The Samovar

Authority and Competence

The view that the people in charge know what they’re doing is implicitly prevalent. Although many people would say that the people in charge were incompetent, in fact there seems to be a widespread implicit assumption that they either do know what they’re doing or that someone else would know what they’re doing better. Underlying this is the assumption that it’s possible to know what you’re doing. In politics and economics, none of these are true – there is very little understanding of what is happening, what the effects of various actions will be, or what we should do. Understanding this is important, because at the moment there is a lack of critical thinking in politics. Although there is much criticism, of course, it usually fails to get at the root causes of problems and so the mass of critical feeling fails to achieve anything, and is wasted in irrelevancies.

As an example of this, the debate that was had a few years ago about extending the period that the police can hold people without charging them beyond 28 days in terrorism cases. Assumptions of competence pervaded this debate in many ways. For some, it was enough to note that the politicians thought that an extension was necessary to protect us. For others, that wasn’t enough, but the fact that the police thought that an extension was necessary for them to be able to protect us was enough. This was also the basis for a substantial amount of the debate in parliament. It was assumed that the fact that the police said they needed the extra time counted for something. Not everyone agreed that just because the police thought they needed it meant that they should get it, but it was universally agreed that their opinion counted purely on the basis that it was their opinion. Their perceived authority and presumed competence gave their opinion weight in and of itself.

However, very few people questioned why the police had come to their opinion, and what the evidence for it was. It turns out that one of the major claims was that in previous terrorist cases they had used more and more time, up to 26 days I think it was. The argument was that since they had used this much, it was probably the case that if the limit had been higher they could have profitably used more, and that future cases were likely to need even more. They were already at the limit, and this was holding them back.

This argument is terribly weak in many, many ways, but came under hardly any criticism at all (indeed, very few people even knew that this was the argument). But there’s no reason why it had to be like this – the weaknesses of this argument, and the counter-arguments against it, are not so complicated that most people wouldn’t be able to understand them. Rather, it was that the whole process of questioning the argument was made unnecessary by the fact that most people were willing to go along with the opinions of those in positions of authority based on their presumed competence. A more critically engaged society would be better able to protect itself against manipulation by those in power. We have all the necessary democratic mechanisms, but they count for nothing if we hand over our critical thinking to those in positions of authority (and that includes journalists).

In order to achieve a more critically engaged society, we need to understand competence better – where does it come from? What sort of things are we able to be competent about? How can we recognise it? We also need to dispel myths and misunderstandings about competence, which are widespread.

If we describe competence as being about having knowledge, then we can split it down into an explicit and tacit component. Explicit knowledge is something you can write down and tell others about, things like 2+2=4, the capital of France is Paris, etc. Tacit knowledge is everything that can’t be put into words, but that is still valuable. I can’t put into words what it is I’m doing when I solve a mathematical problem, but there’s definitely something I know that most other people don’t that makes me able to do them and them not. Tacit knowledge is built up from experience, thousands of particular cases, attempted and failed solutions of problems, etc.

The existence of tacit knowledge is very significant and certainly shouldn’t be underestimated. Indeed, this is a good argument that sometimes we do need to rely on the authoritative judgments of others (experts). But we shouldn’t make the mistake of just presuming that people do indeed have tacit knowledge about their area of work. First of all, you don’t get tacit knowledge about something just by doing it often, and secondly it is often easy to think that tacit knowledge is more general than it really is.

In the example of the debate above, the police may well have sincerely believed that they had the requisite experience and knowledge to make their judgment that they needed the extension to protect us from terrorism. But they didn’t. For a start, they haven’t dealt with nearly enough cases to get tacit knowledge that is worth much. Since the end of the IRA bombing campaigns, which were rather different to modern terrorism, there has only been one successful terrorist incident and a handful of failures. The police have had no great successes or failures in these matters – they have caught some people, but these have largely been fantasists who had no real ability to do the things they wanted to do. The fact that terrorism has been as little a problem as it has been is a consequence of the fact that there have been very few competent attempts at it, few individuals involved, and little will to carry it through. All the police know, then, is what they’ve done in the past, and what happened in consequence. Even on that basis alone, there’s very little to go on as chance and circumstance probably have as much to do with that as anything else. But further than that, there’s no basis for them to be able to know what would happen if they had got the extension they were looking for. They have no model, explicit or tacit, of the world that would allow them to make such a prediction, and no experience to go on. Almost certainly, what they actually had was the conviction that it couldn’t make it worse, and that it would make their lives easier.

It is vital, if we take someone’s judgment as an expert or authority, that we analyse what basis they might have for making the claims that they do, whether or not they could be in possession of explicit or tacit knowledge that would justify it, and where that knowledge could have come from. This is far from being a complete recipe for dealing with issues of authority, expertise and tacit knowledge, but even a better recognition of the importance of these issues would be a big step forwards.

One thing that needs to be addressed if we’re to achieve a more realistic understanding of these sorts of issues is cultural representations of expertise and competence – the myths that are portrayed in books, films, TV shows, newspapers and everyday discourse that support them. Films and TV shows typically portray hyper-competent individuals bursting with impeccable tacit knowledge. The reason for this on the one hand is obvious – a story about heroic, talented individuals is more interesting. Sometimes it’s obvious that people in these things act beyond human abilities, such as the hacker who can break into any computer system in the world in only 5 minutes. But other times the portrayal is more subtle and insidious, such as in The West Wing, a notionally realistic show about the US presidential staff in the White House. The technical competence of the heroes is constantly portrayed as a virtue in and of itself, and the show suggests implicitly that they have the right to rule by virtue alone of their greater ability to do so. Very few TV shows portray anything like reality in this regard, with the most notable exception being The Wire, one of the best things ever to be shown on TV, proving that it certainly is possible to do it (and be reasonably popular).

On a final note, these considerations apply very much to areas of life outside politics and economics. For example, some people might be shocked about the standards of evidence that count in science. But that’s another story.

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Change in comments policy
September 3, 2009, 10:17 pm
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I’ve made a minor change to my comments policy for this blog in the light of the growing number of spam comments making it past the spam filters which I have to delete by hand.

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