Experts in focus

Khaled Hanafi Ali , Tuesday 13 Jul 2021

More and more experts are needed to help untangle an increasingly turbulent world. But should we always take their views at face value, asks Khaled Hanafi Ali

Fathi Abul-Ezz
illustraion: Fathi Abul-Ezz

We were sitting in a café watching one of the Arab satellite TV channels when one person referred sarcastically to an analyst being interviewed on a talk show. “These experts make fortunes without putting in much effort,” he said. My attempts to explain that such experts had probably invested years studying until they had reached that status did not seem to resonate.

But this person may not be the only one thinking this way. Many experts have been keeping a low profile despite the fact that they are more and more in demand, particularly since the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011 and due to the acceleration and complexity of events in the region.

An average Arab satellite channel hosts some 25 experts per day in different domains, social, political, and economic, asking his or her opinion of events. According to the Arab Broadcasting Union, there are now some 133 Arab news channels out of a total of some 1,101 Arab channels. This means that more than 3,300 experts are hosted on Arab channels daily, assuming that the same faces do not show up more than once.

Moreover, there are also thousands of experts working in universities and research centres who do not show up on our screens. This means that there is now a huge number of experts in different fields playing influential roles in forming public opinion and government policy-making.

Are these experts really adequately qualified? This has been an issue of debate recently, particularly as many people may call themselves “strategic experts” when there is no guarantee that they have a long-term vision of current events.

The controversy is not unique to the Arab region, but is rather a global issue. Google the word expert, and you will be inundated with sarcastic comments and YouTube videos poking fun at various experts’ views in both the Arab and Western countries.

US writer Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise: the Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, examines the relationship between experts and others and has expressed his frustration at the demise of the public credibility of many experts. The Internet is one reason why experts have been keeping a low public profile, he says, as it can provide the illusion that almost anyone knows enough to challenge expert views.

Such attacks on experts, however, may not be totally unfounded. The rise of the populist tide in much of the world and the dramatic ebb of democracy have provided a platform for some political leaders to express their hostility towards experts. Former US president Donald Trump slammed experts in his last election campaign as “terrible”, for example. Trump also ridiculed the views of chief US epidemiologist Anthony Fauci during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the same vein, the UK Brexit also unveiled a rift between anti-Brexit experts and sections of society insisting that Britain should maintain its EU membership and pro-Brexit populist politicians. UK Minister Michael Gove publicly slammed experts critical of Brexit, for example.

Yet, there are certain international criteria that all experts should adhere to. An expert should have scientific integrity and remain objective when analysing phenomena. He or she should have the skills to present a new vision when tackling certain issues. More importantly, an expert should have the ability to provide reliable expectations that can enable decision-makers and others to confront future crises and reduce potential losses.

Expert credibility comes under fire when such views and expectations prove unrealistic. This gap between expert viewpoints and reality undermines the prestige of experts, as people start to think that perhaps they have not looked deeply enough into what they are talking about or studied it well enough. They may think that some experts are biased or controlled by personal whims or serve the agendas of various parties.

This dilemma is particularly evident in the field of forecasting. Experts lose public trust when they fail to anticipate major crises. Although there have always been expectations that epidemics could occur, no expert predicted the Covid-19 pandemic or warned that it could sweep the globe and impact life in such an unprecedented way.

Experts can fail in their predictions for two main reasons, many studies agree. The first is linked to the nature of the tools employed in building future knowledge and expectations, which may lack objectivity and tend toward generalisation. The second may be what experts themselves call “cognitive blindness”, meaning building judgements of current events on the logic of previous experiences, leading to unexpected surprises.

The 2011 Arab Spring revolutions may be a case in point. Before 2011, protests had already erupted across the region, but many experts underestimated or even ignored them on the grounds that the Arab regimes were in full control of their societies. They similarly underestimated the impact of social media and miscalculated the magnitude of pent-up public ire due to the deterioration in economic, social, and political aspects of life in the region.

DILEMMA OF STANDARDS: However, experts remain an influential force that states employ to support their policies and enhance their global status. Experts are the ones who produce government narratives that shape foreign policies and form global agendas.

The spread of the rhetoric of economic reform, governance, conflict resolution, and other such buzzwords reflects the influence of experts in forming global policies. US political scientist Joseph Nye has been influential in reshaping perceptions of power through the concept of “soft power”, for example.

One of the reasons behind the US rise after World War II was its appreciation of experts, seeing them as qualified to interpret crises and propose alternative policies. It is therefore not surprising that the US today has the largest number of the world’s most influential think tanks even after its relative decline with China’s rise to power over the past two decades.

According to the Pennsylvania Global Index, which measures these and other things, there are about 1,777 think tanks in the US, in addition to its prominent universities and media that influence global public opinion.

The global force of such experts has led many US research centres like Brookings, Carnegie, Rand, and others to be even keener on applying strict standards of expertise, particularly in academic teaching. Academics employed in such centres have lists of qualifications, and in addition to various degrees they have many publications in the field of their specialisation and long years of experience. They have often undertaken security and diplomatic positions.

This means that such experts should possess academic knowledge as well as field experience. It is also important that they should have scientific and academic references as a further guarantee that they are qualified for the job and that their work is open to public inspection.

Arab experts, on the other hand, may not be qualified in quite the same sense since the Arab region has different political and social conditions as well as less money for scientific research. There are fewer opportunities for people to receive institutional training in different fields.

According to Mohamed Ezz Al-Arab, an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the centre employs three criteria for hiring experts. They should have a doctoral degree in the social sciences, should have spent 10 years in a prior appointment, and should have published at least five studies in their field of specialisation.

However, the problem with Arab experts, Ezz Al-Arab said, is that they have fewer opportunities to mingle with people in general compared to experts in western countries, and they thus depend more on office than on field work when analysing phenomena. This has put the credibility of Arab experts into question, since some of them may not live up to the international standards set for such expertise.

In the meantime, the fact that many Arab satellite TV channels have to cope with limited margins of freedom and the lack of expertise in the region have resulted in the rise of a new kind of media expert who may not be deeply acquainted with the nature of events and may sometimes be interviewed just because they have views that match the editorial policy of the host channel.

Groups of so-called “on-call” experts have thus emerged, being experts who are ready to analyse any event or issue even outside their field of expertise because they are ready to speak to the camera and have views matching the editorial policies of the interviewing channel. Such “on-call” experts may use terms that lend an aura of superiority to what they are saying in attempts to legitimise government policies.

CLIMATE PRESSURE: The political climates in which they operate form a source of pressure on many experts. In times of political turbulence, they have great influence over public opinion since many ordinary citizens depend on them to clear the fog surrounding events.

In the wake of the Arab revolutions, for instance, the media had an increasing influence in mobilising the public, whose power rose in the face of governments.

It is no surprise that the 2016 Arab Satellite Broadcasting Report, a survey of media in the region, indicated a growth in the number of satellite TV channels from 440 to 1,122 launched in the period between 2006-2007 and 2016. This meant that more and more experts were needed to explain and even justify events in the light of a highly polarised environment between supporters and opponents of the Arab Spring.

Meanwhile, the emergence of a number of think tanks and research centres on the Arab region also gave rise to a new calibre of experts seeking fame on the satellite channels. They might be looking for PR to promote their own careers or to promote the centres they were working for. This has been particularly the case in the Arab region, where thousands of PhD holders have sought the limelight. In Egypt, for instance, estimates by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) indicate that 9,000 people obtained PhDs in 2019 alone.

In the meantime, the failure of the Revolutions, the collapse of state structures in Libya and Yemen, the rise of armed militias, and cross-border terrorism have all given rise to a new calibre of security and strategic experts who have been badly needed to explain such events to the public on satellite channels.

The problem is that these experts may not always live up to high standards. According to Khaled Okasha, a security expert and director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, the turmoil and high speed of events in the Arab region have increased demands for security experts to speak to the media. He says that those who do so should be qualified, adding that military and security academies such as the Nasser Military Academy and the Police Academy both grant scientific degrees and qualifications at the international level.

A further problem is that some experts may function as agents or spokesmen either for the authorities or for the opposition. This “politicisation” of expert views has sometimes undermined their credibility. People may suspect the knowledge that such experts provide, thinking that they are defending a particular political party in an attempt to reach the official policy-making rank in the framework of the rotation of elites. The fact that many government officials are already employed in research centres upon their retirement is already widespread in Europe and the United States.

Experts tend to be more politicised at times of political polarisation. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the satellite channels provided platforms for competing experts who provided different takes on such issues as the NATO intervention in Libya, the war in Yemen and Syria, and the recent normalisation with Israel, for example.

When experts get politicised, they may suffer from the same so-called “confirmation bias” as ordinary citizens, selecting information that serves their arguments and supports their viewpoint and ignoring the rest. However, unlike ordinary citizens, experts’ choices may not be just the product of human error.

The issue of who is funding the experts also undermines their credibility, since their views may be seen as serving the agenda of their financiers rather than providing objective knowledge to the public.

Canadian author Alain Deneault has been highly critical of experts who commodify knowledge and defend various interests. For Deneault, such experts think according to who pays them and who funds their research since many major companies, including oil companies, finance research centres where experts may be asked to express views that serve the economic interests of the companies in the global market.

Experts may even get excluded in cases where they disagree with the policies of those financing them. A case in point was a recent incident when US expert Barry Lane was expelled from the New America Research Centre in 2017 after supporting an EU decision to impose fines on Google for abusing its powers over the Internet. Google was one of the largest funders of this centre.

CONSPIRACIES AND PROPAGANDA: Some experts have also recently come under fire for spreading false information or conspiracy theories that lack evidence and are not based on reliable sources, a matter which has recently become a subject of political satire in the media.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created fertile soil for experts to spread conspiracy theories since people have been stressed or even panicked by it. This general atmosphere of fear has pushed some experts to simplify events and jump to conclusions without adequate study or reliable evidence, and this has reinforced the US-China war of mutual accusation on who was responsible for spreading the virus.

Conspiracy theories have been spread by academic experts such as Tim Hayward from the University of Edinburgh in the UK and Russian biologist Igor Nikulin, who have insisted that the new coronavirus is a biological weapon invented by the West to weaken China. They have also said that international institutions have been exploiting the epidemic in order to promote genetically modified vaccines.

The coronavirus crisis has also provided a platform for non-specialists to promote views regarding the pandemic and the effectiveness of vaccines. Dozens of videos circulating on YouTube feature non-epidemiologists as well as media professionals and YouTubers giving their takes on the issue of vaccination, warning against it or even slamming it as part of an international game to control human beings, all without providing any evidence or even being specialists in the field.

Such conspiracy theories and non-specialist opinions greatly contributed to the initial public reluctance to accept the vaccines, also casting doubt on the opinion of experts at the World Health Organisation (WHO).

These factors have shaken the status of experts in the Arab region and the rest of the world, but they do not mean they no longer have any power. Their speculations may falter and they may get mired in polarisation and conspiracy theories, but they still have an important role to play in promoting public awareness and orienting governments. After all, India and Brazil lost billions of dollars and thousands of lives when they ignored expert opinions on the coronavirus pandemic.

Maintaining the status of experts may require a national and global review of the professional and ethical standards governing their work, whether addressing public opinion or dealing with decision-making circles.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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