Specialists and experts of various kinds are able to do illegal or immoral or antisocial things simply because the rest of us don’t really understand what they do. Even worse than that; we want to believe what they tell us.
In the documentary An Honest Liar, the illusionist James Randi explains the difference between magicians who entertain us and charlatans who defraud us. In both situations the audiences are willing to be deceived, but the motivations of the deceivers are different. Randi cautions us to be careful about what we want to believe and not to ignore our hunches when we think something is wrong.
In my newsfeed today were articles about the “rogue coders” who fitted software that would cheat emissions tests into Volkswagen vehicles; shell companies that steal the deeds to people’s homes; the systemic ethical problems in Wall Street; the cover-up of global warming research at Exxon; and concerns about the content of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.
What all of these news stories have in common is that they all involve expert knowledge and research being used to benefit the few at the expense of the many. I’ve long ago accepted that I’m being fleeced by big corporations, but somehow I always assumed that experts, researchers, and scientists were morally neutral in all this. I don’t think so any more because they clearly are not working on my behalf.
When you are the only person in the room who really knows what you are talking about, it must be easy to convince people that what you are doing is right and good. Problems arise, though, when what you think is good turns out to be bad for a lot of people. Just because I don’t know what is involved in computer coding, or real estate law, or high finance etc., does not mean those who do should be able to easily abuse my trust in them.
It is possible for experts to cheat us mostly because they work for industries that believe the highest good is making money. I don’t know how we can change that so they value people or the planet more, but I do know that we have to try. Experts, scientists, and researchers should have a means to test not just their research methods, but also their ethics.
Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund said, “[So] if the financial industry is to put people before profits, and society before shareholders, we need to see a change in the values and behavior of individuals themselves. We need a culture that holds individuals accountable for the consequences of their behavior—good and bad.” That is an idea whose time has come not just for the financial industry, but for all industries. Oh, and politicians, too.
So much of our lives involves systems and technologies that we don’t understand, it’s easiest to simply trust the people who do understand them. We must watch out for that. We may not be able to become experts in these things, but we can take a closer look at the people who ask us to trust them.