Peter Jones

Socrates on expertise

The key is knowing their limits

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The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, raises his growth forecasts and suddenly everyone believes the ‘expert’. So is it wrong to say that people ‘have had enough of experts’? Yes, totally wrong. Expertise exists: the question is, with what scope? Socrates dissected the problem.

In debates in Athens’ democratic Assembly, he pointed out, topics such as building or ship construction were taken to be the business of builders and shipwrights, and anyone who, though no expert, attempted to give advice in those areas was jeered off the platform. But when the debate moved on to deliberation about a course of action, then ‘any builder, smith, cobbler, merchant or ship-owner’ could have a say, and no one heckled them or accused them of having no training or expertise in the matter.

This gets to the heart of the question. ‘Expert(ise)’ is derived from the same root as ‘experience’ and ‘experiment’ (Latin experior, ‘I put to the test, have experience of, find by experience’). That sort of expertise is one to be found in repeatable technical skills whose outcomes (barring incompetence) can be confidently predicted. They are the skills which, as Cicero said, provided the Romans with ‘healthcare, navigation, agriculture… exports or imports… quarrying of iron, copper, gold and silver… houses… aqueducts, canals, irrigation works, breakwaters and harbours’.

But when one is talking of human behaviour, as economists do, no amount of the study of the past will equip one with certainty to predict the future. There are just too many variables. On many such issues the ancients wisely handed the whole thing over to augurs, oracles and the like.

But at least economics should (like history) produce expertise in understanding the past, and therefore in generating inferences; e.g. (as Mark Carney suggests) government spending increases growth (well, we shall see); or demand for a product that is free but everyone wants will never be sated (hmm… Jeremy Hunt?). Nothing wrong, then, with experts, as long as they know their limits.