EXPERTS, ULTRACREPIDARIANS AND CHARLATANS

The intent of this essay is to start a healthy debate on the subject of expert versus common knowledge, the pros and cons, that is, of each.

First of all, those of you who don’t know the meaning of the second word, here it is from Wikipedia:

“Ultracrepidarianism is the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge.

The term ultracrepidarian was first publicly recorded in 1819 by the essayist William Hazlitt in an open Letter to William Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly Review: “You have been well called an Ultra-Crepidarian critic.” It was used again four years later in 1823, in the satire by Hazlitt’s friend Leigh Hunt, Ultra-Crepidarius: a Satire on William Gifford.

The term draws from a famous comment purportedly made by Apelles, a famous Greek artist, to a shoemaker who presumed to criticise his painting. The Latin phrase “Sutor, ne ultra crepidam“, as set down by Pliny and later altered by other Latin writers to “Ne ultra crepidam judicaret“, can be taken to mean that a shoemaker ought not to judge beyond his own soles. That is to say, critics should only comment on things they know something about. The saying remains popular in several languages, as in the English, “A cobbler should stick to his last”.

(Slide courtesy: slideplayer.com)
(Slide courtesy: slideplayer.com)

A charlatan, we all know, is a person falsely claiming to have special knowledge or skill.

In ancient India, we had the Hindu Varna system or a classification of all society into four varnas or classes:

  • the Brahmins: priests, scholars and teachers.
  • the Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors and administrators.
  • the Vaishyas: cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans and merchants.
  • the Shudras: labourers and service providers.

A Shudra, for example, was not supposed to fight battles like a Kshatriya and was not expected to even enter the temples like a Brahmin. The Varna system ensured that the son of a Vaishya would become a Vaishya and so on. This wasn’t the caste system or the Jati system. It was simply vocation based classification.

Gradually, as knowledge became more widely and evenly spread, people started learning skills beyond the Varna system. Basically, all professions became open to everyone on merit and reservation was only for the backward classes. Hence, we did away with the elitist Varna system and in order to ensure that a Shudra family could also produce an engineer or a doctor, we provided anti-elitist reservation (affirmation) to the Shudras to catch up with the rest. However, since records of professions (Varnas) were not so easily available as those of Jati (Caste), the political classes thought of combining Scheduled Castes with Scheduled Tribes rather than with Varnas.

The present day reversal of pyramid notwithstanding, it is a fact that those that belonged to higher Jati and Varna resisted the encroachments into their Jati and Varna by the lower classes and castes. How could, they reasoned, anyone mar their exclusivity? We are all aware of the havoc caused in our society by, for example, the practice of untouchability.

There were experts all along and then there were those who guarded their exclusive turf. Those who learnt or tried to learn skills by themselves were looked down upon, jeered, made to feel miserable and in the case of Eklavya of Mahabharata, had his arching thumb cut as a guru-dakshina (Offering to the Teacher) for Dronacharya since he learnt archery keeping a clay model of Drona when the latter declined to take him up as his disciple.

Eklavya made to cut off his arching thumb by Drona as 'Guru Dakshina' (Pic courtesy: mug.shainsingh.com)
Eklavya made to cut off his arching thumb by Drona as ‘Guru Dakshina’ (Pic courtesy: mug.shainsingh.com)

And now cut to the modern age of free-knowledge and free-skills availability everywhere especially on the Internet. The Varna system has collapsed in many ways though vested interests want to keep the Jati or Caste system alive to perpetuate . You could be selling tea and yet you could lead the country as a Prime Minister. You could, as Indra Nooyi, be born in a Tamil speaking family in Madras and yet make it to be the CEO of PepsiCo, the second largest food and beverage business in the world.

And yet, the turf-guarders are always on their guard. They would tell you that you need more and more experts to solve problems, to repair, to rectify, to manage, to control, to heal, to do anything and everything. The lawyers, for example, make sure that they make legalese and court procedures so complicated and complex that the average citizen would have no choice but to call them to save his or her soul; in a repeat of the popular 1975 movie Sholay’s dialogue by the evil dacoit: Gabbar se tumhen ek hi aadmi bacha sakta hai, woh hai Gabbar khud (Only one man can protect you from Gabbar and that is Gabbar himself). The doctors circulate any number of videos on social-media mocking all those who learn about their ailments from the net. Most of the videos cleverly mix human skills with expert knowledge of ailments and cures making the so called ultracrepidarians look like buffoons, doing immense damage to themselves through their half-baked knowledge. They do forget the fact that the most difficult and responsible medical skill in the world – of being a parent – is learnt by most of us on the job and that for every failed unskilled parent there is a failed expert parent.

The Internet indeed is a great equalizer in a world wherein institutionalised training has been brought to its knees by the self-learners. One of the most spectacular examples of this is something that we grudgingly acknowledge: that is, how the most powerful armed forces have found their equal in self-trained terrorists; in many cases the latter having an edge over the former. We can have a debate about the means and the intent of the latter as opposed to the armies. But, the fact is that the Eklavyas of today, such as they are, don’t lose their thumbs in Guru-Dakshina but demand the heads of the elite trainers.

Last year I wrote a piece titled ‘All Photographers And Writers, No Viewers And Readers’. Just a few decades earlier, photographers and writers were an elite lot. Now everyone is one or the other. Everyone has an opinion and the Apelles of the world ridiculing shoemakers for expressing opinions about works of art have been simply outnumbered.

Lets look at the case of doctors predicting dire consequences for those who self-diagnose and self-medicate their ailments. There are counter views of course; the least of them is that doctors are known to fleece you and make your ailment really big and complex (requiring MRIs and other expensive tests) if you have no knowledge of your ailment.

Also, why only doctors? If we have to let only the experts do their job, then how come, these days:

  • Everybody is a national security expert.
  • Everybody knows how to run the country.
  • Other than the 13 cricketers in the field, everybody knows how to play.
  • Everyone knows how to get rid of terrorists.
  • Everybody knows how to act on screen or stage.
  • Everybody is a scientist.
  • Many people know how to make a bomb from the net.

We used to have a funny anecdote of an Engineer and the Captain of the ship exchanging their jobs, if only to win a bet. After an hour of this exchange, the Captain-turned-Engineer called the Bridge on the Intercom and said, “I am afraid the engines have stopped turning.” At this the Engineer-turned-Captain responded, “Oh, that’s alright since we just ran aground.”

Getting into non-expert fields is fraught with great risk. And yet, the most powerful navy in the world – the US Navy, that is – follows Line Officer Concept or Officer of the Line Concept.

What then is the answer? Do we require experts or not? What about the charlatans pretending to possess skills that they do not actually possess? In my last job in India’s largest corporate, we had a great and practical industrial security expert leading a proud  team of officers, men and women in the best industrial security organisation in the country. However, his communication and image-building skills were just average. The  management, therefore, brought in a person who had these skills in abundance but little knowledge of practical industrial security. Within a year the complete edifice that was painstakingly built in last twenty years crumbled. However, great sounding talks, write-ups and power-point presentations proliferated.

To build up the answer to the questions whether we require experts or not, and how to deal with ultracrepidarians and charlatans, I think  intent is the key. If by acquiring common and free knowledge, one is thinking of doing away with the expert when his services become indispensable, then there is something wrong. Also, if the intent is to expose the expert to ridicule just as the expert holds the half-baked-knowledge ignoramuses in ridicule, then too it is wrong. However, if the intent is to assist in making a more detailed examination which would have perhaps escaped the attention of the expert; or to fore-arm yourself whilst being fore-warned, then perhaps it makes sense.

I dealt with ultracrepidarians and charlatans in my ‘One Good Advice Deserves Another’ soon after I started this blog on 02 Mar 10. Admittedly, I didn’t even know that such a word as ultracrepidarian existed (I learnt about the word on WhatsApp only recently) and admittedly the piece is merely on the humorous side; however, I hasten to add that sometimes the advice of the non-experts throws open a perspective that was hitherto missed. I invite you to read an interesting bit I brought out in my ‘Being Non-Sensical May Be Far Sighted’.

There are no easy answers. Little knowledge is a dangerous thing is to be carefully balanced against Ignorance is bliss. As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the intent here is to start a debate about the pros and cons of expertise versus common knowledge. Please do give your views in the comments below. I am not an expert and I don’t want to have the final say on this.

© 2016, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks to internet and social media today everyone is an expert in everything. The desire to throw advice at the drop of a hat to win accolades becomes uppermost and forces one to behave like an ultracrepidarian. We forget that social media is meant to express and not impress and start using it the other way round. The trend is Google the topic and copy something and paste it. We all are expert politicians and start advising all and sundry how to do or not to do things in politics. But if asked to do it personally we become chicken. Ultracrepidarianism and Charlatanism is enshrined in us and can’t be for rid of so easily.

  2. This article opens up really fertile ground for discussion… but the bottom line is that we live in the information era where it is difficult to escape the bombardment of information which in turn may result in formation of opinion (half-baked or fully-baked) at all levels.

    1. Thanks Sundeep for your balanced view. Yes, we have too much of information available. To sift out significant from insignificant is a Herculean task. Personally, I would rather promote free flow of information and opinions rather than any barriers on it on the grounds that these don’t meet expert-level standards.

  3. This is a very thought provoking article. A balanced person is one who is a good listener & gives advise only if he knows the Subject well and is qualified to speak . There is a need for restraint & patience in this regard . One upmanship will only result in the ignorance getting exposed . A good leader is also the one who identifies knowledgeable people & gives them a chance to voice their opinion rather than go on preconceived ideas.

    1. Thank you Milind. I have always respected your views. In the present case, you yourself have all the attributes that you have recommended for others.

  4. Now let us take the recently concluded BREXIT referendum.Are they all experts who voted for or against?Is 52 -48 verdict a clear enough verdict or should it be 60-40 or as in the case of our Parliament 66:34.? Should one leave such a monumental decision to experts only or opinions of experts ,uc and charlatans will even out like cost averaging.

    1. Very relevant points you have brought out Mr. Ramakrishnan. The fact is that ordinary people sometimes have no say in things that affect them. One of the prime example is that of films censorship. Experts or so called experts decide what we should watch and what we shouldn’t.