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On knowledge, Experts and Predictive Judgements

 

By Wambui Mwangi

 

It has been the bane of my existence for at least 20 years now that people, on learning what I do, feel compelled, nay, morally impelled, to ask me what I think will happen to South Africa’s future, or who will win the next Kenyan elections, or indeed, what is going to happen to Liberia in a few years.

 

So much for us, the experts. When people ask me about what is going to happen, I am unfortunately wont to respond that I happen not to be carrying my crystal ball that day…a consequence of my sheer fatigue at having to answer this question several times a month, as if I am some Delphic Oracle.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not, as has become fashionable, demeaning the very real expertise that people who have studied a subject for a long time acquire in that subject.

 

I am quite willing to bet, for example, that I know more about monetary arrangements in early 20th Century East Africa than most people in the world, give or take five or six individuals.

 

I also know how to theorise about money in its social and political aspects as well as perhaps the one hundred top practitioners in the field can (I exclude the economists, who think of money quite differently.)

 

What I do not know is what is going to happen to Kenyan currency three years from now, or indeed, why. Nor do I know anything about the future of interest rates.

We, the “experts” deal in theories. A theory is an idea that can make sense of a large set of observed phenomena and link them together in ways that are both satisfying and reasonable, sometimes unexpected and hopefully inspiring and leading to further questions and further investigations.

 

It doesn’t necessarily have to be right — although it has to pass some stringent intellectual tests to be promoted to the status of theory—it is possible that more wrong theories have led to greater advances in our thinking than right theories ever have.


So, does that mean that those of us who have impressive bits of the alphabet trailing after our names like persistent shadows are redundant?

 

I don’t think so, but it does mean that some humility is called for. I believe that what we know, we know very well: possibly better than other people whose job is not to spend their time learning whatever it is that we slog away at.

 

Do we have all the answers? Oh no.

 

The average newspaper vendor in Nairobi has a much better chance of gauging the future political climate in Kenya than I do: mostly because she or he has access to material and to conversations that I will never be able to access, but also equally because that is her expertise, that is what she or he does all day, every day.

 

The intuition that develops from that is not something I am privy to, nor can I acquire it without a fairly drastic career change.

Education is the most obviously appreciated, and the most often materially recognized, but that does not make it better than other paths or other forms.

 

Worse, it is instituionalised, regulated and policed, which means that right from the beginning, there are things one is allowed to think, and a whole universe of alternatives that one must jettison and reject if one is to pass exams and gain the approval of one’s peers.

 

Knowledge and critical ability are wonderful things. Expressive skills and the capacity to impart new ways of thinking are more wonderful still.

 

I have spent my whole life in search of these skills, and perhaps these days I may have started to succeed. But it is true: the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know.

That’s why experts on “African tribes,” “African politics” “African marginalization” and of course, the coming apocalyptic annihilation of Africans from either viruses or warfare may be somewhat premature; even if they are expounded by experts with impeccable credentials.

 

It is so easy to miss the most important variable of all: people, individuals, personalities, crowds and their mentalities, who operate according to no fixed laws, retain, as if by divine mandate, their right to be capricious, illogical, perverse and contradictory.

 

That’s what makes life fun and exciting—and what no doubt drives other people to distraction, when the damn people under consideration simply refuse to mould their behaviour to the expected patterns and outcomes.

 

Sometimes it really is that simple you know: some mild mannered woman tired after a long day at work just did not have the energy to undergo the humiliation of looking for a seat at the back of a bus.

 

Her back was probably aching, her legs probably swollen, her employers may have been disrespectful to her—we’ll never know. But Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and the United States has never been the same.

 

Someone took a picture of a man carrying his son who had been shot by the South African police in Soweto — hardly a rare occurrence at the time — and apartheid entered its death throes.

 

Then there was that guy with the shopping bags in Tiananmen Square. Why didn’t he get out of the way? Wangari Maathai planted a tree…and before you knew it…. How many experts predicted these events?

 

They were not random, but they certainly were not enacted with the goal of entering the history books or preoccupying political analysts.

 

Yet preoccupy us they did, didn't they?

 

Mwangi is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, Canada. She blogs as Madkenyanwoman

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