Is “expertise” all that it is cracked up to be?

Like Tom Nichols, I THINK an expert, at least on the matters that this blog focuses on. Oh, I KNOW I am not in the same level as other scholars like Colin Gray, Eliot Cohen, Elizabeth Kier, Martin van Creveld … These experts exist in another, much higher, plane from the one that I inhabit. But I have studied war and strategy in a rigorous and structured manner. And, as a consequence, I think I have ideas and arguments relating to war and strategy that are worth something.

I am NOT saying that other people – who unlike me have not been formally schooled in the study of war and strategy – have ideas and arguments about the subject matter that are not listening to. A good friend of mine never studied in a university, and has given me the pleasure of some of the most vigorous and rigorous debates on these matters in my life.

However, there are a number of people who clearly think their own opinions are as good, if not better, than the arguments forwarded by scholars. I have some experience of this.

Some time back, I answered a question on Quora that asked this question, if Malaysia and Singapore were to go to war, which country would win. My answer is produced verbatim below:

I don’t know how to answer your question, but I can suggest a few considerations that will shape the answers you seek.

One, what is the cause of the war? What is the purpose for which the two countries would be prepared to resort to the use of military force? How this question gets answered then begins to determine the kind of military operations that either side will undertake.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all strategy; each strategy must be shaped by the peculiar conditions in which it exists. A one-size-fits-all approach to strategy is likely a recipe for strategic disaster. And on this issue, I tend to agree with how most Singaporeans think, that Singapore is too small to allow for strategic disaster.

Two, what is the relative combat power of the two armed forces? To answer this question, you need to move away from the overly simplistic notion of counting tanks, divisions, squadrons, shops etc. Military power is not purely about how many divisions either side has, but also (maybe even more importantly) about how those material capabilities are used. By some strategists’ thinking, military power is the end result of an equation involving hardware (tanks, planes etc), software (doctrines, operating concepts, strategic thinking), and ‘wetware’ (soldiers, their training, their skills, their dedication, and their will to persist).

Three, how resilient is the national population? Stemming from the last issue, the will to persist, this is a critical (but often overlooked) consideration. Although to be fair, people like LKY and GKS in their early speeches recognised the human element in war. But it is also more than the will of the military organisation to persist, it is also the will of the population (from which the personnel of the military organisation come) to accept any burden, pay any price (sorry, plagiarising from people way more eloquent than me).

My answer elicited one comment: “You started with “I don’t know how to answer your question” but claim to teach War Studies, Strategic Thought, and Defence Policy. Then follow with 6 paragraphs that misses the question completely. Clever!”

I would argue – and I think my counter here is correct – that my “answer” did not tell the person posing the question a definitive answer, but provided the person with the key issues he/she would need to think about before arriving at an answer on his/her own.

A second experience of this kind of public commentary revolves around my recent commentary which was picked up by TODAYOnline recently. One comment on my piece was the following:

Article ignores critical facts as previously presented. If these facts are in question, they are not questioned in the article, by the author. This implies that either the facts are NOT in question, or the author is NOT aware of the facts. Brilliant!

1) The inspection was NOT routine.

2) Chinese authorities were tipped off. Without the tip off, the vehicles would NOT have been inspected

3) The “Inspection Team” was a full court press of officers/inspectors when a routine inspection would have had at most one or two inspectors. The team zoomed in on the SAF vehicles.

4) The “security of the cargo” dictates nothing. There is no “security of the cargo”. The vehicles are training platforms and all sensitive equipment had already been removed, if they were ever present. This is understandable as the vehicles would be handed over to commercial operators with NO Security Clearance. In other words, if the commercial operator had chosen to violate the privacy of the client and open up the cargo, they would have learned NOTHING.

In short, this is a speculative piece of armchair quarterbacking with 20/20 hindsights with selective blinkers on.

Here’s my beef with this commentator’s response: none of the four “facts” he listed are actual facts. I personally believe that the person’s claims are accurate, but because I have absolutely NO EVIDENCE whatsoever, these cannot be facts!!!

At this point, I go back to the words of Tom Nichols, whose 2013 editorial, “The Death of Expertise” (hyperlinked earlier), inspired this entry:

Unfortunately, an increasing number of other folks now reject every assumption in what I just wrote; they would whine that I’m defending the fallacious “appeal to authority,” they might then invoke the dread charge of “elitism,” and finally accuse me (or people like me) of trying to use credentials to stifle democratic dialogue.

But democracy … denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It means, instead, that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other.

It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s,” because no one really lives that way.

Don’t get me wrong. Like Tom Nichols, I WILL NEVER claim that experts know everything, are never wrong. That being said, as Nichols argued, “mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is just plain silly [and] a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. It’s a rejection of science.”

It is also from Nichols that I end this entry:

  1. The expert isn’t always right.

  2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are.

  3. Your political opinions have value in terms of what you want to see happen, how you view justice and right. Your political analysis as a layman has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.

  4. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, the expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. At that point, you’re best served by listening, not carping and arguing.


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