Writer and broadcaster

Let the new knowledge in.

The five men boarded the flight from Sardinia to London. They were all members of a steel band, but because the flight was full they had to mostly sit apart. They were ordinary passengers, on their way home to spend New Year’s Eve with their families. One was blind, and his colleague, whom he was sitting next to, was reading him the football scores.

However, this perfectly innocent scene held intrigue for a fellow passenger – no normal person but an expert: a psychology professor. He had seen the men in the departure lounge sitting together, now they were dispersed. The man pretending to be blind was now reading the paper. They were clearly terrorists! He alerted the pilot (I can imagine what he said: “I’m a psychology professor; these men are terrorists!”) and the men were escorted off, and not allowed back on, even when they proved they were entirely innocent. In the event, the band did not get back to their families until January 2, after travelling to Italy and London, via sleeping rough in a Liverpool bus shelter.

Four years ago, a mother gave birth to a child and died a few hours later. Instead of being given an anaesthetic as an epidural, straight into her spine, she had been given it through a drip into her arm. The midwife who made the error repeatedly denied making the mistake, and because of course she never made the mistake, she could show no remorse. The hospital took more than a year to admit there had been a mix-up. Clearly, experts don’t make mistakes.

In Paris, seven senior French doctors and former health officials are standing trial for manslaughter and fraud related to the death of more than 100 people they allegedly caused to be infected with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Three stories, from just one day in this week’s news, of experts getting it very wrong. And what about the famous, entirely tragic case of the recent past? Sally Clark was wrongfully convicted of the death of her sons after one expert asserted that the likelihood of two sudden infant deaths in the same house was “one in 73 million”, and another submitted an incorrect pathology report. Later, to add insult to injury, an expert in Munchausen by proxy decided, simply by watching a television programme, that it was actually Sally Clark’s husband who did it. God save us from experts.

The problem with being an expert is that once it’s been announced you know it all, it almost ceases to matter what you say. Because you’re an expert. Some perfectly sane, intelligent people fail to question the questionable, because if a statement is prefixed with “the expert’s view is …”, they think it escapes analysis. Even without tipping into real tragedy, who hasn’t had the experience of an arrogant doctor who won’t listen because he knows best. And don’t even get me started on TV doctors, who belong to a whole special world of their own, the TV expert. Or the teacher who won’t countenance you having an opinion on your own child because – look, she’s the educational expert. Or the priest who actually thinks he’s God?

These people don’t let new knowledge in, they don’t allow for variables, they don’t listen. They don’t need to, after all. I wonder at which point experts decide they no longer need to learn, because they already know it all?

The people I know with real specialisms and expertise – and yes, I am grateful for all the learned people in the world that use their wisdom wisely – purposely avoid the word expert. In turn, I avoid the opinions of experts; experts are rigid, and the one thing a keen mind must have is flexibility. The cleverest people I’ve met are also the best listeners. A really intelligent person is humble, and realises that knowledge is never finite.