Oath for Experts Revisited

I was just reminded by Maarja Krustein of a concept I was messing around a while back, of getting people together to draft a new “oath for experts”. I had great ambitions a few years back about this idea, about trying to renovate what an expert ought to act like, to describe a shared professional ethic for experts that would help us explain what our value still might be in a crowdsourced, neoliberal moment. The Hippocratic Oath is at least one of the reasons why many people still trust the professionalism of doctors (and are so pointedly scandalized when it is unambiguously violated).

We live in a moment where increasingly many people either believe they can get “good enough” expertise from crowdsourced knowledge online or where experts are all for sale to the highest bidder or will narrowly conform their expertise to fit the needs of a particular ideology or belief system.

I think in both cases these assumptions are still more untrue than true. Genuine experts, people who have spent a lifetime studying particular issues or questions, still know a great deal of value that cannot be generated by crowdsourced systems–in fact, most crowdsourcing consists of locating and highlighting such expertise rather than spontaneously generating a comparable form of knowledge in response to any query. I still think a great many experts, academic and otherwise, remain committed to providing a fair, judicious accounting of what they know even when that knowledge is discomforting to their own political or economic interests.

Mind, you, crowdsourcing and other forms of networked knowledge are nevertheless immensely valuable, and sometimes a major improvement over the slow, expensive or fragile delivery of authoritative knowledge that experts in the past could provide. Constructing accessible sources of everyday reference in the pre-Internet world was a difficult, laborious process.

It’s also undoubtedly true that there are experts who sell their services in a crass way, without much regard for the craft of research or study, to whomever is willing to pay. But this is why something like an oath is necessary, and why I think everyone who depends upon being viewed as a legitimate expert has a practical reason to join a large-scale professional alliance designed to reinvigorate the legitimacy of expertise. This is why professionalization happened during the 20th Century, as groups of experts who shared a common training and craft tried to delegitimate unscrupulous, predatory or dangerous forms of pseudo-expertise and insist on rigorous forms of licensing. I don’t think you can ever create a licensing system for something as broad as expertise, but I do think you could expect a common ethic.

The last time I tried to put forward one plank of a plausible oath, I made the mistake of picking an example that created more heat than light. I might end up doing that again, perhaps by underestimating just how many meal tickets this proposed oath might cancel. But let’s try a few items that I personally would be glad to pledge, in the simplest and most direct form that I can think of:

1) An expert should continuously disclose all organizations, groups and companies to whom they have provided direct advice or counsel, regardless of whether the provision of this advice was compensated or freely given. All experts should maintain a permanent, public transcript of such disclosures.

2) An expert should publically disclose all income received from providing expert advice to clients other than their main employer. All experts should insist that their main employer (university, think tank, political action committee, research institute) disclose its major sources of funding as well. The public should always know whether an expert is paid significantly by an organization, committee, company or group that directly benefits from that person’s expert knowledge.

3) Any expert providing testimony at a criminal or civil trial should do so for free. No expert should be provided compensation directly or indirectly for providing expert testimony. Any expert who serves as a paid consultant for a plaintiff or a defendant should not provide expert witness at a trial involving that client.

4) All experts should disclose findings, information or knowledge that contradicts or challenge their own previous conclusions or interpretation when that information becomes known to them in the course of their own research or analysis. Much as newspapers are expected to publish corrections, experts should be prepared to do the same.

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4 Responses to Oath for Experts Revisited

  1. Fred Bush says:

    What do you think about Phil Tetlock’s research? My trust in expertise was profoundly disrupted when I looked at his work.

  2. Fred Bush says:

    I was also part of a crowdsourced prediction project that beat out expert opinion ( intelligence analysts), and I use the wisdom of the crowds in the form of betting markets quite frequently. So I don’t share your pessimism about crowdsourcing at all!

    As for your larger point, I am not sure that experts will want to do pro bono work for criminal trials. That seems quite onerous.

    Your oath might be a lot more forceful when rewritten in “I” statements, like the actual Hippocratic Oath. Or if you can work in some mad rhymes like the Green Lantern Oath.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I just happened to pull Tetlock off my shelf this morning! So that’s a good convergence. Yes, I think he’s unsettling, and there are others who are suggesting some similar problems with the value of expert knowledge, some of which I think derives from the existing incentive systems that affect experts.

    I suppose I agree that crowdsourcing is very good for some things–but some prediction markets essentially rely upon the aggregation of existing expertise, not only being opposite to or absent of expertise. Let’s put it this way–if we stopped training experts altogether because crowds were good enough, I think crowds would get dumber.

    I suppose what I think experts are or could be good at is providing: a) ‘black swan’ insights about the possible importance of highly improbable events that crowds can’t see or discount; b) narrative explanations and interpretations of what crowds understand or know (e.g., they’re good as teachers/storytellers/communicators). What I think they are not presently good at but could become good at is being c) makers, creators, artisans who invent or refashion what crowds know. Not everything can be assembled through open-source networks.

    I think the idea of pro bono is important to the professions. The problem is that neoliberalism has relentlessly stripped away the time and autonomy and overall compensation systems that made it possible, and much like any other ‘externality’ we don’t put that on the balance sheet as a cost of neoliberal approaches to organizing labor and society. So yes, we can’t assert a pro bono obligation unless we also rebuild some of the buffers and support systems that made it imaginable.

  4. Fred Bush says:

    I am still very uncertain about pro bono. If you can’t get paid for your time, unless you’re a saint you’re going to be primarily offering your time to your affinity groups, so people with ties to powerful groups will be the ones getting expert testimony. If you can hire an expert for $1k or whatever the going rate is right now it’s at least a straightforward transaction rather than necessitating being plugged into some sort of network or begging the godfather for a ballistics expert.

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