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The Dharma of the Expert

DIALOGUE is a quarterly journal brought out by the Astha Bharati (, New Delhi. I had written a short article for their latest issue, April - June 2014 that focuses on "Globalization, Modernisation and National Identity". I had met the Editor of Dialogue, Mr. Kumar in Delhi earlier this year and was quite impressed with his dedication in bringing such a serious sounding magazine for decades. This particular issue has several interesting articles including by Ven. Samdhong Rimpoche, Pawan Gupta and others.

Ram, 06/07/2014

The Dharma of the Expert

This article is a translation by the author from an earlier article written for the THAALANMAI tamil magazine,

The advent and domination of modern technology today extends from our daily domestic use all the way to national defense and international communications.

However, whenever there are questions being posed by the modern technology such as the Nuclear Power Plant in Koodankulam or the introduction of Genetically Modified Crops, we find that even the best among us don’t have a framework or approach that is clear and easy to understand. Question such as “what is the limit to the usage of modern technology?”, “how do we measure its benefits as against its harms?” and more importantly, “when to reject modern technology?” are not always eliciting a clear response from intellectuals, leaders and even scientists and technocrats. We find that they are unable balance their professional interest against the common interest for humanity.

If there was a question as to ‘whether the healthy and peaceful life of our people is important or having a advanced technology based Nuclear power plant is important?’, most of us will find it easy to choose the former. Similarly, if the question was ‘do we need a technology such as Genetically Modified crops which cannot guarantee its long term health or environmental impact for short term gains?”, we would obviously choose to reject the technology.

Such simple posing of questions on issues of public welfare seems to elude the ‘experts’ whom the government often listens to in taking important technology issue based decision. “Public Ignorance”, “Un-Scientific Approach”, “Fear Mindset”, “Unnecessary Fear”, etc., are the kind of terms often adopted by those who are aware of the technology, the ‘experts’ to refer to people like us who are unaware of these technologies. Then do we submit the genuine concerns of the 99% of people like us to the ‘expert’ knowledge of the 1% of them? Majority of our people often are happy to adopt such a venture, ‘after all they are so well educated’, ‘they should know better’, ‘isin’t it scientifically valid?’ and several other questions are often posed within our societies and communities to accept the verdict of the 1% or even less of ‘expert’ knowledge against our own common sense.

How do we as a society decide on issues that may have long term disastrous impact? What is our responsibility towards the future generations? Should we be even concerned about the future welfare or are we to be limited in our concern with current challenges? Can we limit our responsibility to our own personal life, aggrandizement of wealth, asset creation and eventual demise as someone who couldn’t think beyond their immediate personal life? Is that all? – these could be some of the thoughts in the minds of those who are seeking and thinking beyond their own personal lives and care for society.

Some of us may be inclined to look at the past, to see how our ancestors made decisions on common welfare of humanity beyond their times. To analyze and understand the different approach they adopted towards such human conflicts, after all we are not the first ones to face such a situation.

In our culture, every vocation has been guided by the ‘dharma’ of that particular vocation in its social engagement. To feed everyone and ensure no one goes without food is the dharma of the farmer, to ensure no one falls sick in society is the dharma of the traditional doctor, to elevate human mind through aesthetics is the dharma of the artist, to not merely produce clothing, but in the process also determine some social customs was the dharma of the weaver, to create wealth for the entire community was the dharma of the trader, to sustain the beauty of the language was the dharma of the poet, to maintain peace, order and sense of security was the dharma of the king and to maintain an higher aspiration and bearing in society was the dharma of the religious leaders. Thus practitioner of every vocation had a dharma or a social contract that guided their engagement with the larger society.  It is an amazing society that could draw a code of conduct and behavior to so many vocations and sustain the society for a long period of time.

What would be the dharma for the ‘experts’ of modern technology today? What are the guidelines by which they determine whether to recommend a nuclear power plant or a genetically modified crop?

“That which is felt as a being truth and for the befit of all by a mind that is uncluttered is called dharma” defines an old scripture. So, “can we see the truth of the claims behind the nuclear technology? Is it really the only solution that can provide the required electricity that is for the beneficial of humanity? Can the technology and its consequent electricity provide human beings true happiness and contentment?” these can be some of the questions on nuclear energy. Similarly, “is the pest management best solved through such an expensive technology? don’t we have cheaper and simpler ways of controlling the same pests? whom does the real benefits of the GM technology serve?” may be some of the question on the genetically modified crops.

When an expert says that the radioactivity is within the permissible limits from a nuclear power plant for human beings, the question arises as to what are the other radio waves that are impacting our lives in the daily basis, what if some of us are less healthy than others and fall ill even for lesser doses of the waves? Similarly, when experts state that the GM crops are ‘substantially equivalent’ to that of naturally grown crops and they are more or less similar, we see that the experts are resorting to a newer language to explain away the inadequacies of the technology which cannot state the truth in simple language because the truth maybe contrary to the sense of security they want to communicate.

We know from history that experts denied that smoking causes cancer for several decades before conceding that it does. What was public knowledge and concern took the experts several decades of studies to arrive at to state a simple truth. The Bhopal emission victims even today have not found justice, but, importantly, the experts who pronounced the factory safe have had it easy while the victims and their families have suffered beyond generation.

In an era where our lives are often dictated and dominated by so many products of technology that we use and we are driven by these expert opinions, it is important that the Dharma of the Expert is defined, articulated and practiced. One does not find any such practice among experts, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason for the ‘experts’ to adhere to any code or dharma today. Unfortunately, our society has elevated such ‘experts’ and ‘scientists / technocrats’ into a demi-god status. It indicates the status of the society today that it can elevate persons with low code of conduct or ethics to a high status in society.

Many of us pride our children being educated in higher levels of technical or scientific education without providing the required ethical code of conduct that could differentiate them from being a better practitioner of a vocation against a harmful practitioner of the vocation. We have to stop the culture that celebrates, “my son/daughter will be a good engineer or doctor” and starts to celebrate “my son / daughter will be good ethical practitioner of his / her vocation”, unless we do such celebration, we can at the best bemoan the lack of ethics and at worse become its victims in coming times.  It is time that we choose either being passive consumers of the ‘expert’ knowledge pervading our lives in a million ways each day or place an active demand of ethical behavior in the experts, we start to understand and demand the dharma of the expert.