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Experts and Citizens


by Tom Atlee

August 2000


When we talk about with how citizens deal with technological issues, we usually focus our attention on what they know or don't know (or think they know) regarding those issues. In so doing, we overlook some truly mammoth issues lumbering around the tarpits on the other side of the meadow, all having to do with the nature of expertise in our collective lives. Here are some:


a)  EXPERTISE AND INTERCONNECTEDNESS:  Most public problems are so interlinked and interdisciplinary in their causes and effects, that we might reasonably consult computer people, biologists, planners, systems analysts, businesspeople, environmentalists, sociologists, economists, ethicists, etc., etc., etc.,....  So, in any given circumstance, we could ask:  What sorts of expertise are needed? - while quietly wondering if there's any expertise that's NOT relevant...


b) EXPERTISE AND CITIZENSHIP: THE PERSONAL CHALLENGE:  We tend to think of experts as people who answer questions and resolve issues.  However, our experience is that experts (usually seen in the media, now frequently on the web) raise more questions -- especially when they disagree with each other.  When faced with competing experts on an important public issue, what's a citizen to do? 

Sometimes we just shut up, and stop engaging.  Activists like Helen Caldicott call that a cop-out:  After all, they say, we are THE experts on our own lives, our own values, our own needs and understandings and we can jolly well ground ourselves in those things and speak out strongly from there.  We don't have to understand the intricacies of MX missiles to know they're designed to blow up cities; if we don't want cities blown up, we can say that.  Many of us go a bit farther, picking some experts who validate our personal opinions, and sticking with them through thick and thin, often becoming "very informed" on an issue (or at least on our pet expert's ideas and evidence regarding it).  On the other hand, we may pick an expert or group whose values and motivations we trust, and let them form our opinion, since we feel no pressing reason to doubt them.  Some of us ground our ideas in the ideas of a few opinion leaders, but then venture off every now and then into someone else's territory where our thinking gets complexified and nuanced, if not thoroughly confused.  Very few of us do anywhere near the organized, detailed research across the spectrum of disciplines and opinions that would be needed to be called "truly informed" on any issue.  And virtually everyone involved as at least some blind spots...


c)  EXPERTISE AND CITIZENSHIP: THE CHALLENGE TO DEMOCRACY:  We democratic citizens are captains of the ship of state, right?  We are supposed to make the decisions that affect our lives, right? 

Well, things have gotten a bit complicated lately, a bit out of hand....  Many citizens bemoan the take-over of government by wealthy interests and corporations.  But we have to wonder: would we know what to do with the government if we DID control it?  When you consider the complexity of ANY issue (from youth violence to bioengineering), it seems to NECESSARILY involve lots of experts and special interest groups battling on the mountaintops while we citizens swarm around the base trying to see what's going on -- or we go fishing.  This creates a crisis for democracy:  In a society as complex as ours we have to wonder: can we even HAVE a real democracy?  Can we have a political order in which we citizens have an effective voice in all the decisions that affect our lives? 

We can also consider this problem from the other side of the coin:  What is the proper role of expertise in a society that is supposed to be run by citizens -- especially when that society is so complex that EVERY issue requires multiple threads of expertise to understand -- and particularly when that society is so speedy, infoglutted, and filled with distractions and urgencies that few citizens have time to understand ANYTHING very deeply, let alone carry on any real dialogues with each other about it -- and furthermore, when it is so hard to tell which experts to believe, since they so often disagree and so many are paid by vested interests or are fixated on old paradigms or solutions, or are oblivious to what experts in immediately related fields are saying?


Most of us just say, "Forget it!"  Time to go back to (b) and either shut down entirely or pick our favorite expert and be done with it!  Right?

I prefer to think outside that whole unproductive box.  The solution to the problem is NOT individual; it is systemic.  We need to acknowledge that our society is as different from 18th century America (when our Constitution was written) as 18th century America was from Neanderthal Europe.  This doesn't mean we have to get rid of the democracy we built 200 years ago; it means that we need to change its form or it will simply disappear.  In fact, I think we can safely say we are watching it disappear before our eyes right at this moment, eroding away by the dynamics of expertise, corporate control of media, lobbying, fragmentation, speed, no spaces for public dialogue.... 

Many ways to redesign our democracy for the 21st Century are described on my website at

However, the innovation that I think best handles this problem of expertise is the establishment of citizen consensus councils of the sort done in Denmark several times a year and piloted once successfully in the US (see Danish Citizen Technology Panels).  A demographically representative (i.e., diverse!) group of citizens are convened as a panel and educated about a technical issue:  They read reports and interview experts from across that issue's spectrum of expert opinion.  When these ordinary citizens have all their questions answered (or have gained sufficient insight into why certain answers won't be forthcoming), they are facilitated to a consensus statement of recommendations for the government and press regarding how that technology should be dealt with in their country.  Since the government convenes these citizen panels, it listens to their recommendations -- and the mass population hears about them in the media and talks about their findings:  After all, here are citizen-experts -- people just like them -- who they can trust! 

This approach to handling complex issues allows a sensible division of roles:  Experts provide understanding of the dynamics, facts and stakes involved; citizens provide the values, every-day issues, and common sense.  The experts are "on tap" to the citizens who, once they're educated, create the policy recommendations.  To me all this makes eminent sense.  Does it make sense to you?  Does it make sense to spread the word?


A footnote on Y2K

I was involved for two years recommending preparations and social change in response to the Y2K challenge.  It turned out that the problem was being handled well enough to prevent any significant disruptions at the Y2K rollover. Perhaps those of us who thought it was a major threat were wrong. Perhaps we were part of the unprecedented international attention, expense, communication and cooperation that fixed the problem. We'll never know exactly which factors played out how to produce the benign Y2K outcome, but that's not my point here.

My point is that I went along with a certain set of experts whose compelling credentials and logic suggested Y2K was going to be a significant problem. But how could I or anyone else really be sure? All of my favorite experts' arguments could have been merely sensible explanations for the particular set of facts I was fixated on.  Other experts abounded, many with their own compelling credentials, who insisted Y2K was either a non-problem or would be easily handled.  Millions of non-expert citizens on all sides of the argument were trapped in their ignorance, unwilling to dedicate months to understanding the intricacies, unable to find any Guarantees, urgently needing SOMETHING to stand on, to act from... I was one of a few thousand people who spent hundreds of hours researching the topic, only to have ended up (perhaps) being wrong.

And Y2K is/was not the only issue threatening massive disruption, destruction, and even the end of civilization as we know it. Nuclear war, virulent new diseases, breakthrough computer viruses, renegade micro-robotics, or any number of other threats could do the job.

So where are the forums where diverse perspectives about such gigantic issues can be explored for their gifts and limitations, where the associated egos and fixed ideas and blind spots can be stripped away so that whatever real knowledge exists can be sorted out and arrayed with the other good knowledge around, so that we can all make some effective sense of what's going on?  Of course, science is supposed to do that, and we have science.  The Internet is supposed to do that and we have the Internet.  The fact that I even have to ask the question shows that the systems we have for dealing with expertise ARE NOT ADEQUATE FOR ORDINARY CITIZENS. 

And if we don't have the capacity, as a society, to translate expertise into knowledge useable by citizens, then what kind of democracy do we have, anyway?

I can't solve any of this personally.  All I can do with any specific issue is my best citizenship, as I did with Y2K.  To those who thought I was arrogant or unqualified to deal with complex issues from the grassroots of the Internet, I couldn't agree with you more.  After all, I'm just another well-intentioned novice when it comes to technical stuff.... just another citizen praying for a better way than this to handle our collective affairs -- because the real solutions are not in what each of us does, but in how we arrange our society to find and apply the collective wisdom that lies hidden among us.  I am doing what I can to point us in useful directions. I invite everyone reading this to join in this effort.