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January 27, 2016
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Everyone’s an expert now

Opinion

January 27, 2016

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After his return from the World Cup last year, Misbah-ul-Haq severely criticised a number of former cricketers who are now commentators on television channels who, Misbah said, were so-called ‘experts’ – not qualified to either play or comment on the game.

It is not just cricket or other forms of public engagement which have given rise to the presence of ‘experts’, or worse still, categories of people being called ‘public intellectuals’, but this phenomenon has become quite pervasive in the public domain.

The term ‘expert’ is probably the most misused term used in the print and electronic media, describing anyone who might just possibly have had a bare minimum or basic university education, and may have written one or a few op-eds at some time of their early professional careers. Having made their public presence felt in the past – often very soon after acquiring their higher degrees of learning – these so-called ‘experts’ or ‘public intellectuals’ have had no further relationship with any academic pursuit.

Today, anyone can be an expert on just about any subject imaginable by tweeting a few impressions about a subject on which they may have thought for as long as it took them to compose 140 characters.

Recently, one was struck to hear about a non-entity in the academic field who had been invited to give a talk at a university, about something on which he may have had a drawing-room opinion, but nothing more substantive, and certainly never having written on the topic. He was advertised as one of Pakistan’s ‘leading experts’ in an academic discipline on which he may have published, at best, a couple of articles a decade or so ago.

Moreover, in recent years, the only preoccupation of such ‘experts’ has been their ability to consort with dubious donors for lucrative ‘research’ grants and consultancies, with the intellectual worth less than the value of the paper on which their contracts bear their signatures. Lacking any sense of humility or honesty, these fraudulent researchers lap up every sliver of any opportunity to re-advertise announcements of their public presence, retweeting the announcements. Their Twitter page is full of self-congratulatory retweets announcing that they have been quoted, as an expert, in some newspaper article somewhere.

It is not always the case that all such experts claim ‘expert-hood’ through any self-flattering means available to them (such as Twitter retweets), for there have been numerous cases where the media has helped create such myths. When a Pakistani economist passed away in the US not long ago, had one read the numerous tweets and newspaper eulogies of his life, one would have been left thinking that he was Pakistan’s greatest economist of all times.

The truth is that he was a small functionary in an international financial institution who wrote occasional newspaper articles, some that were rather illuminating and clever. But the hagiographic obituaries about him gave him a falseness which would have even embarrassed him had he read them.

It is not just this pretentious quest or affirmation to be claimed as an ‘expert’ on just about any topic that reveals deep troubling and insincere social values, but even in institutional settings, such values and affirmation are reinforced. It is difficult to imagine that in any university of any standard, the dean or the head of department in the social sciences would be someone without a single publication, yet one can cite examples in Pakistan of this as well.

While we clearly recognise the dearth of good scholarship in the social sciences in Pakistan, surely a university advertising new forms of doing social science in Pakistan ought to have academics or scholars with at least a few publications to head their departments and faculties. How on earth (except perhaps in Pakistan) can someone without any academic publications head a social science faculty or department at a university, and that too at a private university where more flexible rules allow for far greater degrees of freedom of recruitment?

Two new categories of ‘expert’ have emerged in recent years. The first is the category that undertakes a single consultancy funded by a donor, milks it no end, claiming expert-hood on the basis of this obscure study which will never be read, and gains a foothold in the consultancy and/or opinion stakes. The second new expert, is anyone who has been near government, whether as a member of some institution, but more increasingly where the growth of the advising-a-minister business has become very lucrative. Such advisors, after a brief spell advising a minister on the energy sector or foreign policy, evolve into experts who speak as if they have had dozens of years of actual experience and understanding in their particular field.

The media latches on to such charlatans and jacks up their so-called expert status further, and once in the television talk-show loop this becomes a reinforcing strategy. And if you live in Islamabad, everything becomes so much easier. If ever there was a town full of experts.

There are very few academics in Pakistan who, even after having written academic papers or books and having acquired recognition for their work, cringe at being labelled an expert and have the humility and good sense to shy away from such notions of pretence and falsehood. While they may have understood certain disciplines or a series of ideas, developing and interpreting themes, being called an expert troubles them since they feel that there is always too much missing from their scholarship.

On the other hand, there are those who wear the label of ‘expert’ with a sense of false achievement and pride, reflective perhaps of a rather shallow sense of self-worth, now symptomatic of our times in almost all disciplines.

The writer is a political economist.

 

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