In January 2009 the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, while being interviewed on BBC radio, suddenly became angry when the interviewee mentioned a particular word. Bragg’s response is worth quoting in full:
One of the things that’s happened in the last few weeks is a total devaluation of the word ‘expert’. It is meaningless. People come on saying they’re experts and they know absolutely nothing … experts on banking who have the gall to tell us what’s going to happen in a few months or so. The word ‘expert’ should be expunged from the dictionary until it’s been cleansed and rehabilitated.
This verbal assault was clearly aimed at a particular sub-species of expert. In September 2008, the international money markets had crashed and a number of banks had failed, initiating a global recession. One of the causes of the crash was the unravelling of highly leveraged financial products - complex derivatives and securities, devised using mathematical models, which turned out to be so complicated that not even the experts were able to calculate the risks. The Queen was widely praised in the media for echoing the public mood when, opening a new building at the London School of Economics, she asked Professor Luis Garicano how this ‘awful’ financial crisis could have taken so many experts by surprise. ‘Why did nobody notice it?,’ she asked. ‘If these things were so large, how come everyone missed them?’ The greedy bankers may have been the folk devils of the credit crunch, but joining them in the rogues gallery were the financial experts, the clever fools who had departed so disastrously from common sense and forgotten that deficits and imbalances cannot be endlessly deferred …
This is the start of a long article of mine in the latest issue of Critical Quarterly on ‘The Fall and Rise of the Expert’. I’m afraid the rest of it is hidden behind a paywall, as is normally the case with academic journals. But if anyone is interested they can email me and I’ll send them a PDF.
The geographer Danny Dorling had some nice things to say about On Roads in this interview: