A discourse on wisdom, intelligence, and expertise

A few weeks ago, writing in The Conservative Woman, I complained about the wooliness of Britain’s official and ‘expert’ thinking about coronavirus[*]. In this, I feel increasingly vindicated. British government ministers have repeatedly said that the government’s response to the coronavirus would be ‘led by the science’. But the result has been self-contradictory, absurd, and, at times, comical—as when one senior scientist, the architect of our current lockdown, exempted himself from the lockdown in order to meet his married mistress.[†]

Today, I want to ask how this could have happened. I want to ask how my country, and so much of the Western world, came to accept narrow, largely mediocre experts as the leaders of our public discourse; how policy became excessively ‘evidence-based’ and naïve. I won’t be rejecting the value of elite, highly capable experts, some of them highly specialized; but I’ll be asking how we gave our minds over to a spurious scientism, and consequently lost our instincts for freedom and self-reliance.

So then: how did we accept this cult of expertise? To answer this, we first need to consider what carried authority in the West before the cult took hold. Prominent among these old authorities were, firstly, wisdom; and secondly, intelligence. Both concepts used to play a role in our nations’ debates that has now been ceded to expertise. I’ll consider wisdom first.

First, what is wisdom? This has always been a hard question, but nowadays most people would struggle even to see the point of it. Today ‘wisdom’ sounds a quaint notion; a concept from a past age. Young people probably encounter the word ‘wisdom’ more often in mediaeval-themed computer games, as a graded attribute of characters, than they do in the real world. And if one sought to understand ‘wisdom’ through film and television, one might suppose that it were the exclusive property of Buddhist monks and far Easterners!

Nevertheless, most people can still agree on some features of wisdom. Principally, wisdom is characteristic of the elderly. This is because it grows from experience, calmly reflected upon. Wise people are those who have accepted life’s sufferings, people who have ‘seen a lot’. Secondly, wisdom is broadly untheoretical: the wise man generally doesn’t have a grand theory of everything; nor need he be a genius. Third: because it’s untheoretical, found alike in pauper, king and scholar, wisdom is also culturally specific; a person becomes wise by calmly absorbing experience in an ordinary, tradition-bound way. Many pieces of wisdom transcend cultures, of course; but even so, the wise Buddhist is very different from the wise Christian.

This account of wisdom gives us a clue about why it lost its social role. Wisdom, as I say, is culturally specific. It’s therefore hard for it to function in a society with many different fundamental philosophies of life, many different traditions and faiths. A monocultural society can look to the wise to settle its differences, but a diverse society can’t. A diverse society therefore tends to look for some other source of authority on political and social questions—one that purports to be more culturally neutral and objective. A debased notion of ‘science’ and ‘expertise’ usually gets the job.

This need for a supposedly culturally neutral means of settling our differences explains why society has been placing an ever-greater faith in experts and expertise. Ironically, though, the same need has also weakened the best sites of expertise of the Western world. These sites, especially universities, used to owe no-one an account of their admissions decisions. Academics used their wise judgement, and admitted whomever they wanted to admit. They judged not just by candidates’ examination results, but also by their broader intelligence.

This kind of free exercise of wise judgement, however, is unsustainable wherever wisdom is ceding ground to an overweening expertise. For ultimately such judgement can’t be theorized or explained: but a philosophically diverse society tends to demand theories and explanations for everything. Even where such a society inherits the traditions of a more monocultural one, it cannot accept those traditions as authoritative. Hence wise ‘gatekeepers’—be they admissions dons or Colonels interviewing prospective officers—are soon forced to judge their candidates more and more by their candidates’ qualifications, and less and less by their own experience. Soon one needs a qualification for everything.

This leads me to intelligence. I suspect that the meaning of ‘intelligence’ has shifted a little, so that it now refers to mere speed of brain, or perhaps measured I.Q. But intelligence is really something more than that: it is the capacity to understand the world, to interact with it successfully. It is something incisive, and broad-based. It implies a good sense, an ability to bear in mind the relation of theory to reality, and not to get lost in woolly abstraction. It implies imagination, too: the intelligent person is able to see the big picture, and to get inside the minds of other thinkers, entering into that imaginative sympathy from which true understanding flows. Exceptionally intelligent people are capable of quickly grasping almost any problem put to them, and of asking the searching questions that solve said problem efficiently. In the more specialized disciplines, they criticise and adapt theory, rather than simply deferring to it. Furthermore, intelligent people use language precisely, concisely, and effectively. In societies that respect them, they set standards of writing and speech that encourage accuracy and careful analysis.

This level of intelligence is rare. In my own country, until a very few years ago, all top judges had it. Until 30 years ago so did all senior civil servants. Until about 50 years ago, so did many cabinet ministers. In Britain, perhaps a few thousand living people have it at any one time. 

A few more people have minds which manifest these features to a slightly lower degree. For example, I would guess that about one in twenty people have the right kind of brains for university education. (For others, it is simply not worthwhile. One cannot learn and successfully employ highly theoretical knowledge just by effort and rote learning; one needs some sympathetic imagination, and some good scholarly judgement).

Unfortunately, though, there is a fatal problem with this truth about intelligence. It is inegalitarian. It jars with the idea that one can be whoever one wants to be. Hence egalitarian societies tend to ignore it as much as possible. Indeed, the same is true of wisdom: wisdom is unevenly distributed, and differs from one culture to another; therefore it is not something that egalitarian societies can acknowledge, because it is a site of difference between people and peoples.

Now, when a society is both egalitarian and philosophically diverse, as ours are, this side-lining of wisdom and intelligence tends to work out very badly indeed. As we have seen, philosophically diverse societies need expertise to fill the space in their discourses that wisdom will inevitably vacate. They also to tend to develop qualifications for everything, in order to eliminate the kind ofwise judgement that can’t be justified on a government monitoring form. (And there will be government monitoring forms, because, as we have seen, philosophically diverse societies take no traditions for granted).

But when egalitarianism is added to philosophical diversity, these processes gain speed. This is because egalitarians assume that differences in apparent mental capacity and insightfulness are largely due to differences in education and privilege. The don’t believe that anyone is really wiser or more intelligent than anyone else. They reject the idea that most people cannot become learned experts, and they resent the fact that—until they came along to spoil things—a few, highly intelligent, people used to have a very disproportionate influence on policy-making. They deride the fact that ministers and civil servants—and even some parliamentarians—used to debate policy by reference, firstly, to timeless ideas such as those of Aristotle; and, secondly, by reference to tradition-bound wisdom and instinct.

For egalitarians have an alternative to tradition-bound wisdom, and to the kind of learning obtainable only by the most intelligent. They believe that, everyone being equally talented, the best way of making decisions is to ensure that everyone becomes an expert in something. They believe in objective sciences of everything, and they believe that academic talent is so widely spread that all these objective sciences can be fully staffed. In other words, egalitarians don’t want policy to be decided through ferocious, good-natured debates quoting Cicero, Aristotle and national tradition; they want policy to be decided through endless worthy, drab conferences quoting endless turgid, un-incisive specialists on every possible question, always from a viewpoint that misses any moral or spiritual features of reality that aren’t immediately visible. For they think that elitist, classical education, and tradition, are mere bluster and superstition. Egalitarians want to put modern men (and women) in power—people with long words and short memories.

And so egalitarians found more and more, narrower and narrower research departments at more and more universities, until almost everyone becomes an expert. Soon no-one is entitled to take a synoptic view, because that would be to intrude into other experts’ territory. The big landscape in the ministry gets thrown out of the window, to be replaced by lots of little conceptual artworks—fatuous, puerile, brutally expressed, and missing the point.

This, then, is the counter-intuitive truth: the cult of expertise, deferential though it has become, is actually a product of egalitarianism. For we can only have an expert for everything if we accept a quality of ‘expert’ that elitist societies would find risible. On the other hand, if we accept that very few people are intelligent enough to be experts, then we are likely to respect the opinions of highly intelligent people, even on matters about which they don’t have as much detailed knowledge as some specialists now do. We will then enjoy the big, bold, stimulating thesis without feeling guilty that we should be listening to the narrow, worthy, bland research paper instead. And we will accept two points: first, that there simply can’t be an expert on every question; second, that the really valuable experts that we do have are only valuable insofar as they have the kind of intelligence described above. We will realise that research can get society nowhere unless the researchers have sharp logic, and incisive critical instincts. And because we will understand that good research ultimately relies on ordinary sharp reason, and on imagination, rather than on mere training and qualifications, we will demand clear explanations from experts, and we will know not to trust them if they can’t give them.

None of this is to decry deep learning, of course. On the contrary, my point is that deep learning in the things that really stretch and form the mind—philosophy, difficult languages, hard sciences, and the like—is something that only a few will ever achieve. And once we accept that a man who knows his Aristotle and his Augustine is more likely to say something interesting about the art and culture of, say, Stoke-on-Trent than is the man who’s spent his life studying the history of Stoke-on-Trent, rather than harder texts, then we have a concept of useful expertise that isn’t divorced from intelligence. We’ll also be much more able to tie expertise and intelligence together with the good judgement that is wisdom. We as a society will then be employing much better concepts than we do now!

Now, there is a chance that we are just starting to move in this direction. The coronavirus has shown us that purely expertise-led policy, unguided by wise and intelligent generalists, quickly becomes absurd and ineffective in equal measure. But there is another side to these matters that I want briefly to mention. For I fear that we will never fully shake off egalitarianism, and its disastrous effects, until we return to the Faith. The reason for this is simple. Egalitarianism is erroneous; it is a bad characterization of reality. But what are the alternatives? If we acknowledge that people’s abilities differ quite markedly, then what reason do we have to value them? Some sort of fascism would seem to be the only alternative to egalitarianism: for if people are really very different, then why not make those differences the basis of our politics?

This logic makes perfect sense, if one has no faith. Indeed, all atheist societies really do tend towards either fascism or communism—or, often, a precarious mix of both. One either acknowledges difference, and makes it the basis of one’s politics; or one pretends that difference doesn’t exist.

But faith—especially the Faith—offers an alternative. The Christian can rejoice in the great diversity of gifts and qualities spread amongst humanity as part of God’s wondrous providence. He can believe that people are complementary, and yet that, since God loves them all equally, so should he. Nor is this an abstract, ‘spiritual’ belief. For the Christian, every man—be he never so humble—exists for a reason. And even if that reason is that, through a devout and humble life, he should contribute in one moment, in some tiny way, to the safety of a single soul, then his existence is of infinite value.

In our civilization, it’s that kind of thinking—the ability to acknowledge difference, and yet love all—that built everything that is rational, everything that is effective, everything that is good—and everything that is true.

[*] https://conservativewoman.co.uk/three-videos-that-make-me-wonder-about-our-virus-control/

[†] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8289921/Scientist-advice-led-lockdown-QUITS-breaking-restrictions-meet-married-lover.html