The Mythical Expert

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Monkey Cage that identified a trend towards a more powerful presidency in the Czech Republic. This week, some of President Zeman’s newest actions offer further evidence that such a trend exists. In a radio interview, he announced that he was going to get involved in the process of selecting new cabinet ministers and would only appoint ministers with sufficient expertise (article in Lidové Noviny). Observers have noted that this intention goes against both constitutional precedent and against Zeman’s own stance on the matter when he was Prime Minister in charge of a cabinet (1998-2002), and rejected then-president Václav Havel’s involvement.

Zeman’s argument about expertise is a common trope in Czech politics, where any assertion by anyone can always be undermined by arguing that whoever made that assertion was not in fact an ‘odborník’. For instance, if someone says something about 20th century history, but he or she is not an historian, you don’t have to listen. Or if they are historians but they’ve specialized in a different period, you can also safely ignore them. Or if they only have a few publications, and only in second-rate journals anyway, they are definitely not worth your time. This sounds like gossip hour at an academic conference, but it’s regular fare in newspapers and on TV.

This, of course, begs the question whether whoever suspects a lack of expertise is himself (or herself) in a position to evaluate the level of expertise and knowledge that others bring to the table. This question is rarely raised, though, which makes questioning ‘odbornost’ a wonderful strategy for undermining other people’s credibility without actually addressing the substance of their claims and arguments. At the same time, while suggesting that non-experts can’t have valuable insights, it elevates the expert and his or her claims to infallibility and neutrality. The expert is never wrong, and you know this not by looking at what the expert says but by knowing that the expert is an expert. Also, the expert, being an expert, speaks out of expertise and is not politically or otherwise motivated to make certain assertions. So even when an expert’s claim looks suspiciously like a value judgment (“that guy is an asshole”) it can’t be, because they’re experts!

This mythical expert is not an exclusively Czech character, of course, but in my field research I’ve come across him a whole lot and he is a fascinating creature. Of course, I’m skeptical, but then again, I’m no expert, so what do I know.

One thought on “The Mythical Expert

  1. Pingback: Such an Exciting Day | Vincent Post's Blog Posts

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