The downfall of being an expert

It’s extremely hard to be an expert these days. That’s mostly, I think, because experts seem to get wrapped up in an isolated bit of the world very quickly and lose all sight of the bigger picture.

There were two little stories, amidst the barrage of globe-shaking news that hit us over the past seven days, which proved exactly how tough it is.

First came news that a six year old boy had been pepper sprayed by police. It wasn’t for fun, it was because the little fellow had a steak knife in his hand and was set on killing his mother.

It’s rather alarming news, all round. First, because a six-year-old wanted to kill his own mother, and next because she felt she had no other option than to call the police for help.

It raised all sorts of questions about where his father was, or where the mother’s family and friends were, and why – most of all – the little chap felt extreme threats of violence were his best option for expressing anger.

But those weren’t the questions raised by an Auckland University expert on child development.

No indeed, the why of this extraordinary event appears to have been of no interest to her.

Instead, it was how long the police tried to reason with the child before they administered pepper spray, and whether he would have properly understood.

Any non-expert Kiwi would surely have replied, “who cares? What I want to know is what went wrong in the child’s life, and what we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen in other families? Then we won’t have to worry about police pepper-spraying children at all.”

It’s not the only time experts seem to have gotten in the way of a good national discussion though.

This week also saw a mother pull her child out of sex education classes because she felt he was being given far too much information for his age.

The organisation that provides the material for the classes, Family Planning, said the content was entirely normal.

The organisation that pays the teachers to teach the material, the Ministry of Education, said the same thing.

Whether the content was normal or not was entirely irrelevant of course.

The question the woman raised, and which these experts in education and sexuality completely missed, was why strangers funding by the public purse were teaching her children about something as private as sex.

Surely, she contended, it was her right as a parent to decide how, when and what her children were taught about sex?

It seems rather a good question to me, and one that needs answering before anyone can decide whether the content is, in fact, normal.

And that’s exactly why I say it must be difficult to be an expert these days.

After all, you know all sorts of facts and figures about one tiny, little bit of life.

And then ordinary people come along and ask big, important questions that remind you the most important thing when it comes to children is something you can’t provide; loving, responsible parents.

This article was originally published on Stuff.co.nz

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