Experts misused

It is not a good time to be an expert. Last month’s announcement
that there is to be a review of several hundred cot death cases has
turned the spotlight on those who provide professional advice in
such circumstances.

Criticism of Professor Sir Roy Meadow, the paediatrician whose
evidence influenced the outcome of a series of cot death cases, has
prompted the media to speculate on just how credible experts are.
After three high-profile convictions that had relied on Meadow’s
evidence were overturned on appeal, serious questions are being
raised about the reliability of expert witnesses.

There is a real danger that this speculation will lead to calls for
experts to be subject to tighter regulation, rather than what is
really needed: changes to the way experts are used in judicial

Indeed the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the
Registration of Forensic Practitioners have already taken steps to
set up an expert witness accreditation system, conscious of
criticism they could face in the wake of the Meadow fiasco.

But the problem with focusing on policing the experts, rather than
changing the system, is that you cannot measure “expertness”. Sure,
you can check that someone is who they say they are, that they hold
professional qualifications and that they are held in some esteem
by their peers. But there are millions of professionals who meet
these criteria. Only a small number, on the other hand, are willing
to put their necks on the block by becoming expert witnesses.

We have to acknowledge that experts are more self-appointed than
anointed. They are not necessarily the most knowledgeable; they are
those who have chosen to make their expertise known. There are even
books that advise on sure-fire ways to become an expert, that
counsel you to take up public speaking, join professional
organisations, write a book and not be shy about accepting awards.
Becoming an expert is a self-selected career choice. No system of
accreditation can get round this fact.

Nor is the expert label a guarantee of “truth”. In the end, an
expert is simply an experienced professional who is willing to
present and interpret information – to give an informed opinion.
The difference between truth and opinion will be forever blurred.
We should not expect to be able to establish a screening process
that distinguishes the “good” from the “bad” expert.

Instead, the way that experts are used in judicial situations ought
to change. For a start, judges and juries should be encouraged to
be more sceptical and not to take expert evidence at face value. An
expert witness is often placed in a biased situation – engaged by
one side yet expected to provide impartial testimony. Controls
ought to be built into the system to protect against over-reliance
on a single opinion. There needs to be more openness, including
publication of the judgements made in family courts. And no
judgement should ever be based on the views of a single expert

More professionals need to be encouraged to act as expert
witnesses; we ought not to rely only on those who are good
self-publicists or who seek to make a living from providing expert
testimonies. Indeed, being an expert witness ought to be the kind
of public service that is expected of all those who reach the top
of their profession.

But, most of all, the way we treat experts needs to change. We all
bandy the “expert” label around willy-nilly. We ought to be more
cautious about its meaning and more ready to explain why an
individual’s opinion is worth listening to.

The Meadow case may well have marked the pinnacle of deference
towards the medical profession. Other professions are already
subjected to far greater scrutiny, as the recent case where a judge
criticised a social worker’s opinion shows. Had Meadow been viewed
in a less deferential light, his erroneous assertions would have
been publicly challenged long before now.

The decline of deference towards the expert should not be lamented.
The American educator and political figure Nicholas Murray Butler
famously remarked that an expert was “one who knows more and more
about less and less”. We would do well to remember that experts are
capable of making mistakes, interpreting facts to fit opinion and
turning a blind eye to contrary evidence. In fact, they can be just
as flawed as the rest of us.

Lisa Harker is chairperson on the Daycare

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