Experts for hire sidelining genuine knowledge
Why am I not writing on Venezuela? It is very simple. I am not an expert on Venezuela or any other Latin American country. Like many others, I have a basic knowledge on what is happening in Venezuela. Just a brief check on the Internet provides you with the information that the country has been rocked by protests since Jan. 10, when President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for a second term following a vote boycotted by the opposition.
A brief check of the TV, meanwhile, gives you the knowledge that tension escalated when 35-year-old opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself the acting president and he was recognized by many Western countries as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Turkey, Russia and China, on the other hand, continue to recognize Maduro as president.
Can this basic knowledge make one a Venezuela expert? Unbelievably, it seems that yes it can. There is a crisis that has been unfolding over the past decade with the development of technology and particularly social media: An increasing number of “experts.” There is a growing phenomenon of people being an “expert” on any trending country despite lacking deep knowledge of the history, politics, sociology, culture, literature and, most importantly, the language of that country. As a result, several people who call themselves “experts” have taken a stage in the media. For instance, in Turkey, hardly a day passes without these so-called experts commenting on TV channels over issues regarding Venezuela or any Middle Eastern country, even though for many decades Turkey, its academia and media, has turned its back on and neglected the developments taking place there.
What kind of problems can this new phenomenon cause? I will briefly list them.
First is oversimplifying. Because most of these experts lack the language spoken in the countries that they comment on, they depend on secondary sources. Most of them have never spent a reasonable amount of time conducting field research and they fail to view the full picture, eventually leading them to fail to understand the dynamics there. Saying that “if a country is rich in natural resources, oil or gas, it would be invaded or its domestic affairs would be interfered with by external powers” is such an oversimplified interpretation, indicating nothing but “intellectual poverty.” Needless to say, like other Latin American countries, Venezuela has experienced many military interventions supported by external forces and current issues in Venezuela are multi-dimensional. Commenting on just one aspect is superficial and one-dimensional.
There is a growing phenomenon of people being an “expert” on any trending country despite lacking deep knowledge of the history, politics, sociology, culture, literature and, most importantly, the language of that country.
Second is information pollution in the media. During the UK’s EU referendum campaign in 2016, the then-Justice Secretary Michael Gove said that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” This was a statement that opened a debate on the “crisis of expertise,” which also started to affect the media in an adverse way. When “experts” who fall short of fully understanding the developments in a country do not hesitate to appear on TV, they cause nothing but “info pollution” and ultimately mislead the public. Thus, there are deeply rooted problems within the mainstream news industry and how it functions. Not having genuine experts commenting has a devastating effect on many communities’ understanding of developments in other parts of the world.
Third is a shortage of qualified academics. There are several reports that say there is a crisis in academic publishing. Because there are an increasing number of academics who prefer to appear on television shows, there are not enough anthropological analyses or studies produced on specific countries or regions by the academic community. In regards to Turkey, I always underline that it needs area specialists who have an in-depth understanding of a specific region or country. Area specialists are those who not only contribute to academia with their insights, but also to the media and even a country’s policy-making authorities. The academic community is one of the most important pillars in a country and it plays a significant role in developing knowledge regarding our understanding beyond our borders. Thus, having area specialists would significantly contribute to the foreign policy-making process of a state.
Several commentators focusing on popular topics have led to a dilution of the influence of genuinely informed voices in TV debates. This has led to the occurrence of an antipathy toward those “experts.” However, the problem is far more serious than this. Today’s international politics have proven several times that there are no permanent enmities or alliances, and yesterday’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Assumptions and predictions made by experts could be proved to be wrong in a single day. A country’s reading of the developments in a region or a country is influenced greatly by reports prepared by experts, academics and journalists, beside the bureaucratic and diplomatic elite. Therefore, against this crisis in regional expertise, genuinely informed voices are what we need these days.
— Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.