The Cult of the Expert

By Joe Boot/ April 25, 2020

Topic  Education, Philosophy, Science

The Self-Anointed

A sober look at contemporary society reveals that Descartes’ dictum remains as pertinent as ever: “There is nothing so absurd or incredible that it has not been asserted by one philosopher or another.” In a similar vein, George Orwell once remarked that some ideas are so foolish, only an intellectual could believe them. Ours is certainly an era of intense intellectual activism that requires, indeed demands, a distinctly Christian response.

The late-modern world has seen the emergence of many oddities, one of which is the appearance of a new self-anointed elite class – the intelligentsia. One such individual still celebrated amongst cultural elites today is George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright and public intellectual prominent in the first half of the twentieth century. Beyond writing plays, Shaw held forth on all kinds of cultural and political subjects and made grand sweeping pronouncements about his fellow human beings. Like many British intellectuals of the era, he was a Fabian socialist who nonetheless regarded ordinary working-class people as contemptible with ‘no right to live.’ He wrote, “I should despair if I did not know that they will all die presently, and that there is no need on earth why they should be replaced by people like themselves.”[1] Shaw was a fan of dictators and dictatorships precisely because he resented ordinary people influencing culture, believing they could not be trusted to make sensible decisions. On leaving London for an African vacation in 1935, he remarked, “It is nice to go for a holiday and know that Hitler has settled everything so well in Europe.”[2] Though Hitler’s antisemitism eventually made it untenable for Shaw to support the national socialism of the Nazis, he remained keen on Stalin and the Soviet dictatorship.[3] So much for ‘enlightened’ elite opinion.

It is a puzzling question for many why so many seemingly brilliant people can be so utterly foolish and bereft of wisdom or judgment in the ordinary affairs of life. Jean-Paul Sartre, another twentieth-century Western intellectual with a massive cult following, was well-known for seducing his young female philosophy students with the help of his lover, Simone de Beauvoir, whilst simultaneously involving himself in cultural and political affairs of which he clearly had no understanding. A man addicted to fornication, alcohol and barbiturates, Sartre was incapable of maintaining relationships with male intellectual peers who might actually challenge him, and like his radical compatriots, was unable to bring himself to condemn Stalinism or the Communist Party – though he remained gregariously anti-American. He was still publicly defending the Soviets in the 1950s and warmly praising Mao’s China. For Sartre, the existing Christian order in the West was simply ‘institutionalized violence’ that required ‘intellectual activism’ and ‘necessary violence’ to overthrow it.[4]

Intellect and Wisdom

In Scripture, the great Hebrew thinker and teacher, King Solomon, gives us the key to understanding why being intelligent or intellectually gifted are no guarantee of true insight, wisdom or sound judgment: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline … for the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 1:7, 2:6). If the foundation of wisdom is missing, if the principal part of knowledge is neglected, then any knowledge structure built upon it is inherently unstable. It may appear elegant and well-proportioned, but when the winds of real life blow against it, it will be found wanting. Intellect, intelligence and wisdom do not always coincide, are certainly not identical, and should never be conflated. A person may have the ability to grasp complex ideas (intellect) and even have the capacity to understand their relevant implications for a given area of thought (intelligence), but wisdom is of another character altogether. Choosing the occupation of the intellectual is certainly no guarantee of obtaining wisdom. As Thomas Sowell points out, “wisdom is the rarest quality of all – the ability to combine intellect, knowledge, experience and judgment in a way to produce a coherent understanding. Wisdom is the fulfilment of the ancient admonition, ‘With all your getting, get understanding.’”[5]

Intellectuals, Reason and Worldview

To identify certain persons as intellectuals is not to make a judgment about their intelligence or ability relative to other members of society, but simply to highlight their chosen vocation – the production of ideas. In the occupational construction of these ideas, the modern intellectual is usually (there are always exceptions) a person who claims allegiance to a particular kind of thinking and a commitment to the use of certain tools. That is, they frequently claim to be on the side of the canons of independent reason and science, broadly conceived. To be accused of denying ‘science’ or undermining ‘sound reason’ is to be avoided at all costs lest the offender be placed under censure by their peers or cast out of the orthodox circles of the intelligentsia. In addition, ideas that are viewed as progressive or nuanced, novel or artistically complex, tend to be applauded, whereas other more ‘traditional’ ideas are frequently ridiculed as reactionary, simplistic or outmoded. It is for these reasons that openly and authentically Christian thinkers are rarely welcomed into the exclusive chambers of orthodox intellectual elites.

This exclusivity, resting upon the dubious claim of intellectual superiority, presupposes an idea going back to the Enlightenment – that there is an autonomous standard of reason, established by an elite class, before which all ideas must present themselves for judgment. Here we encounter the philosophical assumption that human thinking can function as the lawgiver of the world, prescribing from thought a law to nature. Contemporary trends in this form of thinking, very much in vogue with modern intellectuals, hold to a social construction theory of reality – we can create the world we live in by our thought and language! Today we see it expressed throughout the humanities, in economics, politics and law. It is not unusual for intellectuals to clothe the various judgments of their enlightened thought in the garb of neutrality, while those who disagree are regarded as prejudiced or hopelessly biased.

But to make this appeal to a supposed neutrality, the basis of which is nothing but an establishment consensus, is to assert that our rational behaviour is self-normed. This is something the thinking Christian is obligated to reject. Rather, the criteria for rational communication is given with creation and holds for all rational pursuits. But such an assertion of universal, unchanging normative standards for thinking immediately threatens the pretended autonomy of the intellectual’s thought. How can human thinking be a law unto itself if it is bound by normative creational standards? Both convictions cannot be true at the same time.

To make this point clearer, it is important to recognize that there is a difference between a norm or law, and that which is being subject to that norm. Our thinking (rational and logical activities) are being subjected to norms or principles constantly. But what is the nature of those norms? Are they generated by the thought of elites, or are they created, supra-individual and universal normative standards? With this question we are confronted with what the South African philosopher Danie Strauss calls, “direction-giving ultimate commitments transcending the realm of rationality itself, since they are embedded in some or other world-and-life-view.”[6] This immediately exposes the non-neutrality of all thought and shows that a prevailing trust in autonomous ‘reason’ is not itself rational, but makes its appeal to beliefs and convictions that transcend the rational aspect of life.

Furthermore, logical principles alone do not provide the grounds for believing the content of certain arguments to be true or false, they can only help determine if the structure of a given argument is valid i.e., whether or not certain fallacies are present. As Karl Popper once put it, “[Since] all arguments must proceed from assumptions, it is plainly impossible to demand that all assumptions should be based on arguments.” In other words, we already have to believe in something to begin to justify something else. Remember, it is not thinking that thinks, but human beings who are more than rational thought, that think! All human beings have a spiritual ethos, basic beliefs and religious motives that give direction to their thinking, shaping the social vision they advocate – intellectuals are no different.

This brings us to an obvious conclusion: intellectuals are informed by one worldview or another, which always underlies their efforts to account for either physical or social phenomena, informing the solutions they offer. Sowell argues:

Intellectuals do not simply have a series of isolated opinions on a variety of subjects. Behind those opinions is usually some coherent over-arching conception of the world, a social vision. Intellectuals are like other people in having visions – some intuitive sense of how the world works, what causes what… At the heart of the social vision prevalent among contemporary intellectuals is the belief that there are ‘problems’ created by existing institutions and that ‘solutions’ to these problems can be excogitated by intellectuals. This vision is both a vision of society and a vision of the role of intellectuals within society.[7]

The first truly modern intellectual, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, made much of loving the people, freeing them from the shackles of civilization and tradition and establishing their ‘general will.’ But in the end, he could not disguise his disdain for humanity and likened the masses of ordinary people to “a stupid, pusillanimous invalid.”[8] This was because Rousseau’s worldview and consequent concept of society (along with his place in it) was anti-Christian to the core. The Christian thinker must not look at the world as a conundrum to be fixed by his or her cognitive efforts. Nor can our inherited institutions be seen as the root of all evil in need of revolutionizing in terms of the euphoric visions of intellectuals. Sin is not rooted in human institutions, but in the heart of man himself (Matt. 15:18-20).

Critically, the gospel of Christ may not be regarded as an inspirational ‘idea’ that offers ‘solutions’ to various societal ‘problems.’ Rather, the gospel declares the kingdom and power of God manifest in both the creative and redemptive work of Jesus Christ, which transforms the heart of man, and in so doing makes a new creature out of him. The fruit of this transformation is a Spirit-given vision for Christ’s kingdom to come and the will of the Father to be done in every aspect of creation. This God-ordained vision calls not for self-anointed experts, but for faithful and Spirit-anointed servants committed to the Word of God and to excellence for the glory of God.

The Difference between a Christian and a Secular Intellectual

This brings us to the heart of the difference between the Christian and secular intellectual. It may initially seem a little self-defeating for a Christian thinker and cultural apologist to be criticizing the vocation of intellectuals – am I not just sawing off the branch I am sitting on? If an intellectual is to be defined occupationally as a person whose essential product is ideas rather than pastries, houses or space shuttles, in what sense is the work of a Christian thinker different from that of the non-Christian? My own work almost wholly consists in study, the writing of articles, essays and books, or speaking publicly in the form of lectures, sermons, debates and interviews. In what way does this differ from the work of any other intellectual?

First, we have already seen that the foundation for thinking between the Christian and non-Christian is radically different. One professes autonomy (self-law), the other theonomy (God’s law) – meaning a total surrender to the law-Word of Christ in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). In the fantasy of autonomy, the modern intellectual essentially pretends to the realisation of a new priesthood within society, embodying a new and creative source of authority. They invariably regard themselves as representing a concentration point of human knowledge and understanding. As secular bishops, they mediate their ideas by influencing and shaping those who will then proclaim and disseminate their vision for them – a kind of substitute clergy in media and education, law, politics and arts known as the intelligentsia. Only by a deliberate act of submission to God’s Word-revelation can the Christian thinker avoid the conceits of a godless intelligentsia. This submission to God’s Word must in turn lead to the development of a coherent and systematic Christian world-and-life view that serves the kingdom by mediating the power of the gospel to every aspect of human life in creation.

Second, because of a submission to God and His Word-revelation, not only is the Christian thinker totally subject to Scripture, he or she is also accountable to the normative structure of created reality as God has ordained it. This means that Christian thinking is willingly subject to God’s Word in creation and does not attempt to remake it after human imagination. From the time of Plato and Aristotle, intellectuals have tended to engage in abstract thought-experiments based on groundless philosophical assumptions. From Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, Western civilization (and beyond) has been impacted by different styles of social thought-experiments that deal with people and culture in the abstract – as these thinkers would prefer persons and the world to be – but which do not really grapple with the world and history in its givenness. Yet there is nothing harmless about these thought-experiments. The diabolic atheistic materialism of Marx’s thought, with its abstract revolutionary masses throwing off the evils of wage labor and private property, supposedly leading mankind toward a stateless and work-free world, has cost millions of people their lives. Rousseau’s idealized ‘noble savage’ and John Rawls’ equally preposterous ‘veil of ignorance’ in contractarian theories of society positing imaginary worlds free from metaphysical beliefs or cultural history are as reckless as they are impossible.

One of the differences between the occupation of intellectuals and that of the engineer is that engineers find themselves constantly accountable to the real world if they make mistakes. If I make a mistake with a historical reference in one of my articles or lectures, I may get a kind (or nasty) email from a reader pointing out my error, but if my brother Daniel who is a heating engineer – designing and installing complex heating systems in commercial properties – makes a serious mistake, real college dorm rooms or somebody’s office will be flooded or even explode. There is an immediate accountability here in the concrete world of experience – an external standard of accountability. An engineer whose designs and work prove to be a repeated failure will not long be in the trade. Yet if an intellectual has a grand idea, happens to be influential, and the idea is applied but fails, that thinker is frequently seen as a brave pioneer or prophet out of time. Alternatively, the blame is placed on ‘society’ or others’ ‘faulty interpretation or application,’ or the stupidity of the masses for the grand idea not working!

Take current gender theory, feminist theory, and other forms of deconstructionist bunk. External tests in the real world that would be applied to the engineer don’t apply here. The only test that seems to matter is what other feminists, queer theorists or deconstructionists think; do they find the ideas original, appropriately subversive, or imaginative? When the lives of children, families and society are destroyed by these intellectuals’ near-unintelligible drivel, the blame is placed on societal taboos, patriarchal family structures, traditional institutions and white privilege for things not working out well.

Various shades of Marxism have been tried numerous times on various continents with the same devastating and tragic results, but that doesn’t stop intellectuals committed to an abstract ideology continuing to venerate Marxist social theory and blame a faulty application or nuance of interpretation for the economic devastation and vicious death of multitudes. This is because their criteria for judgment is internal, not external – man must prescribe, not discover and acknowledge, the normative structures for human life. Thus, in the name of intellectual freedom, unaccountability becomes a hallmark of the occupation. George Bernard Shaw is still adored by many elites despite his woeful judgment regarding Hitler and Stalin, and the same is true of Sartre despite his public support for Mao’s China and his advocacy of the use of violence to achieve your objectives. Noted British intellectual, John Stuart Mill, went as far as to argue that intellectuals should be free even from social standards, all the while setting those standards for others.[9] It is existing institutions and traditions, norms and standards that must change to accommodate the intellectuals’ ideas, not the thinker who must be subject to created norms in the real world.

In marked contrast, the Christian thinker is to explore Scripture and the various spheres of the creation order as revelation from God. These have a ‘norming’ impact on Christian thought, giving concrete direction to the believers intellectual’s labors. Christian thought-products can then be judged by and made accountable to an external standard, just as the prophets in Scripture were judged in terms of whether their prophecy came to pass.

The Cult of the Expert or the Worship of Christ

One of the besetting sins of professional intellectuals as a class is believing that, because they have a particular depth of knowledge or superior ability in a given area, they can then generalize their narrow knowledge and ability into the notion of their own superior wisdom and judgement for life in general. Frequently disregarding the everyday, non-theoretical and mundane knowledge of ordinary people in the real world, central social planning is then taken on by the ‘experts’ – a particular kind of intellectual – as part of a broader intelligentsia who believe they alone are qualified to guide society. As Sowell has rightly pointed out, “Intellectuals have seen themselves not simply as an elite – in the passive sense in which large landowners, rentiers, or holders of various sinecures might qualify as elites – but as an anointed elite, people with a mission to lead others in one way or another toward better lives.”[10]

Widespread judicial activism in the courts is one good example of this. Capable judges and lawyers are legitimately expert in giving legal opinion, but when they move out beyond this sphere in order to use their roles to instigate social change as envisioned by intellectuals, they embody the arrogant presumption of the intelligentsia. Journalistic editorializing of ‘news’ so that reporting becomes a stream of approved opinion is another example of the cult of the expert, as media personalities attempt to control the meaning and interpretation of events in terms of a particular view of reality. We see this cult at work even in the current Covid-19 crisis, as experts in the fields of virology, statistics and computer modelling are wheeled out by politicians to proclaim that civil liberties should be suspended for months on end and prophesying that life can never return to the way it was before if we are to have a safe and healthy future. And because they are the experts, few pause to ask, what qualifies a virologist or statistician to make far-reaching social, political and unconstitutional decisions that affect millions of people in democratic societies. And as the politicians endlessly remind us, we must, like they themselves, be guided by these ‘experts.’

Another good example is seen in the field of economics – a bamboozling subject for the uninitiated as literal ‘magic tricks’ are performed by financial experts. For most of us ordinary mortals, we assume that paper money must represent a specific value of something concrete. Therefore, a certain number of dollars will buy me a certain number of potatoes. Countries in which trust in their currency evaporates soon find that a wheelbarrow full of paper money will not buy them a loaf of bread because their money is suspected of being no longer backed by something real and reliable – inflation then pushing the price of goods that much higher. Yet we are told by experts today that modern economies don’t need to be backed by gold and other precious metals, but can function safely on debt and government promises. The answer to financial crises is therefore not ‘austerity,’ but more and more public spending and stimulus to grow the economy. Stimulus means quantitative easing (that is, printing more and more money), with governments accumulating more and more debt, supported by the promise of future tax revenues. As money gets cheaper due to its increased availability, keeping interest rates artificially low, many people borrow more, whilst the savings of others are effectively devalued (money now being worth less). However, markets inevitably aware of the problem will be concerned with looming inflation. The sustainability of this model is predicated on the ideas of unending economic growth and trust in government – i.e. eventually we will be able to pay the debts with future taxes before they bury us. Thus, for most Western governments, the idea of a balanced budget has gone the way of the dodo.

Whatever we make of this, the point is that economic policy is not neutral but equally driven by the thinking of expert-intellectuals who are not simply accountants but people shaping life and culture in terms of a worldview, believing they are uniquely qualified to guide society. As Stephen D. King notes:

The idea that monetary policy is politically neutral is a convenient fiction rather than a reflection of reality. Yet it is often only during periods of economic and social upheaval that the fiction is exposed. Today, monetary policy works not so much by reinvigorating the economy but, instead, by redistributing wealth and income: it is no more than a stealthy form of redistributive taxation.[11]

As a priestly class, the intellectuals, along with their supporters in the broader intelligentsia, believe that culture, especially law, education, economic and public policy, must be directed by them as the experts. And the one thing that the experts almost always agree on, is the need for experts to deal with problems.

There is nothing new here. From the time of the Pharaoh’s magicians, kings, emperors and political leaders have surrounded themselves with a cadre of ‘expert’ intellectuals to both give counsel and to act as a convenient means of shifting blame if things went wrong. The intellectuals of the ancient and classical world did not enjoy the same levels of unaccountability that the modern expert enjoys. If you misinterpreted Pharaoh’s dream, you might be executed. Whether they were called satraps or soothsayers, advisers or counselors, scholars or magi, they were the public intellectuals of their era and frequently functioned as a priestly class guiding the religious life of the people. Leaders placed tremendous trust in them to predict weather patterns and harvests, interpret omens and dreams, read the stars and provide solutions to various problems. These thinkers, however, were invariably fumbling in the darkness, disconnected from the covenants of promise and often oblivious the clarity of God’s revelation in creation. Unless any expert intellectual is willingly subject to Christ and his Word, even when they stumble across God’s creational laws and norms in their work, they will consistently fail to properly apply what they have learned in terms of the fullness of the wisdom of God. For as we have seen, intellect, intelligence and wisdom are not same thing.

Prophetic Thinking

Yet there remains, from a scriptural standpoint, an important role for the person whose work-product is ideas – there is a legitimate task for the intellectual. It is God who gives Joseph wisdom in Egypt to understand the times and correctly interpret dreams given by God to Pharaoh for the deliverance of both Egypt and Joseph’s family from famine. Along with the famed king Solomon, who gave us the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs and whose careful observations and wise applications brought even the queen of Sheba to hear him, perhaps the best example of a Christian thinker and public intellectual in Scripture is that of Daniel as a captive in Babylon. He is specifically recruited into an elite school for the ancient equivalent of experts or intellectuals: scholars and thinkers among whom some would give guidance to society and government (Dan. 1:3-6). Along with some noble friends from Judah (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego), noted for their resistance to idolatry to the point of being cast into a fiery furnace, Daniel is identified as having real potential as an advisor in the king’s court.

These men determined to honor God in their occupation from the start. As a result, Scripture says, “God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind … no one was found equal to Daniel…so they began to serve in the king’s court. In every matter of wisdom and understanding that the king consulted them about, he found them 10 times better than all the diviner-priests and mediums in his entire kingdom” (Dan. 1:17-21). Daniel and his friends went on to distinguish themselves and find high position in a pagan kingdom and government, and there they had profound influence for the kingdom of God from the head of state down.

This was possible because they were determined to obey God, worked hard, and were granted knowledge, wisdom and understanding by the Lord Himself. They were intimately acquainted with the truth that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The other experts lacked the coherence, understanding and prophetic insight that Daniel and his friends had because the foundation of their thought was wanting. This advantage should be even more true of the Christian thinker who is self-consciously subject to God’s Word in Scripture and creation. In Christ the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid, meaning that the Christian thinker can avoid the pitfalls and mistakes of a godless intelligentsia by seeing all things in their true context, from within a scriptural world-and -life view. This makes the Christian mind unique in bringing a prophetic edge that sees all creation as an instantiation of the Word of God.

In the final analysis, as valuable as the insights of all those who make careful study of an aspect of creation can be when rightly directed, our trust, hope and confidence will either be in Christ or the expertise of autonomous man. The history of every era is littered with the false prophecy of the intelligentsia of that time, so laying our hope there is a fool’s errand. To place our ultimate trust in the thinking of people is to be like the unwise man who built his house upon the sand. But to put our trust in Christ and His wisdom is to be wise and build our house on the rock.

In the memorable words of the historian Paul Johnson, “we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget…the worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.”[12]

In short, beware intellectuals!


[1] Bernard Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (New York: Brentano’s Publishers, 1928), 456.

[2] “G.B. Shaw ‘Praises’ Hitler,” New York Times, March 22, 1935, 21.

[3] Paul Johnson, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky, 243.

[4] Johnson, Intellectuals, 244 ff.

[5] Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 4.

[6] D.F.M. Strauss, ‘Scholarly Communication,’ dfms@cknet.co.za

[7] Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 93.

[8] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, translated by Maurice Cranston (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), 89.

[9] Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 10.

[10] Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 94.

[11] Stephen D. King, When the Money Runs Out: The End of Western Affluence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 120.

[12] Johnson, Intellectuals, 342