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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Experts of our time: in keeping with the ancient Greek occupation of sophistry and soothsaying

Jameson Maluleke - 2009-09-16

In recent years, our society has been overwhelmed by a mushrooming of "analysts" in every field of knowledge. As a result, the audience or the readership of the analysts’ message find it difficult to identify the more acceptable viewpoints from a maze of pronouncements.

Their devotees call them by fancy names, like experts, opinion-makers, commentators or spokesmen and spokeswomen. You see and hear them speak on the television and radio. Then you may read their views in newspapers and news magazines. Their comments and opinion are frequently heard during national activities such as national elections or during times of national strife.

Some give their views straight from their heads like seers or prophets, while others prefer to read the papers or listen to the news first before they can give their analysis. Analysts who choose to look before they leap have learned the hard way. In the past they had wrongly predicted that President Jacob Zuma would never succeed former President Thabo Mbeki as the country’s president. That is the kind of mistake they don’t want to repeat so long as they have energy to practise their profession. So these days they will not make any informed opinion without first reading and listening to the news. Despite having gauged the news first, these analysts are not always fortunate to hit the nail on the head.

Who exactly are these people called analysts? What is their trade? The Reader’s Digest Oxford Complete Wordfinder (1991) defines an analyst as a skilled person engaged in the act or process of breaking down everything into its constituent parts. However, our analysts surpass the Wordfinder definition because they claim to possess knowledge of nearly everything in the world. Unlike a mathematician who employs algebra and calculus in problem-solving or a physicist who examines elements or the structure of a substance, the analysts in question see it as their duty to analyse and interpret current news. They sometimes give an in-depth study of an issue or predict the outcome of a situation. They are accessible to anyone interested in hearing their views, but they are very fond of their almighty god, the media. They gain stature and credibility by constant publicity they get from the media.

The ever growing number of these “experts” gives the impression that there are colleges and universities around the country which train people to be walking encyclopaedias. If this is not the case, one is curious to know what fertile piece of land gives birth to these knowledgeable fellows. Every year a swarm of analysts scatter around our big cities to compete for opinion-making through the media.

A tertiary institution trains a person to become researcher who in later years becomes an expert in or a doyen of a particular field like, say, criminology or theology. The problem comes in when such a criminologist or a mere priest makes knowledgeable pronouncements or expresses scientific insight on climatology or climate change like a climatologist himself. Some fellow South Africans are convinced that if a person occupies a high office and has the backing of a political party it automatically qualifies him to be a specialist. Such a pretender has only one true name: charlatan, rather than being referred as a guru. It is apparent, then, that no institution for higher education trains analysts. These fellows grow out of greed and own selfishness.

Logic demands that a police researcher or a police officer with almost twenty or thirty years of work experience gives informed views about why an increasing number of policemen and policewomen die in the line of duty. However, in this age of "experts", a person like the minister of police, who has virtually no police training, is the one who gives an expert opinion as to why our policemen and policewomen are dying in large numbers on duty. The same can be said of a medical practitioner deployed as a cabinet minister of agriculture. It is incomprehensible why on earth a medicine man turned a cabinet minister should give genuine analysis of the country’s agriculture without training in agricultural science.

In Ancient Greece, charlatans and pretenders were called sophists or conjurers because they were not honest to their profession. They practised their trade for grandeur and for material gain. Whenever I think of self-tailored analysts, I am reminded of a diviner (or shall I call him a traditional healer in line with the modern terminology?). He would never agree that he does not know how to solve, heal, unravel any problem, illness or mystery you may present to him; only be careful not to ask searching questions that might offend him, such as how he knows or how he came to a certain solution.

I once offended a well-known and media-respected analyst. Two to three years behind the pulpit as a Bible-punching, fiery preacher, my friend the analyst suddenly became an expert in politics, international relations, religion, culture, languages, psychology, you name it. On this day, through a landline phone, we dealt with the issue of former President Thabo Mbeki and his administration. He told me that Mbeki was disliked by his own African people because he was aloof – he was out of touch with the common people. In the past I have heard many of the so-called experts attest to this aloofness on the person of Mbeki. They claimed that he grew up in the UK, so he does not understand human relations from an African point of view. I found this think lacking in substance. So I told myself to find out more about this issue from my friend once and for all. “Sir, have you ever met Mbeki? Are you acquainted with him?” "No," came the answer. “Now, how are you sure that Mbeki is aloof and unresponsive to our society?” I enquired. There was a long break; I could hear the expert breathing like a span of oxen. At long last he sighed. “You media people don’t understand politics. Who is your editor? Never phone me again”, and he banged down the telephone receiver. I checked myself. Was the question appropriate? Did I sound like a pro-Mbeki man? Is it really a problem of little education on my part? Perhaps I should learn not to ask pertinent questions. But then I would not be true to my sacred profession.

Another obstacle in winnowing chaff from wheat is that the media are satisfied to get expert opinion from any person willing to give it, as long as the article or feature has the views of an outsider or anybody acting like a witness. That the person who gives his opinion might not be qualified does not seem to concern the media. In this way, our modern sophists are covered by the media’s indifference. This bosom friendship between analysts and the media has led the public to assume that analysts are essentially a media creation. The media will keep on quoting a person who seems to have some knowledge of a particular issue until he appears to be a walking encyclopaedia.

Offering one’s opinion for public consumption is not a crime. According to our Constitution, South Africans have the freedom of expression, that is, they have the right to voice their own opinions. However, a great number of pronouncements by the analysts tend to undermine the authenticity of intellectuals, experts, scientists, think-tanks, institutions etc. By virtue of their grand names and titles, and their sometimes dubious and misleading interpretation of current issues, analysts create confusion among the common people. Writing in the following excerpt, Moneyweb columnist Sipho Ngcobo has successfully exposed analysts’ folly by showing analysts’ true colours:

It was with great horror and disappointment to watch political analysts trying to analyse how political parties were going to perform during the recent election. There was no depth of analysis. There was no intellect. There were huge doses of ignorance paraded on television screens and pages of newspapers. Flagrant displays of naive thought and wishful thinking were the order of the day. Predictions, even statistics were given without any descriptive data. (" South Africa’s political analyst betrayal", 29 April, 2009)

It is indeed an accepted norm to rely on some expertise to make a researcher’s findings valid. However, the fact analysts have not been completely unmasked in this country; we need to approach their assessment with caution. We must also learn to distinguish specialists from a troop of wiseacres.

Perhaps tertiary institutions should set standards for the proper analysis of social activities. Authentic pundits may also assist by forming an association of analysts that would register any intellectual who satisfies the association’s requirements. Some of the requirements should be a person’s college or university education, work experience and the person’s willingness to give views related only to his or her field of study.

Allow me to say it again and again. Analysts – genuine analysts – are a useful tool, an agency for transforming our society into an enlightened nation. As such, my paper is not aimed at advocating the abolition of analysts. However, I would grow fat only if opportunists and self-made analysts are banned and banished from our society.