Nobody knows more than me. This was a very favourite sentence of former U S president Donald Trump. He was unparallel to degrade even experts of his own office. A political propensity was noticed all over the world where special knowledge was not only thought unreasonable but those who acquired special knowledge through their lifelong toil were termed opportunist. Moreover, an image of conspirator and public enemy were imprinted upon them. It was noticed in day-to-day speeches of Donald Trump.
However, it is a wonder that due to anti-knowledge and anti-progressive stand of some politicians, public support towards them is not decreasing. Rather, majority people are supporting them in the other way round. From scientist to economist, from physician to mathematician, anybody having special knowledge are being subject to humiliation. Such trend is not at all new. Probably there is no direct relation between this anti-knowledge mentality and confusion over corona pandemic along with apparent failure of specialists to prevent pandemic. In history there are many instances of hostility between scientific knowledge and social power (e.g. Galileo and church). In those clashes support of major portion of people did not run towards science.
Modernity and analysis based development that was at the centre of thinking of Nehru and Mahalanabish has lost its glory along the flow of time. Due to commanding height of the state some unwanted situations also occurred. Exchange of ideas and dialogues between experts and public required in a democratic system was not found. As a result distance between elite policymakers and common people remained unchanged. Classification of so called intellectual asset could not be shattered. Expected development remained unachieved and speed of poverty alleviation activities got slow. Initially there was an effort to strengthen institutions which were considered necessary for modern state system. Establishment and development of institutions like universities, election commission, public service commission, BCSIR, BINA, BARC, BFRI, BRRI etc. are troublesome and time consuming. As these institutions are funded by government persons holding state power normally think that the way of practising knowledge and discipline will be directed by them. Bureaucracy is always their worthy ally. As a result these institutions do not always enjoy that independence which is required for acquiring, retaining and developing excellence.
Now we are at the opposite pole of that ideal situation where political leaders remain normally respectful towards advancement of knowledge. This situation requires a two way analysis. At one side there are anti-knowledge and anti-specialist attitude of a group of politicians who pay no heed to expert opinion and take it for exposition of self-confidence. Tactful politicians know it very well that this technique is very effective. On the other hand, specialists also can’t avoid their responsibility because the world of acquiring and practising knowledge is not isolated from reality. There is clash of position among them. Some biased specialists also add fuel to the attitude of dwarfing importance of expert knowledge. For this reason non-medical persons are sometimes treated more important than public health experts during corona pandemic.
However, we have to accept that as an impact of internet and social media some sort of socialisation has occurred in the field of knowledge. Many people think that there is no need to attach importance to expert opinion because knowledge is now on my palm. I have the ability to decide which knowledge is important. Due to this overall distribution of knowledge opportunity of persons in power to break the reign of specialist knowledge has increased. They think that progress means challenging specialist knowledge and looking for alternative. Sometimes positive knowledge may arise out of the clash between institutional knowledge and public prudence.
Nevertheless, the tendency to nullify specialists is not always an outcome of fight for knowledge. Narcissism works at the root of it. Most of the persons in power are not free from the tendency to elevate themselves throwing negligence towards others. It does not mean that they don’t need specialists in their life at all. When ill they need physicians, for law suit they have to take help of lawyers. Problem arises when they try to show megalomaniaof knowing everything without having minimum knowledge about medicine or law. Sometimes this disease of floating on foolish sentiment stands dominant in society.
Specialists will uphold their specific knowledge and it is expected that people will try to understand this process. They will remain alert and in case of any derailment they will create pressure for rectification. This is a part of democracy but it does not mean that everybody will be involved in policy making and its implementation. In reality it is not possible. If people think that conflict between politicians and experts matters nothing to them it will be a mistake because their wellbeing are related to every such conflict. Whatever happens at the upper level has a trickledown effect because directly or indirectly, willingly or unwillingly people are either victims or beneficiaries of it. Knowledge is power and might is right – both remain side by side in society and state but there must be an honourable line of limit between these two. If might overrides knowledge then disaster is inevitable.
The writer is a former Commissioner