To make informed choices, we require accurate information and knowledge. Traditionally, we have looked to experts to help us make decisions, sometimes accepting their opinion without question. In this essay I will assess whether people can still rely on knowledge from experts. To do this I will look first at what knowledge is, some theories on how it is arrived at, and the different sorts of knowledge. I will consider what has constituted expert knowledge in science and religion historically, and how relevant that is today.
The examples I will consider to illustrate whether people can rely on knowledge from experts, will be, from Chapter 1, ‘Knowledge in Medicine’, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and the difficulties caused by ‘expert’ knowledge in notable criminal cases. Moreover, I will draw from the TV05 programme ‘Mother Knows Best’ to illustrate the plethora of conflicting ‘expert’ views clamouring for parents’ attention, as they seek solutions to the dilemmas of getting their babies to sleep at night. This programme also illustrates the changing status of parental knowledge compared with the accepted wisdom of experts.
From Chapter 2, ‘Religious Knowledge’, I will consider the argument that society is becoming increasingly secular, against the view that we are as a society, no less spiritual, but may now seek to satisfy our religious desires from outside traditional faiths. Finally, in my conclusion, I will make brief reference to a recent survey indicating confusion by the general public about who the experts are. What then is knowledge? According to social science, knowledge is the production of meanings and ways of understanding the world.
Rather than merely consisting of facts, knowledge is a complex social construction involving the language used or discourse, which can make the knowledge accessible to all or selectively, only to those who are privileged to understand it. Knowledge is not only concerned with ideas, but also with practices. If we look at the ‘Circuit of Knowledge’ (pg 12, Workbook 5, Kiloh, 2004) we see that knowledge is only part of a process of understanding and moving closer to the truth. I will now consider how the fields of science and religion formulate knowledge. There are different sorts of knowledge and some forms have greater status than others.
Scientific knowledge is regarded as having high status, so we will consider the characteristics that distinguish it. Scientific knowledge is based on experimentation and observation of the physical world, in theory carried out objectively by people who have studied it in depth and usually gained official accreditation for their understanding. A predominant method of creating knowledge in modern science is based on Karl Popper and his theory of ‘Conjecture and Refutation’ (Goldblatt, 2004, p 21). Popper argued that it is impossible to prove a theory, because one can never cover all the possibilities.
It is however, possible to disprove theories and by doing so come closer to the truth. By applying this sceptical ‘falsification’ method, it is possible to calculate probabilities if not necessarily absolute answers. In this way knowledge is rationally constructed. Can we still rely then, on scientific experts? To a great extent, we ought to, more so than in the past because the knowledge produced today should be more reliable than that produced less objectively according to positivist principles (Goldblatt, 2004, p 52); however scientists may be subject to economic and political pressures making their evidence less reliable.
I will next consider religious knowledge. Religious knowledge is generally considered to be more subjective than scientific knowledge, although according to Professor Russell Stannard (AC9, side a ) there are two chief ways that religious knowledge is arrived at, the second having features in common with scientific knowledge. The first way of gaining religious knowledge is via religious scripture, such as The Bible, The Koran or The Torah. This method of obtaining and accepting knowledge is unscientific and relies on belief in an authority.