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It’s just not possible to know everything

Only-fools-know-everything-african-proverbPHILIP FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - It is not possible to know everything. This is a truth that often dawns on people only in their older years.

The best we can hope for, and this is rare enough, is to be a polymath; a person of broad general knowledge.

This is why the world needs experts. But even if we put all of the experts in the world into a single room we still wouldn’t have captured all the knowledge there is to know.

Experts tend to have a great deal of knowledge but in a narrow range. This can make people tend to credit them with a lot more knowledge than they possess.

Just because someone has a PhD in water turbidity doesn’t mean they can fix the leaky tap in your bathroom. What you need for that is a plumber.

A skilled plumber is as much an expert as a scientist with a doctorate in quantum physics or an anthropologist with a PhD in indigenous land rights.

If you want to fix your leaky tap you call a plumber and if you want to lodge a land claim you call an anthropologist.

If you want to stop a pandemic you call an epidemiologist.

At the end of the day, experts of every stripe are smart people offering specialist services in particular situations.

I’ve found that, apart from a certain type of religious fanatic, the only people who claim to be experts in everything are politicians.

Unfortunately, what politicians offer as expertise is usually nothing better than opinion, or even propaganda.

Even when politicians consult the experts, what we tend to get are opinions formulated from their version of the advice they have received.

If that advice doesn’t gel with their particular agenda or the ideologies they follow they are perfectly capable of contorting, cherry-picking and misconstruing it to make it fit in with their ideas.

At worst, they will bully the experts into presenting the information in a rosy light.

And, more often than not, they also reduce the problem to its most simplistic terms.

In 2013 one Australian politician reduced the complex problem of dealing with climate change to a three word slogan (‘Axe the Tax’) and in the process sabotaged useful action on the matter that has extended until this day.

No one in their right mind would think about putting a plumber or an anthropologist in a leadership role simply because they are a plumber or an anthropologist. I think we’d all agree they needed a broader range of skills than that.

Nor should we elect people to leadership roles simply because they are a business executive, political consultant or lawyer. Yet these three professions make up 52% of Australia’s political leaders.

What we really need in these people are individuals with the sort of skills you find in the humanities, the ability to critically analyse, interpret and synthesis ideas.

This ability is often referred to as the dialectical method, which seeks to establish the truth through reasoned argument.

It originated with the philosopher Johann Fichte’s triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis (also attributed to Georg Hegel).

This method postulates a beginning proposition called a thesis, a negation of that thesis called the antithesis, and a synthesis whereby the two conflicting ideas are reconciled to form a new proposition.

It’s a very handy way of sorting out problems.

When this method is married to a respect for expertise, good outcomes are generally assured.

Unfortunately, in many cases this doesn’t happen automatically, or even at all.

Just like time heals all wounds and history has a way of erasing truth, we tend to forget some of the horrific things that people claiming to be experts - but who in reality are loud mouthed, opinionated bullies - have perpetrated on society.


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