Knowledge & news is ever changing. Throughout history ideas and concepts change as they are proved or disproved. We create or realise one thing and then have to make it better, build on it. An expert is now a term that can be questioned, how does one become an expert, and will all members of society perceive us as one?
What is construed as ‘expert knowledge’ is knowledge that is socially sanctioned, has been developed over a period of time, through indoctrination and given legitimacy in society. This expert knowledge is a social process, which has taken place throughout history. Charles II founded the Royal Society in 1662, a forum for great thinkers of the day, who claimed objectivity by virtue of their economic status and high social position. It is this objectivity and the processing of new theories and methods of gathering and use of evidence in a systematic and methodological way and proving of theories, which allows medical knowledge, for instance, to be called expert knowledge.
Historically, one of the main bodies of knowledge giving credence to society has been religion. Having a fundamental basis in faith and tradition, this is a different type of knowledge. With its substantive basis in peoples’ lives especially at times of loss and birth when human vulnerability creates uncertainty, the functionality of religious knowledge can be important.
These categories of knowledge are institutionalised through bodies like the church and the medical council, both of which, historically, are considered to be experts in knowledge and until the end of the last century, were predominantly male dominated. It was in 1876 that women for the first time were allowed to qualify for medicine, but not until after the Second World War that top medical schools opened their doors to women. Some religious denominations have also, only recently allowed women into their ranks, yet when it comes to participation in religion in Britain, 41% more women than men frequently attend church services.
Historically, women, for hundreds of years have been excluded from many areas of life and learning, and have traditionally gained knowledge through social, personal or tradition, putting less faith in objectivity and using common-sense knowledge to act in a more interpretive way.
In recent years girls gaining knowledge through schooling have year on year, out performed boys. Many more women are now achieving in the workplace and in professional spheres, where the woman’s differing approach can undoubtedly give rise to a questioning of the knowledge of experts, whose basis has been knowledge based on gender and shaped by social power relations such as patriarchy.
This is one way in which traditional knowledge is being challenged, but it is not only women who are questioning the knowledge of experts. Society today has seen many changes, specifically after the Second World War. The realisation of the Welfare State, where all of society was assured a better standard of living, has become a reality for most people in the U.K. However the security of a job for life and a comfortable retirement pension all collapsed when it was clear that the U.K. was no longer capable of producing competitively in a global market, and eventually the liberal ideas of the Thatcher years created cynicism and questions from all classes of society.
In contemporary UK, the landslide victory of “New Labour” under Tony Blair seemed as if it would be a new beginning for prosperity and social change. Subsequent governments have also failed to inspire, in fighting and the continuous wrangling over Brexit over the past few years have confirmed for most of us that those that we can have little faith in government. The National Health Service is still massively under funded and more and more people are turning to alternative holistic approaches for an answer to their ailments and mental health, where the accepted knowledge seems to have let them down.
More and more people are becoming uncertain, feeling unable to believe what they are being told by politicians and people in authority. In the same way globalisation, and the continued use and deterioration of natural resources by governments and large corporations whose main concern seems to be only profit and power.
Large corporations have production sites worldwide and cross many national boundaries. Benefiting from low cost of production, while taking little or no responsibility for people or the environment, and with little or no global controls to ensure compliance with laws, can absolve much responsibility. Added to this such complex issues as global warming, of which there are so many components to the cause, that again due to crossing of national boundaries many absolve themselves of responsibility. The same problem occurs with the world’s oceans and rainforests, which are planetary fundamentals, often called “global commons.’ Just recently the Trump administration confirmed its intention to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement on emissions of greenhouse gas, a statement that would confirm that for those in power, current commercial considerations take precedence on environmental sustainability. Continued industrialisation is a concern for future generations, and ourselves as it is environmentally unsustainable. Even today’s expert opinion or advice changes on a seemingly daily basis, we only have to look at food advice where, one moment eating a particular food is safe and the following week it is found to have a harmful effect if eaten every third Friday on a dull day!
Society has witnessed in the past generations incidents caused by careless governments i.e. the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, which had widespread ramifications worldwide. More recently in August 2020 an explosion caused massive devastation in Beirut, Lebanon, from a large quantity of ammonium nitrate being stored on a ship without adequate safety measures. The reality of Covid 19 in 2020 and the stay home, don’t stay home, eat out to help out, don’t eat out, is another clear example of expert knowledge being questionable. These realities make us realise that governments and those in authority are not always knowledgeable, they do not always make the right decisions, nor do they make decisions which are in our best interests, but have their own political agenda and perhaps self interest.
These examples show clearly why society is uncertain about believing traditional expert knowledge, and with the development of new technologies, which allow information to be transmitted across the globe instantaneously; we have become a knowledgeable society.
We can now all gain knowledge simply by typing a word or phrase into a search engine on the Internet, and can find reams of information on any given topic. The media in all its forms inundated us on a daily basis with information, which is vital to our health and lifestyle, must haves’ for the continued well-being of our consumer driven lifestyles. With all this knowledge that we have access to, we have to decide what information we can believe and what we cannot. The risk society has created a diverse range of services and a myriad of experts available to us, from lifestyle gurus, financial planners, personal trainers, all ready and able to advise and help us assess the risks and make the right decision. What is relevant however is that most of these ‘experts’ are offering a service for financial gain and this increases uncertainty, which is perhaps why we see ‘the rise of the celebrity’ who, just by virtue of being famous, imparts ‘expert knowledge.’
To conclude, people cannot rely on knowledge from experts because from the perspective of women, much traditional knowledge from experts is based on a male patriarchy with a top down Weberian view of power, much more suited to men, and is likely to be at odds with a female approach. Since the Second World War various political ideologies have promised much to society at election time, yet failed to deliver, causing uncertainty and cynicism. A marked lack of responsibility by both nation states and large corporations for worldwide industrialization, which is not environmentally sustainable, is seen as irresponsible. Yet many are replacing traditional expert knowledge with ‘expert knowledge’ from celebrities with no tradition or proven value, as it would seem for now there is nothing better to replace it with.