The Aura of Expertise
I’m preparing to head back to France next Saturday, preparing a Napoleon course for the spring, and trying to land a job teaching at a university in Singapore; so posting will be light!
However, I had a few cursory thoughts on plagiarism and BSing in academic papers. I’ve encountered very little plagiarism and suspect plagiarists are a breed apart. BSing is more common and the interesting thing to me is that the people who do it often seem unaware that they’ve done it when it’s pointed out. A case that is notorious in our department invoved a grad student who turned in a paper for a seminar reviewing a book and was furious about his failing grade. The reason we grad students all remember this incident was that he saw no reason that his having not read the book in question should have been a problem, since he had read a review of the book, which gave him knowledge of its content. In fact, he actually seemed to think he had reviewed the book.
So, here’s an inchoate theory: all large and hierarchical organizations produce both expertise and the aura of expertise separate from expertise itself. The college of medicine, for instance, both produces medical experts and maintains the aura of expertise that surrounds its members. Both expertise and the aura of expertise can correspond, of course, but they don’t have to. Corruption arises when the aura of expertise does not correspond to actual expertise, and is compounded when members of the organization believe themselves to have expertise that they lack. Such large, hierarchical organizations suffer other related problems, such as a lack of informational flow between levels- people lie to their superiors and vice-versa- and a tendency to circle the wagons to protect incompetant members and maintain the organizational aura of expertise. And I suspect that these problems pervade all such organizations, be they governmental, corporate, academic, religious, or other.
I should note that the “aura of expertise” sounds a lot like Foucault’s “discourse” as power/knowledge, and I might be saying the same thing. I’m not exactly fond of Foucault, but could be thinking along the same lines.
A secondary theory: the Internet has not democratized expertise as much as the aura of expertise. Anyone of us can access Wikipedia and find the same “content” in a cursory form that an expert in the field would know in depth, and many people consider themselves to know, essentially, the same “information”. A survey I saw recently asked a group of random people if they accepted the scientific theory of manmade global climate change as correct: less than 10% answered “I don’t know” in spite of the fact that, in the general population, the vast majority of us- including myself- are not qualified to assess this sort of high-level science. I would have responded, “Ask a climatologist. I have no idea.”
Others have talked about the tendency of the net to flatten out the usually bewildering manifold of sensation and perception- Facebook, for example, reducing knowledge of a person to a grouping of likes and dislikes- but I suspect that curiosity can be as easily satisfied by knowledge as by it’s signpost. So, if you ask me what I “know well”, it’s limited to the history of Europe in the 19th century, who I am, and that my wife and I are deeply in love. For everything else, I only have some sense of the gist. (Oh, and this pet theory of mine is not rooted in expertise either!)