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Article: The crisis of expertise

Greetings:    (01)

I’ve included your name in a mailing list of people who receive my
occasional writings and articles.  If you prefer not to be on this list,
please reply with "remove" in the subject line.    (02)

Two items are included with this message.  First, you will find below a
commissioned article that appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on
September 11, 2002.  I used the anniversary of the terrorist attacks to
reflect further on the seeming inadequacy of our experts and leaders
before a host of complex and critical challenges.  Healthy democracy
requires that citizens break the "false bargain" with these people and
reassert responsibility for their future.    (03)

Second, I’ve attached the Afterword for the American paperback edition
of The Ingenuity Gap.  (The most recent reprints of the paperback in
Canada also include this piece.)  In this Afterword, which I wrote in
the first weeks of 2002, I identify several deep patterns tying together
seemingly unrelated global events.    (04)

Further information on The Ingenuity Gap is available at
www.ingenuitygap.com.    (05)

All my outgoing mailings and attachments are scanned using the latest
Norton antivirus software.    (06)

Best wishes,    (07)

Tad Homer-Dixon
www.homerdixon.com    (08)

(Published Title:  “There’s No Turning Back”)    (09)

Thomas Homer-Dixon
September 11, 2002
Toronto Globe and Mail    (010)

The attacks of last September 11 tore a ragged hole in the fabric of our
reality.  Through that hole we glimpsed something hideous.  As is in our
worst nightmares, it was indistinct and incomprehensible.  We couldn't
see its beginning, its end, or its true form.  But we knew immediately
that this thing – whatever it was – was both profoundly dangerous and
utterly terrifying.    (011)

Our first response was to back away, shield our eyes, and try to return
our world to normal as quickly as possible.  We did this, partly, by
using well-worn categories, distinctions, and theories to explain the
horror:  moral categories of good and evil, psychological distinctions
between sanity and madness, and crude stereotypes about the character of
Islam.  To the extent that we could see the attacks through these
existing lenses, we could understand and discount them.  They were just
extreme forms of phenomena we already grasped; they were appalling and
wrenching, to be sure, but we didn't have to question our basic
assumptions about the world.    (012)

We also turned for help to people with power and knowledge – that is, to
our leaders and experts.  We asked our political leaders to develop
policies to protect us without requiring great change in our lives.  We
sought out experts of all types – on terrorism, on the Middle East and
the Arab world, and on the economic effects of the attacks.  Their
incessant background prattle was reassuring, because it helped us
believe that someone, somewhere, knew what was going on.    (013)

In these ways, we’ve busily stitched over the tear in reality’s fabric.
Alas, the stitches aren’t strong.  Events are multiplying that our
conventional categories and theories can’t easily explain.  Moreover,
our leaders’ pronouncements and our experts' prattle seem less and less
reassuring, because it's dawning on us that, a lot of the time, these
people don't really know what's going on at all.  Most importantly, they
rarely have clear or useful solutions to the truly tough problems we
face.    (014)

The Middle East is aflame, and no one really has a clue, anymore, how to
bring durable peace to the region.  India and Pakistan remain on the
brink of a war that could escalate into a nuclear exchange; again,
there's a dearth of credible solutions to the underlying crisis in
Kashmir.  The United States is planning to attack Iraq, but its plans
are widely opposed, even by staunch allies, largely because no one can
really predict the downside risk. (Will oil prices go through the roof?
Will Saddam release smallpox when U.S. forces are at the gates of
Baghdad?)    (015)

On the economic front, the world is a mess, and critical economic
policymakers – such as the heads of national central banks, the IMF, and
the World Bank – seem flummoxed.  Many of the richest economies are
stagnating, while in poor countries nearly three billion people still
live on less than $2 a day.  The U.S. economy – critical to world
growth  – is sliding sideways.  European growth is also almost
nonexistent, and Germany’s unemployment rate is nearing double digits.
The Japanese Nikkei Index has dropped to levels unseen in two decades,
with renewed doubts about the stability of the country’s banking
system.  Latin America is in financial crisis; a decade of market
liberalization on the continent has produced growth rates half those of
the '60s and a rise in the number of poor people.  Turkey’s economy is
in shambles.  And Africa . . . well, Africa and its 700 million
inhabitants aren't even on the economic map.    (016)

But it’s on environmental issues that our leaders and experts have
proved most inadequate.  In the last century, humankind's total impact
on the planet's environment (measured, principally, by the flow of
materials through our economies and our output of wastes) has multiplied
about 16-fold.   We're now disrupting fundamental flows of energy and
materials within the biosphere – that layer of life on Earth's surface
as thick, proportionately, as an apple’s skin – and we're producing
profound changes in cycles of key elements, like nitrogen, sulfur, and
carbon.  These changes will have immense consequences for life,
industry, and agriculture in every corner of the planet.  Yet, just when
we need, more than ever, aggressive policies to deal with our common
environmental challenges, the recent summit in Johannesburg produced a
pathetic spectacle of cacophony and global gridlock.    (017)

This combination of intractable political, economic, and environmental
challenges is not a recipe for a humane and peaceful world society.
Looking at them together, one gets the dismaying sense that deep and
inexorable forces are building within the global system.  At some point,
these forces could combine in unforeseeable ways to cause a sharp
breakdown of world order.  Then, once again, we’ll suddenly see through
the fabric of security and regularity that we’ve so carefully woven for
ourselves:  it will be torn away, we'll be naked, and we’ll feel that
dreadful terror once more.  Only this time, our leaders and experts
won't be able to help us at all.    (018)

How can we choose a different future?  First, we need to recognize that
the relationship between us, on one hand, and our leaders and experts,
on the other, is entirely symbiotic:  we provide these people with the
perks of authority and ego-gratification; they provide us with the
illusion that somebody knows what's going on and that we’ll be safe.
But our leaders and experts increasingly can’t fulfill their part of the
bargain, because the systems we want them to explain and manage (from
the international economy to our relationship with the biosphere) are
too complex and opaque and are changing too fast.    (019)

Second, we have to extract ourselves from this false bargain and
reassert our responsibility for our own future.  In other words, if we
can't count on our leaders and experts, we have to get more involved in
making critical decisions ourselves.  And this change will itself
require two others:  a revitalization of our democratic institutions
(perhaps through the creative use of Internet-based debate and voting
procedures) so that the average citizen can participate more effectively
in governance; and, most importantly, a dramatic improvement in the
average citizen's knowledge of current affairs and of the technical and
scientific facts that bear on our lives these days.    (020)

How can societies make responsible democratic decisions about climate
change, for example, when nearly half their citizens – as a recent
National Science Foundation poll found in the U.S. – are so ignorant of
basic science that they don't know it takes a year for Earth to go
around the sun?  How can we decide whether we should go to war with
Saddam Hussein when so few of us know the difference between plutonium
and enriched uranium as the basic material for atomic bombs?  (Both are
really bad, but we should be much more worried if Saddam has a lot of
the latter rather than the former.)    (021)

Citizen knowledge is something that we can start improving right away.
Better knowledge won't necessarily help us come up with better solutions
to our complex problems than those proposed by our current leaders and
experts.  But it will help us discriminate, collectively and
democratically, between those problems where we know enough to promote
decisive solutions and those where solutions are difficult to find, the
risks of mistake are large, and prudence and caution are in order until
we know more.    (022)

Attachment: Sept 11 and the crisis of expertise.doc
Description: MS-Word document