Paul Krugman writes in his Monday column about the unraveling of the financial system. He adds half-column, half-paragraph, half-sentence: “before he [Bernanke] was given responsibility for saving the world, Ben Bernanke was one of our leading experts on the economics of the Great Depression.” As financial crisis extends and deepens, this description recurs, insistent and hipnotic. It acts in Bernanke’s defense, either to assert the correctness of his decisions, or to suggest that if he could do more he would.

We are invited to trust Bernanke as the expert. We need not understand or discuss the character of his expertise. We need only know that other experts (economists) regard him as the most competent to profess on the subject. We ought to trust him before a relationship of trust between us and him has been nurtured, informed, established. It is pre-emptive trust.


19 thoughts on “Trust

  1. I’m not sure what alternative you advocate. Krugman’s statement must be taken in line with his continual criticism of the Bush administration’s tendency to appoint political hacks to positions requiring managerial and intellectual expertise, which is especially true in the case of the Fed. It is not our choice whether or not to trust Bernanke. We must trust him whether we want to or not. Krugman is simply saying that Bernanke, unlike many appointees, having at least studied the exemplary liquidity crisis-turned-economic disaster, has a preparation consistent with what one would hope to encounter in the current situation.

    What Bernanke could actually do further to nurture, inform, and establish trust among those without economics or finance degrees, outside of not totally botching the current mess, is not clear to me.

  2. I wonder whether any form of trust is pre-emptive in some way. For me, what characterizes trust is that it can’t be studied with the help of cost-benefit analysis or any other rational behavior model. If I trust you, it means that I give you some credit and I give you the right of being wrong or being caught cheating at least once. If not, it’s not trust, it’s a contract or whatever else. Trust is like friendship in some sense. Some say that friends who are not friends anymore have never been real friends … and I believe trust is rather similar to that.

    I am amazed by all the comparisons that are made between the current crisis and the Great Depression. In the latter, there was no trust at all. A simple failure in the system and everything collapsed. By comparison, I am quite surprised that the system holds so strongly in spite of all the financial scandals and subsequent interventions of the Fed. I am even more surprised by the fact that few actually noticed how the theory of rational anticipation has been discredited in the process … okay I should stop here, because, it begins to sound like the HES list (which, otherwise, seems to have been killed by our blog).

  3. Will,
    I don’t have an alternative, but I do have a concern. Expertise cannot be determined solely by professional committees, it should be engaged democratically by a well informed and engaged citizenry. I think the current crisis raises so many issues of what the Fed and federal government should be doing with regard to this risk, how they should socialize it, who should pay for it? Yet, it is all clouded in a technical and simple minded discourse of let the experts deal with it, which in an election year is all the more disturbing. Krugman that could the raising the issue is not.

    The thing about trust that interests me most is identity. Trust is often embedded in social imagery and identity formation, regardless of what happened in the past or a rational assessment of the “facts”. True that sheep farmers in Cumbria distrust scientists because they have been lied to by scientists before. However, these are not the same scientists, it is the scientist – identity that they distrust. Also, it may be that you develop a strong conviction on the trustworthiness of communists without ever meeting one or interacting with one. How the social field gets map in these ways is for me the question.

  4. Tiago,
    I am not sure that I am in total agreement with you, not regarding your answer to my comment, but to Will’s. You think that expertise, if not controlled from any democratic process, is hazardous. I would like to say you’re right, but as Will said, what is the alternative ? The alternative is what socialists in France called “participative democracy” … actually, there were many people, even in the socialist party, to dissent with this idea … Yet participative democracy is only a beautiful expression to designate some kind of institutionalized lobbying. My opinion is that there has been a zeitgeist at the end of the ’90s that there was a dominant thought (in French, “pensée unique”) and that this thought was that of the expert, the latter being identified as the scapegoat for all evils in the world – remember when X-Files was everybody’s favorite TV show ? That kind of thought, which is reminiscent of James Burham’s The Managerial Revolution, has given rise to the new zeitgeist that there is no expert thought, that real experts are You and I (“You” being Time Magazine’s Man of The Year) … my thought is that this has gone too far (real TV and all this stuff …). During our last presidential campaign, the contempt for experts was so overdone and with so much populism involved that I was like: “Bring back the experts, bring back the experts !”.
    But that might just be the expression of my center-left anchorage 🙂

  5. This is not a role I am comfortable with. My own ideas on the subject are still in flux from what I hear from science studies and political science/philosophy. For me know it is enough to ask the question: are current expert identities and their social mandates justified? I am looking for the historical record to see how we got here, trusting fed chairman because they are fed chairman, distrusting budget secretaries because they are budget secretaries. That history may lead us forward is my gamble.

    My instinct is that the public is not a mob and can be engaged with these large subjects, also that it has to be engaged if we want to live the ideal of a democracy. Whether science, social or otherwise has the resources and flexibility to become native with the people is a really nice question to consider.

  6. OK, so the expert is not a panacea, I can agree with that. The problem is once you have dismissed the expert’s opinion as non trustable, you end up with more problems. I can think of two:
    First, who is gonna dismiss the expert’s opinion as unfounded (or founded) if not another kind of experts? Thus, the problem is not with the expert as a character but with the kind of experts we are choosing and the role we assigned him (will it be god-like or more like a kind of “participative democracy” where you have people who can interact with the expert).
    Second, the expert often functions merely a scapegoat for political and business elite. He is asked for advice not because the politician wants to be guided but because he needs justification for what he believes to be the right thing to do (a mere often non rational belief just like yours and mine). The expert, then, is not the one to be charged with contempt but the political system which mandates him (of which we are all part of I am afraid).
    My sentiment is that the expert is only a tiny pawn in the game of chess we are living in and academics or intellectuals are hugely overstating his role and while we are busy with questioning the expert, we are wasting valuable time that can be used more sensibly by questioning the real wrong-doers: the elite that is ruling him (and us) and the majority who puts them in the place they are (because, yes, Bush, Sarkozy and Putin and most of our leaders were elected democratically). When we point to an expert that says or have said something really stupid and not grounded on any clear evidence, we should look for the guys who are taking/took advantage of his “expertise”. Tchernobyl is a good case in line: it was much more easy to say that the radioactive cloud was stopping at our frontiers than to say, yes some of you will have more cancer because, yes, the source of energy we are using to provide 80% of our electricity can be deadly and by the way, several millions of us are living less than fifty miles to a potential Tchernobyl and we can not, or would not want to, do anything about that.
    The other twist I see is that do we (most people) really want to know this kind of truth? I have my doubts about that.
    As for Krugman’s point of view on Bernanke, maybe he was just trying to convince his readers not to run to the nearest bank and destroy what is left of the financial system just as they did back in the 1930s.

  7. I do not fear the absence of the expert. Such fear seems contradicted by your image of the expert role (a mere pawn). If he is perfunctory or a lackey of big business and big government we might as well get rid of him and do without this veil.

    The case of the sheep farmers in Cumbria is about Tchernobyl fallout or whether the high dosages measured in the soil were instead due to contamination from the Sellafield power plant close by (Brian Wynne, PUBLIC UNDERSTANDING OF SCIENCE, v.1(1)). The point is that people/uneducated farmers were not just stupid by refusing to listen to experts when they suspected scientists’ interests and opinions to be compromised. In that case the possibility that scientists might be working to whitewash the impact of Sellafield. So, one needs to understand the consumption of expertise against a record of past identities and past experiences (history matters!).

    Questioning expertise for me is not an abstract exercise on the epistemic limits of knowledge. Instead, it is a study of the role of the expert in society: his past record and how he got to command and discipline certain areas of public life, or not, how he got to be a convenient pawn in someone else’s game. My own research, if ever published, argues that it was the social identity of economists as unbiased, independent advisers that won them a privileged access to 1960s policy making.

    You are absolutely correct that it is both contradictory and risible to become an expert of expertise. Something else is in order. I guess we should question expertise and undress it. I also think we should bring it to public debate. Citizen and patient engagement in medical sciences is now pervasive and a great benefit to the families and the patients, and even the medical institutions. Why not the same experiment for economics? Are you so sure that the black box is a pandora box?

  8. I believe that if you question expert from the vantage point of the history expert, you are running into identity difficulties and open yourself to understandable if unjust criticism. And when I look at how history of science has evolved and its current anxiety about “what we do now? What we are useful for (see the last issue of Isis)? In a word their identity anxiety, I feel very concerned, that is all.

  9. What is our job if not questioning the expert? Is it merely to write the chronicle or the biography?

    My reading of the ISIS troubles is that they think of their audience as the scientists. I am not sure my audience are economists/the experts, I would like to connect to other publics. Or maybe it is not about audiences, it is about what to do once you killed all the myths? Still, we are not there yet. We have still plenty of myths to kill.

    The “public understanding of science” folks are facing another identity crisis once they took positions which places them as “experts on the trust in expertise.” They are now hired to “enhance” the dialogue science vs public and have a hard time adjusting their outsider identity with an insider existence (thanks EU Commission). We ought to be careful not to fall in that profitable but intellectual mischievous trap.

    The intellectual, the historian as provocateur is something to be.

  10. OK Tiago, now let’s imagine that you receive a phone call asking to chair in a committee to hire a new historian of economics in your department (I know it sounds odd right now, but you have a lot of imagination). How would you react? No thanks I do not want to switch identity I am the provocateur historian, no way you gonna turn me yellow. Or maybe thanks I would love to be an expert, and in that case how would you manage changing identities without losing yourself in the process?
    Me I have no problem with my identity, I consider myself as an expert on a very very specialised branch of either history or economics (take the one you prefer, I am fine with multiple personalities) and I do not consider questioning the expert as my job (besides reviewing articles and chairing committees). My job is to question the facts, you can call it whatever you want but it is that which makes the substance of history. From time to time, I might encounter an expert who have said once something that the facts I am presenting proved wrong or questionable, then I would register it, but I will not question him, only his statement. Questioning the expert is an act of citizenship and as a citizen I am perfectly willing to question him as a role player, as an historian I’d rather not.

  11. 🙂
    I would accept any duties in my role as scholar and teacher. I would be interested (self-interested) in hiring a good colleague and effective communicator to teach history. As you say, I can flex my imagination pretty well, so I cannot see myself accepting participation in a committee to decide who should be central banker, or how central banking should be organized.

    I understood you earlier as saying that we should accept expertise as it is given by communities of reference, say economists decide who should speak about the economy. So, you say that when in academia you want to be yourself-citizen=historian. And when you should engage with the public sphere you want to be yourself-historian=citizen. I can’t to do that, my subject matter is the identity shifting and arithmetic. If I say that such a division exists and should exist and is good, I am taking a side in the historical controversy. My facts are the historical fluidity of these social categories and roles.

    Questioning the expert is not to invoke an anarchy of skepticism but to interrogate if these divisions and identity plays are natural, epistemic, ahistorical.

    It just came to me that maybe you can maintain a cognitive division between the past and the present. While I, working so close to home, see the present as past in the making. For me it is all the same stuff and I don’t know where the draw lines.

  12. Let me give you an example drawn from French current academia and political life to illustrate the problem I have in mind when I plead for a necessary division between the historian and the citizen. A few years there was a big controversy about a book by Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, a French academic historian. It was a synthetic essay on the history of slave trade, from antiquity to 19th century. While the book is thoroughly done and based on previous and well-regarded studies by american and French colleagues, it was violently attacked for being revisionist by several political associations. What was reproached was that by showing that 1. Atlantic slave trade was not the biggest in terms of displaced population (the slave trade by muslims to North-Africa and Middle-East was bigger by a few millions, though on a longer period) and 2. that most of the slave have not been captured by Europeans or their employees but sold by africans chief of tribes who profit from this trade as much as the slave european traders and the plantation owners.
    These arguments, sound on an historical basis, were attacked because it was believed that it could be used to forgive the europeans from the Atlantic slave trade, that it was part of a campaign to restore colonialism as a good thing on the whole. The whole affair showed that there was a problem of 1. competition between memory and history, history was denied in the name of memory and 2. competition between memories, what is more sacred my guilt/passed faults or yours?
    My sentiment is that when you are taking sides as an historian you ceased to be an historian and become something else, a citizen, a politician maybe. I accept the fact that the distinction is loose since you cannot physically split your identities, but I believe that it is important as an historian to keep this separation in mind and try to stick to it squarely.

  13. Wanting to keep the identities clean, what should have happened?
    Should the historian have published his book for academics only? This would have prevented the debate in public and his scholarship might have then (might, one is never certain) been scrutinized on scholarly standards (if one can agree on what those are).
    Or are you saying the book is not proper scholarship and should be classified as pamphlet and therefore any association with historical scholarship and other historians is spurious?

    I totally agree when you say:
    “The whole affair showed that there was a problem of 1. competition between memory and history, history was denied in the name of memory and 2. competition between memories, what is more sacred my guilt/passed faults or yours?”
    History and memory are strongly bound, and if you write history and teach history, you should be aware of its social, national, cultural significance. So, I don’t think historians are in the business of deciding how the scale of guilt tips, on either side, but they are in the business of writing new histories that challenge self-perceptions, and guilt complexes, if this is what was at stake. I think the historian does a good job unmasking the myths of nationalism, or whatever sacred cows we hold dear.

    As you said “the whole affair showed”, i.e. we learned something from it.

  14. I am not blaming the historian for anything, but I am underlying the fact that in that case, the expert (and a good one by scientific standards) has been questioned as an expert not on scientific ground but on the fact that because his conclusions contradicted (or downplayed) previous opinions that structured and justified a political message/group. Knowing that, I am questioning your quest of questioning the expert as uncessary and potentially self-defeating. It seems to me that the expert has been/is challenged by citizens (the sheep farmers did not buy his explanation), or the political institutions (he is not listened to by politicians), or political factions (as in the case I mentioned above). It is enough from my point of view.
    As an historian (that is in my academic writings), I want to limit myself of explaining what was going on, I let judgment value to the few who’ll ever read me.

  15. I don’t know why you assume that the answer to the questioning of the expert is to undermine expertise. Are we in the best of all worlds? Maybe the answer is to say he is doing what he should be doing, or that he should be given more or a different authority. I stated from the beginning of this exchange that I don’t have an answer (yet).

    The same in response to your statement that: “As an historian (that is in my academic writings), I want to limit myself of explaining what was going on, I let judgment value to the few who’ll ever read me.” What makes you think that I will be judge and executioner? My curiosity is as scholarly as yours. You focus on the making of knowledge, I focus on the circulation of knowledge. You focus on the formation of science, I focus on the formation of scientific society. The tools are the same: ethnography, bibliometrics and taxonomy. I see no sin.

  16. What I am saying is that when an expert in historicizing expertise calls it to question, he certainly is undermining expertise. The community of experts has two ways to react: be deaf to you and make sure you are not going to burden the would-be expert with your crap (see the history of history of science in USA), or say OK you are right I do not know shit, here is my resignation, which to my knowledge has yet to occur. The history of history of science shows that the consequences are clear: at one moment, one is gonna question your expertise (probably one of the experts you criticized in the first place) and you will have problems to answer to that, because you have to fight against your own discourse. And in the end what happened: historians of science are back to square one explaining how they can also be experts (the Isis issue is fascinating on this ground). Tell me how you are gonna escape this dead end.

    I do not see how the fact that you focused on the circulation of knowledge and formation of scientific society makes any difference, the difference is in that I do not want to take sides; you want. My point is that by taking sides, you are opening to the same kind of critique you can make to heterodoxy (who by the way can also use the tools you mentioned, at least some do). As an historian, I am no theoretician nor methodologist, though I may use theory and methodology as a tool but my aim is not to contribute directly in anyway to these two other areas. My critique is not about your level of historiograpy, it is about your mixed intentions: you want the best of both worlds (doing good history and epistemology/methodology), I believe this is one too many.
    Do you see my point here?

    My belief is that by doing proper history without bothering with other kind of issues, you may gain some interest from at least some of the experts (economists) and, to some extent, your work will open them to issues like relativeness of methods/theories, the social construction of disciplin communities and so on; while by posing as a critic, they are not going to lesson to you at all. If you want to change the mind of the expert, you will have them to respect you according to their value ladder. It may not be a good thing in the absolute, but it is a thing of life. When refusing to comply, you are putting yourself outside the community of experts and this is how I interpret the fact that many 60s and 70s dissenters refused to be academics: they were very coherent.

  17. When an expert calls expertise into question he will reshape it, even though I cannot command what will come of it. When an historian writes history he is doing the same thing. I don’t endorse maniqueism, so I think I have more positions to choose from than blind love of economics or blind hatred of economics. I am not seeking best practices for expertise, like ISIS or 4S. I am no consultant. I am seeking to open up the processes that constitute expertise and its development within the polity. It is not a trial, I am neither judge, jury or executioner. It is history and I am looking for the missing subjects.

    I think you do take sides. I am the one not taking sides. Your siding with phobia. Because heterodox economists have established this record within our field, any forceful questioning of economics’ place in society makes alarms ring. (or maybe the alarms ring and the phobia kicks in, I never get my conditioning right). The reference to 60s and 70s dissenters is interesting. In your reading I am taking their position, pleading more politics in economics. In my mind, I am doing the same thing I did in my thesis: doing the cartography of what positions exist for science within society and why some win and others lose, while you suggest that the non-radical view is the natural one. That my friend is not very relativist.

  18. Hey guys, sorry for interrupting your wonderful conversation, but have you ever heard of the incommensurability of things ?
    My opinion after reading that is that Tiago is more political than Loic and that politics shapes his discourse. I don’t think like that but I can understand his vision of things. My guess is that, Loic, you’ll never convince Tiago, even though you feel that your opinion id solidly grounded, because you don’t have the same philosophical/political/sociological/cultural background.
    My own background makes me closer to Loic’s opinion, but I am also realizing there’s something flawed. Of course, I would like to be able to separate my views as a researcher and my views as a citizen, but one of our assumptions underlying our position as historians of economics is that the two cannot be totally separate. How can we argue that Samuelson’s or Becker’s theories must be contextualized regarding their authors backgrounds and say at the same time that we are able to achieve complete separation and objectivity toward our subject ? Are we more modernist that what we would like to be ? I may write a post on that question elsewhere on the blog.

  19. Thanks Yann for putting our dialogue in perspective. If I take the non-radical view as the “natural” one, it is because I am speaking as an actor, not as jury or as an historian, looking from above, untouched by the very consequences of his acts and words. For me as for most of those who are/have been/would be trying to climb the professional ladder as historian of economics, the non-radical view is natural since it structures reputation and opinion inside the economists’ community. Hence, my point is that whether you mean it or not, your position is likely to be interpreted as yet another heterodoxy or another post-structural critique of the mainstream by the mainstream economists and scientists and therefore will be either ignored or fought, which means in the present distribution of institutional power will likely fall into oblivion, but for a tiny and plummetting community of radical economists.
    My take is that if you really want to change even marginally the field you have to do it from the inside by questioning the traditional prejudices and values such as an historian of economic thought is an heterodox and a bad economist from their standards, by showing that by their standards (publications, etc.) you are qualifying as one of them. It does not mean to do economics, but to show that history of the discipline being a part of that discipline, it should exists just as micro.
    It is definitely a political position: I do not believe that it is enough to act from the margins to change a field, history teaches (at least this is how I interpret it) that you have to have some kind of leverage inside a community to transform it. It is not an absolutist position since I also believe that we need to get out of the walls of economics, at least some of us should do it and invade history/sociology/philosophy of science departements as well as economic history and history departments. Thus, I do not believe that my opinion should take over Tiago’s, they both have their own logic and purpose and they are directed to the same general goal: transform our profession and its place in the social sciences. What I am saying is that, as most of those who are interested in doing history of economics as history of science (and I interpret it as being the growing paradigm in HOE) , held more or less the same opinion (that is history of economics is a way to critique and question the mainstream – HOE have changed heterodoxy from Marxian/Sraffian to post-structuralist but most of hstorian of economics continues to view themselves as outsiders trying to overcome the neo-classical paradigm, which does not exist anymore for at least two decades) as that of Tiago we should be aware that this position is not likely to get history of economics as an institutionaly viable community in economics and I think it is dangerous since, despite Schabas’s appeals, there is no sign of an alternative yet.
    If one wants to have his critique of expertise to exert some change on the expert practices, then it means that beforehand the expert accepts his critique as legitimate: this is where it went/goes wrong for history of science and history of economics alike: scientists were not listening because they believe that historian of sciences have no legitimacy and this is also why heterodox economists are bound to fail, they are not considered legitimate. Hence, if one wants to have history counts for the expert, you have to establish legitimacy in the first place, not the other way round.
    This was the purpose of my interventions.

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