The role of experts in society

By Eugene Clark
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 29, 2017
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When President Xi first took office, commentators (including myself) noted that one of his first meetings was with foreign experts. During the meeting, President Xi indicated that China both benefitted from and needed foreign experts to develop its economy and achieve the Chinese Dream. That involvement continues years later, as experts from around the world are presently involved in developing the infrastructure for the Belt and Road.

Unfortunately, experts, and particularly Western experts, are increasingly distrusted, discounted and even vilified by those who get most of their information from a pervasive web that contains "fake news," distortions, "alternative facts" and outright lies. This is the theme of Tom Nichols' recent book, Death of Expertise (Oxford University Press).

Nichols argues the importance of the role played by experts in society. He contends that a society can still be democratic while giving experts their due. This theme is also captured in a quote from American writer Harlan Ellison, who exclaimed: "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant."

One of the most significant sources of experts in any country is to be found in universities. Having lived in China for three years, one of the things I enjoyed about China's Global Television Network (CGTN) is the frequent appearance of university experts not only from China, but from around the world. Experts also can be found in other outlets, such as on major websites like

But why do we so often ignore, discount and often distrust experts? In part, many experts must share the blame for they can often talk down to their audience. As Ellison notes: "I don't mind you thinking I'm stupid, but don't talk to me like I'm stupid." Equally troubling is the fact that many experts are increasingly not talking to the public at all. Instead, they stay aloof in their Ivory Tower, writing jargon-ridden articles that are read only by their peers.

So, what are some strategies that might be adopted by universities in particular and society in general to promote greater engagement with experts? Below are some suggestions.

1. Universities should reignite a culture that professors should "profess." Greater weighting should be given by universities to those professors who engage with the general community. Universities should also give greater recognition to the value of journals, books, blogs, etc., whose purpose is to educate the public and help them come to informed opinions.

2. Universities must also get better at bridging the gap between basic research and the application of that research to problems faced by society. Sadly, there is an attitude prevalent among many academics that business, commercialization and practical application are somehow unworthy endeavors.

3. The "Ivory Tower" mentality of universities must be overcome. Universities must open their doors to the wider community. They should also do more to partner with industries, government and other groups, thus uniting the best theory and practice so that we are able to constantly adapt and improve.

4. Universities have to take their expertise to where the public resides – and today that means social media. Indeed, universities need to recognize, more than they presently do, the importance for academics to be encouraged to create new knowledge products beyond the traditional journal article.

5. University academics also need greater training in communication skills, including media training – something which a number of universities are now doing. Some academics also need to be a little more humble and ensure that ego does not override judgement. Researchers need to be transparent; for example, being honest if research funding comes from a particular industry group.

6. Communication is a two-way street. It is therefore important for schools to intensify their efforts to ensure that listening, comprehension and critical thinking skills are possessed by all students. Unfortunately, evidence is emerging that computer games and the constant distractions that are part of modern communications may actually lead to shorter attention spans in today's generation of students. Just as many societies have a major problem with obesity, the "information diet" problem of today's children must be addressed.

7. Today's public and students also need greater information literacy so they can better assess the reliability of information sources. Just because something is on the Internet does not mean it is accurate or truthful.

8. Greater support should also be given to those media outlets that promote informed debate among citizens.

In conclusion, in our increasingly complex, technical and interconnected world, the role of experts is more important than ever. Society needs the contribution and engagement of experts so that the fruits of their dialogue will provide us with the expertise and wisdom to chart a successful way forward to a better future.

Eugene Clark is a columnist with For more information please visit:

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of


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