A Place for Expertise

It was in 2008, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis when Barack Obama was elected the president of the United States with the support of a grassroots campaign using social media.

By Satoshi Machidori


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A Place for Expertise

A Place for Expertise


The Problem

It was in 2008, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis when Barack Obama was elected the president of the United States with the support of a grassroots campaign using social media.

Some believed that it marked the end of an era in which a handful of wealthy people and elites benefited from globalization through financial engineering and information and communication technology (ICT). They might have believed in a future in which the flat connections of ordinary citizens represented in social media and their cross-border common sense had great significance. It was this sense of optimism for good globalism that enveloped the start of the Obama administration.

More than 12 years have passed since, and what stands out in the 2020s is not good globalism, but the rise of populism and authoritarianism with a strong color of anti-globalism. This is symbolized by the election of Donald Trump as Obama’s successor and the fact Trump retains strong support at home despite his words and actions during his tenure and after his failed re-election had deeply undermined global trust in American politics.

Social media is now widely used by the public as an information tool and plays a role in supplementing the mass media to supply necessary information, as was the case during the Great East Japan Earthquake. At the same time, social media has become a hotbed for deepfakes (such as skillful image forgery) as well as conspiracy theorists with malevolent intentions. It often becomes a place for emotionally charged standoffs using offensive words between those with different views on issues such as the environment and minority rights.

The contrast between light and shadow created by the conveniences and challenges brought on by the advancement of globalization and ICT innovation continues to become sharper. The global COVID-19 pandemic, which began at the end of 2019, has left this impression on many people.

On the one hand, one cannot deny the link between the pandemic and the cross-border movements of people and things as a negative aspect of globalization. On the other hand, the unprecedented speed of information sharing on cases and treatment methods and vaccine development would not have been achievable without globalization and ICT. The pandemic has hit the socio-economically vulnerable the hardest, with some countries seeing inequalities in access to healthcare.

If I were to roughly summarize the picture I have just laid out, it would be the coexistence of cross-border connections created by globalization and the division within each country. The framework of the nation-state has weakened, and conflicts are intensifying within each country between the elite class, who are the major beneficiaries of globalization, and the non-elite class, who are less likely to feel the benefits.

Under this composition, populism is growing with the support of non-elite citizens. Authoritarianism is helped by support from the citizens alongside its iron-fist rule. Liberal democratic systems (hereafter simply referred to as democracies) cannot in principle, except in very exceptional cases, eradicate claims by populists even if they are based on falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and oversimplifications. Although the permanent suspensions of Trump’s accounts by major media companies have had a large impact, for the time being, it is only a partial eradication.

Fact-checking has spread rapidly over the past five years or so, but it only checks the facts of individual remarks and has a strong character of symptomatic treatment. Ultimately, we have no choice but to counter falsehoods and oversimplifications by refuting them with principles and cause-and-effect logic.

The question, then, is who should take on that role. This is where expert knowledge (expertise) comes in.

In this article, we will mainly focus on contemporary Japan to first describe what factors characterize the political process under democracy, and then examine the basic characteristics of contemporary expertise. Then we will consider how we can utilize expertise in the political process.

How the Political Process Positions Expertise

The political process in a democracy can be roughly divided into the stage in which voters cast their votes to select politicians (the election process), and the stage in which the elected politicians decide policies together with bureaucrats (the policy process).

There are no restrictions on what voters (the masses) use as criteria in the election process. A major characteristic of democracy is that there are basically no restrictions on what grounds and factors the ruling elites made up of politicians and bureaucrats base their decisions in the policy process. The ruling elite and the masses must follow the rules of the procedure.

It was only natural that the fitness of Trump as a legitimate democratic leader was called into question after he persistently argued that the election results were fraudulent and, as a result, instigated a mob storming into Congress. Yet aside from following procedural rules, the freedom to think and act freely is what makes a democracy a democracy. The ruling elites are responsible for the content validity and results of the policy decisions they make, and the masses can evaluate and sanction the elites, but there are no restrictions on the criteria of the masses.

Herein lies the weakness of democracy—its vulnerability to falsehoods and oversimplified views. Historically, these weaknesses have made democracies susceptible to mistakes and majority tyranny making some see the system as unreliable.

Since ancient times, there were views that the ruling elite should be composed of those with knowledge, and some even expected this of the masses as well. However, neither the ruling elite nor the masses have had successful examples of achieving this, which has led to persistent skepticism of democracy to this day. Contemporary criticism of populism and some high praise for authoritarianism as a type of elitism are nothing new (Uno, S. Minshushugi to wa nanika [What is a democracy?]).

However, today’s discourse in political science is more than about overcoming democratic challenges by improving the quality of individuals involved in the political process. There is a growing trend in the field to focus on finding ways to incentivize the ruling elites and the masses to make appropriate choices, with emphasis on the fact that they make decisions within the scope of various constraints (Sunahara, Y. Minshu shugi no jōken [Conditions for a democracy], Machidori, S. Daigi-sei minshu shugi [Representative democracy]).

From a broader perspective, environmental factors such as international politics and domestic socioeconomics, and institutional factors such as the electoral systems and central-regional relations, often receive a lot of attention. In the following, we will look at contemporary Japanese politics as an example to consider what kind of impact these factors have had in concrete terms.

First is the environmental factor. For post-World War II Japan, joining the capitalist camp as a democratic state allied with the U.S. was consistently the most important precondition for policymaking. Socio-economic challenges change in nature depending on the period, but voters and the mass media hold a strong perception that whatever the challenges may be, the government should be proactive in addressing them without hesitating to introduce large-scale fiscal stimulus and regulations.

It appears the COVID-19 pandemic, added to the structural problems of declining birthrate, depopulation, and weaker international competitiveness has strengthened such views.

Next, we will look at institutional factors. Theoretically, there is an electoral system that sets the rules for the electoral process, an executive system that sets the rules for the policy process (the separation of powers within the central government), and a central-local relations system (the separation of powers between the central and local governments) that have a large influence on the behavior of the masses and the ruling elites.    

The 1994 electoral reform changed the election system of the House of Representatives from a single non-transferable vote (SNTV) system of multi-member districts (MMD) to a parallel system of the single-member constituency and proportional representation. This had a big influence on the actions of both the voters and increased the competition among parties as well as centralized decision-making within parties.

Furthermore, the enhancement of cabinet functions through administrative reforms since the latter half of the 1990s has augmented the leadership of the Prime Minister’s Office. The increased autonomy of prefectures and municipalities brought on by the decentralization reform implemented around the same time exposed the gap in interests and intentions of the central government and the local governments (Machidori, S. Seiji kaikaku saikō [Political reform reconsidered]).

External factors and their changes also influence how expertise is treated in contemporary Japanese political processes. Considering the environmental factors, views that do not commit to the Japan-U.S. alliance or capitalism are not considered important, and the position calling for the reduction of the role of the government can only be popular for a short period. 

In addition, given the current institutional factors, there is a limit to the amount of information that the Prime Minister’s Office can process as it is made up of a small group of people. The answer to who can directly input knowledge and expertise into these people holds great significance. On the other hand, the expansion of the scope for local governments to make decisions independently from the central government makes it possible for some to adopt expertise that is not shared by others. This is one of the reasons why there were often discrepancies between the perceptions and responses of the central and local governments during the COVID-19 pandemic (Takenaka H. Korona kiki no seiji, [Politics of the Covid Crisis]).

What I have argued so far also applies to democratic countries other than Japan. In other words, all political processes have biases caused by external factors, and even within the same field of expertise, there are views that are easy to accept and those that are not. Those who appreciate expertise tend to believe that it should affect the political process. However, combined with the freedom of decision-making in a democratic system, we cannot assume that good expertise will be heard. In order to be heard, the expertise needs to be presented in a way that takes into account the biases in the political process.

What is Expertise?

What does it take for one to be recognized as an expert in a certain matter or to be possessing specialized knowledge? Today, for example, there are surprisingly many people who possess an unbelievable wealth of knowledge and deep analyses of not just established hobbies such as railways and movies, but a wide variety of subjects from celebrities to professional sports uniforms. One of the benefits brought about by the advent of the Internet is that such people can now easily transmit and disseminate information, and their existence has become widely known.

In Japan, these serious hobbyists are sometimes described not merely as fans and enthusiasts, but as hakase (“doctor”). Although the use of the word isn’t as popular as it used to be, terms such as “railway hakase (Dr. Railway)” and “home appliance hakase (Dr. Home Appliance)” have been used figuratively to describe people with extensive knowledge of a subject. The word hakase sounds more serious than “fans,” and not as figurative as “mania” and “otaku.” There is also the term “tsū (connoisseur)” but hakase sounds rather systematic or analytical. Perhaps hakase has a more respectful connotation.

The figurative use of the word hakase in Japan suggests that in the present day, the doctoral degree is the symbol of professional knowledge. Although there are some differences depending on the country and era, a doctorate is the highest and final degree in the educational system and is awarded by writing a dissertation that proves one’s research ability based on graduate school-level education. A doctoral degree is a certification of mastering existing knowledge and being able to further accumulate new knowledge that is meaningful to those who specialize in the same field.

Since the Middle Ages in Europe, universities have had the right to award doctorate degrees, and a doctorate has been the most important means by which universities differentiate themselves from other educational and research institutions.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Germany, the concept of a modern university was set out under the so-called Humboldt’s Ideal, which aimed to integrate education and research and various statuses in the country.

Doctoral degrees were expected to be the result of comprehensive scholarship based on philosophy. However, with the progress of the Industrial Revolution, there was a heightened need for advanced knowledge, particularly in applied natural sciences, and such a doctoral degree was not fully realized in Germany or elsewhere. In 20th century America, when a doctoral degree was linked to graduate school education, it found its present position—a verification of being an expert in a specific field of studies such as engineering and economics (Ushiogi, M. Funboruto rinen no shūen [The end of the Humboldt Ideal]).

In the same way that people do not expect a figurative hakase to have knowledge or analytical ability outside of their specialties, Ph.D. holders are not expected to have knowledge and skills outside of their field of expertise. They are not required to have a broad education, or to spread expertise outside of their field. Japan’s doctoral degrees, which began with the establishment of the imperial universities in the Meiji era, also gradually became more connected to graduate school education and became more segmentalized. In the fields of humanities and social sciences, dissertation doctorates, which were not directly linked to graduate schools, were more common in the past. The fact that from the 1990s onwards, course doctorates became mainstream even in these fields may have been the culmination of this trend (Ikuo, A. Daigaku no tanjō, [Birth of universities (Vol. I and II)], Teikoku Daigaku [Imperial universities], Oki, S. Bunkei to rikei wa naze wakareta no ka [Why did the humanities and sciences separate?]).

Today, expertise is first valued and accepted among peers. Its scope becomes narrower as research themes become more specialized, and only a small number of people can evaluate whether it is new and meaningful knowledge. For example, even though scholars in politics are all classified as “political scientists,” there are experts in, for example, the history of European political thought and contemporary Japanese politics. Among the scholars in contemporary Japanese politics, there are experts in electoral studies and those in public administration. The same is true for the history of European political thought. And it is not easy to assess the quality of research on all these varying themes. This indicates the establishment of autonomy, or discipline of academic research methods and evaluation standards. This is essential since expertise exists only based on disciplines.

In addition, the more established the discipline, the more likely it is that the tangible results of expertise will be directed to a limited number of peers. In other words, instead of publishing books in their native language, scholars will publish papers to promptly convey the essence of their results in English—the international academic language. This reinforces the idea that only the findings published by experts for experts are considered expertise.

Furthermore, in some areas of natural and social sciences, the production of research results is closely linked to the country’s leadership in technological innovation and the securing of intellectual property. Added to this, the soaring costs to maintain a research environment—including human resources and equipment—are turning research into something close to national projects. Researchers have awareness of accountability to the government—their direct patron but put less importance on relationships with citizens outside of their expertise.

Should Expertise Always Be Trusted?


In recent years, evidence-based policymaking (EBPM) has become a commonly used term. It is an idea that policy should be based on systematically collected data and methodologically well-designed survey results, rather than relying on experiences and intuitions of the ruling elite and a small number of cases that may or may not be an accurate representation.

A quick search on the internet will show that EBPM has become a term frequently used by Japanese ministries and government agencies. As of mid-January 2021, when this article was written, information related to EBPM could be found on the websites of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Local governments are also following the trend. In a report published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications on March 27, 2020, it has been reported that 20 municipalities including Amagasaki City, Hyogo Prefecture, and Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, are carrying out reform through EBPM. This idea is clearly prevalent in Japan today.

At the same time, some people point out that the concept of EBPM is extremely weak in Japan’s political process. In the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nationwide closure of schools and the distribution of cloth masks were made as political decisions, but these decisions were criticized as being the exact opposite of EBPM (Asia Pacific Initiative [API], The Independent Investigation Commission on the Japanese Government’s Response to COVID-19, Takenaka H. Korona kiki no seiji, [Politics of the Covid Crisis]). It could mean that heightened interest in EBPM has made it easier to notice more flaws in policies.

To implement EBPM, a government will need a considerable number of people with deep academic knowledge in social science methodologies related to causal inference in statistics and mathematics, and econometrics. But there is a clear supply shortage, especially among the ruling elite, politicians, and bureaucrats. EBPM requires a fusion of knowledge in humanities and sciences. Since there is a strong tendency for Japan’s education system to separate humanities and science majors before university, there is a supply shortage of suitable experts.

At the same time, economist Tadashi Sakai points out that there are flaws in the evidence itself in EBPM (Sakai, T. Nihon no sefuti-netto kakusa [Japan’s Safety Net Inequality]). According to Sakai, the problem is not necessarily that EBPM is practiced in Japan. Rather, it is that the evidence itself does not present unambiguous choices and that bias is likely to occur when the evidence is published as research results.

The former is relatively easy to understand, such as when there are conflicts between policy objectives and goals. For example, when considering economic policy, the means will differ depending on whether the aim is to eliminate disparities or to promote macroeconomic growth by giving preferential treatment to exceptionally talented human resources. The evaluation of evidence will also differ in such cases.

The latter, research-generated bias, is less intuitive. The premise of EBPM is that researchers and institutions presenting the evidence are unbiased and serve only academic truth. However, this is close to fiction. In fact, researchers and research institutes are also exposed to fierce competition, and if evaluations are determined through such competition, there is an incentive to publish results as quickly as possible and to make them appear to be of value. As a result, various analysis targets and methods are tested, and only those that produce results that are likely to be evaluated as research are cherry-picked. This leads to problems of bias and other issues.

Some of these problems can be resolved to some extent by, for example, collating with other research results and reanalysis. In recent years, methods such as highly reproducible experiments have also made remarkable advances (Ito, K. Deta bunseki no chikara [Power of data analyses]). The notion that social sciences cannot be experimented with and must rely on noisy empirical data is becoming a thing of the past. Yet it is still not enough to eliminate the distortions in evidence.

In particular, the issue of publication bias is difficult to remedy because it is a side effect of the aforementioned autonomy of academic research brought about by the establishment of discipline. If an ambitious researcher hungry for fame were to hastily present conspicuous evidence and policymakers jump at it, even if EBPM is implemented in form, the content would have been distorted.

The idea that EBPM should be implemented more aggressively is by no means inappropriate. However, it is also clear that EBPM, as envisioned by those promoting it, cannot be created simply by involving policy experts.

So What Should Be Done?

From what we have discussed so far, one can see that creating a place for expertise in a modern democracy is a difficult task (Tom Nicholls, The Death of Expertise).

In the first place, democracy does not require the masses to make decisions based on expertise. For the ruling elites, expertise is something that is good to have but not required. They do not necessarily face consequences from the masses for not referring to expertise.

Moreover, the political process is biased by environmental and institutional factors, and the evidence presented by experts based on their expertise is also biased. The bias in expertise is at least partially a consequence of the establishment of disciplines, which is what makes expertise, expertise. Even with unbiased or little-biased results, modern expertise is primarily produced for experts in the respective field and is often difficult to understand and use, even for the ruling elite. People often lament the lack of policy decisions that make use of expert knowledge, such as EBPM. However, policy decisions based largely on expert knowledge are rather exceptional, and it may be more appropriate to search for the reasons when they occur.

This does not mean, however, that democracy and expertise should be left unrelated.

The social division widely seen in advanced countries in recent years under globalization is becoming too serious for anyone to sit on the sidelines using the justification that in democracy, the masses and the ruling elites have the freedom to base their judgments on any factors. The U.S. recently experienced troubles arising from various falsehoods and conspiracy theories from the 2020 presidential election to the change of government, as well as the world’s largest cases of COVID-19. These experiences have demonstrated what happens when specialized knowledge deviates from the masses in a democratic country with the world’s highest academic levels of natural and social sciences. Even if it is true that the temporary factor of the Trump administration has had an effect, we must not give up on trying to establish a place for expertise in the political process in a democracy.

There is no silver bullet. We will need to continue to make efforts to reduce factors that create the distance between democracy and expertise, even though this will be a slow and steady effort and their effects will be hard to see.

Regarding the political process, we must first accept that the rise and negative effects of populism are more serious than initially expected. It is undeniable that populism is associated with inflated views of direct democracy and the will of the masses (public opinion). We must reaffirm that representative (indirect) democracy is not a substitute for direct democracy and has its history and significance.

Moreover, it is necessary to increase the autonomy of the ruling elite from public opinion to maximize the benefits of indirect democracy and to increase the degree of institutional involvement of experts in policy making. The key is how to secure an appropriate distance between the ruling elites and the masses so that the ruling elites neither subordinate themselves to nor ignore the intentions of the masses.

In the case of modern Japan, the policy process led by the Prime Minister’s Office acts as a deterrent to populism because decisions are made by a small number of people, but it also largely relies on the abilities and thinking of those involved in the decision-making. What is important here is to improve the professional capacity of the bureaucrats who are part of the ruling elites.

The Prime Minister’s Office tends to emphasize the fact that bureaucrats are subordinates to the administration, but it is possible for this to be true and for them to have a long-term perspective and expertise. It will be necessary to reconsider the possibility of designing the system to increase the professional capacity of the bureaucrats as well as consider who should advise the administration—perhaps advisory bodies such as councils. Of course, in doing so, it is necessary to avoid falling into the dominance of technocrats and expertise, and it is essential to clarify the superiority and responsibility of elected politicians and the thorough preservation of records (Makihara, I. Kuzureru seiji wo tatenaosu [Rebuilding a collapsing politics]).

Two suggestions can be made on the side of producing expertise. One is to reconsider whether competition and evaluation within disciplines should be the only absolute criteria for academic research. The other is to seek ways to open expertise to those outside of the discipline.

Only autonomous learning produces specialized knowledge, and discipline must always be given the highest priority. We cannot ignore the concerns that opinions disguised as academic achievements are helping populists claim they are armed with knowledge.

However, if pure intellectual curiosity, which should be the source of expert knowledge, is being overwhelmed by sharpening methodologies and publication bias, it is necessary and possible to correct this point. Whether we can balance autonomy and academic pluralism may be decisive for the future of expertise. At the same time, how do we reconcile the aspect of modern academic research, in which experts who share a common discipline deepen their research regardless of national borders and nationalities, and the aspect that this can become a source of division under globalization?

In the case of Japan, we must consider selection and concentration as a basic policy for science and technology policies, not only from the perspective of short-term profits and losses and fiscal effects but also from a long-term positioning of expertise in our society. Academic research that yields expertise is often considered by society as redundancy or waste. However, in the face of large-scale natural disasters, pandemics, major changes in the international political and economic order, etc., research and its results can enhance the ability of society to respond. It is the usefulness of the useless. But there is no guarantee that all the redundancy will be useful. That is why, as a society, we must stipulate in policies what is redundancy and how much is acceptable, and the masses (the voters) must evaluate it.

This work is connected to the question of how a nation should treat academic research, which has been around since the time the Humboldt Ideal was proposed. It is also linked to the judgment of how much we should value and utilize research results written in Japanese. In the case of natural sciences such as medicine, even if research results are written in Japanese, it may still be difficult for non-experts to understand. However, the extent of how much expertise in social science and humanities can contribute to society may come down to how we treat research written in Japanese. Some may simply suggest creating a role to introduce and explain advanced research in the areas of humanities and social sciences, as they do with natural sciences. But would this suffice?

If a researcher were to face a choice between valuing discipline or nation-state in their research, they should always prioritize the former. The value of showing discipline-based work in the international academic language—which is English in the modern world—is self-evident. The view that there is a lack of English papers and writings by Japanese researchers in the fields of humanities and social science is valid, although not to the extent widely believed.

But that does not mean that English works alone are of value. Rapid innovations such as automatic translation technology have come to the point where they could even influence the trend of international academic languages in the near future. Considering the significance of expertise in our society, it is perhaps necessary and appropriate to pay attention to the depth of research done in Japanese.

This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in vol. 94 (May 2021) of Asteion magazine.

Satoshi Machidori is a professor at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Law specializing in comparative political studies and American politics. He received his Ph.D. from Kyoto University. He previously served as an assistant professor at Osaka University’s School of Law and Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Law. He is the author of Zaisei saiken to minshushugi: amerika renpo-gikai no yosan hensei kaikaku bunseki (Fiscal Reform under Democracy: Budgetary Politics in Congress, published from Yuhikaku Publishing, awarded the Shimizu Hiroshi Prize of the Japanese Association for American Studies), Shusou seiji no seido bunseki: gendai nihon seiji no kenryoku kiban keisei (The Japanese Premiership: an Institutional Analysis of the Power Relations, from Chikura Publishing, awarded Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities), Seiji kaikaku saikō: henbō o togeta kokka no kiseki (Political Reform Reconsidered: the Trajectory of a Transformed Japanese State, from Shinchosha Publishing), among many others.


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