was going on; particularly painful to me was the remark, then common, that there were "pyroclastic flows" at the World Trade Centre collapse. A pyroclastic flow, for those interested, is a phenomenon associated with volcanoes and is basically a flow of hot gases and rock, so hot that it will incinerate any living thing it touches. Yet there were these conspiracy theorists using the term to mean simply a dust-cloud! The non-expert, the armchair detective, is hampered by the fact that he really does not know what he is doing, but believes that he has watched enough thrillers and read enough sensational fiction to know what a crime is like. He is mistaken.

The attempts to locate the Boston Bombers by internet non-experts followed precisely the same pattern that the majority of such efforts do; wild mass guesses and people following their own prejudices. Far more useful were the reports of actual eyewitnesses on the ground.

As we should really have come to expect since 2001, there were those who instantly wanted to suggest that it was a "false flag attack", never mind that no flag was really identified until yesterday! The great argument used was that certain images "felt wrong". Any terrorist attack, by definition is wrong; thankfully they are also quite rare in the West. It is a different story in other parts of the world. However, the very rareness of these events means that most people's understanding of how these things "should" look is based upon fiction. And here is the crowning irony; based on a comparison with fiction, non-experts are pronouncing images fake! All because reality does not look like Hollywood's version of it. At the same time people like Alex Jones, chief promoter of all things conspiratorial, have created a narrative of their own lives that reads like a Hollywood thriller, except of course that it is, like the Hollywood plot, fiction as well, and the forces of darkness they are fleeing from exist only in their own minds. Do you want proof? The fact that Alex Jones is still broadcasting is proof enough, for in the police state he believes he inhabits he would long ago have been arrested.

A non-medical person with no experience of dealing with major injuries simply does not know what such injuries really look like; he or she has no competence to comment one way or the other based on a single news photograph. But because that person does not think it looks right, or (more likely with people we tend to meet) a person they follow thinks so, again without medical experience or knowledge, they will pronounce a picture fake, and then look around for reasons why.

This is the tyranny of the non-expert; for the non-expert is so unwilling to defer to the expert that he or she cannot be shown to be wrong.