[Outlook]Experts in the truest sense

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[Outlook]Experts in the truest sense

With the sudden outbreak of the global economic crisis, many have been raising a cynical question: “Where have all the economists been?”

These critics seem to think that economists, who behave as if they know everything about how the markets work, should have seen the precipice ahead before we were over the edge.

As they comb through the path of destruction the meltdown has eaten through their finances, people who blindly believed the rosy forecasts of so-called financial experts are likely enraged at what they see as the irresponsibility of those experts.

For a variety of reasons, public trust in experts has been so damaged that in Korea these days, a mysterious person who puts up postings on an Internet portal under the name Minerva has more influence than high government officials or other people in positions of authority.

One of the reasons that government officials and experts are no longer trusted is likely because they often hid the facts or didn’t reveal their honest opinions in the past.

The people remember that members of the administration distorted the truth in accordance with the will of the powerful. They haven’t forgotten that financial experts at securities firms didn’t reveal their real opinions because they were putting their companies’ interests first. Even professors and researchers, people who should always remain fair and objective, were also too careful with their words. Fearful of losing their positions, they don’t say what is really on their minds.

It is thus natural that people feel a certain sense of catharsis when they see a person speaking boldly and frankly, fearlessly saying what he believes, whether it is right or wrong.

For experts in Korea to regain public trust, they must have the courage to give their actual opinions on important issues, no matter the current conditions.

But even more important than trust is competence. A more fundamental problem afflicting our society lies here, which leads us back to the original question of those critics: Why did so many economists fail to predict the economic crisis? What were they doing while working away in the government, at universities and financial institutions?

The reason may be flaws in the system that trains our experts. Modern studies are so fragmented into small subjects that it is difficult to gain a mastery of your own small area unless you are a genius. As a result, most experts acquire huge amounts of detailed knowledge about a tiny branch, but they are not trained to see the whole forest.

For instance, a scholar of financial engineering may spend a long time working on a complicated formula, but he is unlikely to bother thinking about the basic assumption that the formula stemmed from, or the gap between the real economy and financial engineering. To put it more harshly, experts may excel in detailed techniques but they don’t have the capability to apply common sense.

Of course, Korea is not alone in experiencing such problems. That’s why more people in the world are arguing for the integration of different fields of knowledge and emphasizing the importance of keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

However, the side effects from such limited perspectives are more serious in underdeveloped countries in terms of knowledge, like Korea, where people are busy importing knowledge from the outside instead of creating it themselves. Experts have never done their own independent thinking. They mindlessly undertake measures that other countries carried out a long time ago, measures that may not be as effective as they used to be. They can’t change their way of thinking in a bold, radical way, even in times of crisis. Meanwhile, the United States is responding to the financial crunch with measures that people can’t even imagine if they are sticking to textbook knowledge.

Real experts know the limits of such knowledge because they wrote the textbooks. They can take bold measures that go beyond the limit when they deem it is necessary.

Our community of experts must enhance their competence in order to overcome the crisis that this country faces, and also to prepare for times of adversity in the future. We should train first-rate experts in the truest sense, people who can think unique thoughts. We don’t need any more second-rate scholars who simply earn degrees in other countries by doing the same thing others do.

To nurture true experts, our society must become more tolerant when it comes to embracing different ideas. Only then we can produce people who can earn the Nobel Prizes in science or economics that we long for. Only then will this country be able to become an advanced nation in terms of knowledge, and a leader of the 21st century.

*The writer is a professor of physics and dean, College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung

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