Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The cult of the expert

It's a recurring meme in journalism: "experts say," meaning that established Truth is being forwarded to us from on high to frame some event or other. Those interested in philosophy will observe the unbroken line between Plato's philosopher-kings and these present day experts.

But this isn't going to be an anti-intellectual post, I promise. Experts are so called because they have studied and specialized in some discipline or sub-discipline. Much as we take a car to a mechanic rather than trying to fix the problem ourselves with a hammer, we do, rightly, defer to genuine expertise--unless you're the pre-Enlightenment Conservative government, of course, and simply reject math and science out of hand.

My interest here is in the aura that is granted to experts by the media. They are too-often turned into gurus, and some cheerfully accept the mantle. From their "area," they begin to branch out and speak with authority on almost anything. And the corporate media, lazy as they are, simply act as stenos for them.

The unintentionally funny David Harris comes to mind, a regular op-edder for the Ottawa Citizen. He was once a director of strategic planning at CSIS, a post that brings with it certain skill and knowledge requirements: but now he is a full-fledged conspiracy theorist who sees Islamist infiltration everywhere he turns. The recent election in Calgary probably made his head explode.

Then there's Tarek Fatah, dutifully trundled out as a "moderate Muslim" expert on Islamism--a "moderate" who believes, inter alia, that Little Mosque on the Prairie is an Islamist plot to lull Canadians. And Margaret Somerville, of course, whose quaint pronouncements on ethics have become more and more political (e.g., opposition to same-sex marriage): her "expert" views are guaranteed a space in our national media as well.

The latest player on the media stage is one Dr. Michael Welner, a "forensic psychiatrist" who is now giving interviews about Omar Khadr. Adding support to my earlier reference to Plato, Welner is described at the link as an "expert on evil."

Here is a priceless excerpt:

In search of goodness, I have sought out any input documenting righteous and selfless deeds of Omar Khadr from inside custody, in particular toward non-Muslims, and will speak to what I found in my testimony.

This is the language of a high priest, not a scientist, but for the media there is clearly very little difference.

And here's more oddness:

When one leaps to the conclusion about Omar Khadr's future because he is friendly, one might recall that Osama bin Laden has always been described as gentle, likable and charming.

The phrase "undistributed middle" springs to mind: A cat is an animal. A dog is an animal. Therefore a dog is a cat. Perhaps they don't teach logic in med schools.

Pogge makes the obvious points here. The freedom available to Khadr to do "righteous and selfless deeds" has been somewhat limited since he was 15. And were he to denounce al-Qaeda as the good doctor wanted--"There is no record of (Khadr's) publicly repudiating al-Qaida, as civilized Muslims should"--the Usual Suspects would lose no time in accusing Khadr of taqiyyah.

But more importantly, what incentive has Khadr had to renounce Islamism? He hasn't exactly been exposed to the sunny side of Western democracy, after all. Tortured, confined in a cage for nine years, and presently facing military drumhead justice, he has been given no reason to renounce the extremism of his family and his youth.

It will be interesting to learn what is contained in Welner's sealed brief. One hopes it might read more like 21st century science than religion, and, if not, that the media will express healthy scepticism instead of awe. But it would be right to feel some misgiving on that score: so far, after all, we have had only the faith-based certainty of latter-day scribes and pharisees.

UPDATE: Via commenter pogge, more on Welner. And more on evil.

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