Those in Brussels would do well to read Socratesby AC Grayling / November 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
My one-time boss and mentor, Group Captain Walter Clarke, was wont to quote a Royal Air Force saying: “Have the experts on tap, not on top.” He was an aeronautical engineer, though I knew him in his retirement role as Director of the Sussex Rural Community Council. There, however, the RAF’s advice turned out to be even more pertinent.
Without question, it is excellent advice. One cannot do without experts; one is fumbling in the dark without them. But the whole point of expertise is that it is a single-subject matter. If you want expertise on viruses, go to a virologist; on designing a building, an architect; on fixing a leaky tap, a plumber. But the catch with experts lies in the observation that if your one instrument is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
This is why teachers of logic tell their students about the “Fallacy of the Artisans”: someone trusted in one field of expertise is not automatically trustworthy in another. Advertisers who use celebrities to endorse their products commit this fallacy daily: the footballer who advertises hair gel or a certain brand of car is there to perform the psychological trick of association, not—despite appearances—to deliver informed comment on hair products or motoring.
The implication of the RAF dictum might seem to be that a degree of inexpertise is desirable in those who make final decisions. This is not quite right: what you want in anyone commanding a collection of experts is skill as a generalist (not to say, as a general too, given the challenge in herding a group of people irretrievably immersed in knowing a huge amount about one particular thing). Some measure of understanding of what experts know is necessary, as is skill in evaluating the implications of what they say if they are right. But detachment—the ability to put the expert advice into a much bigger picture—is even more important.
No one can deny the importance of experts. You want an expert pilot in the cockpit of your plane. You want an expert surgeon beside the operating table. And you want expertise in the people managing and…