The sad, glorious life of Maltese experts

Nothing whips up public debate in Malta like a good old 'project'. The three great blockbusters of the Gonzi government have been, in chronological order, the 'hole' in St John's square, Renzo Piano, and now the power station and its various theatrical satellites.

Yes, there were the bills and such, but those were, I think, more of a one-sided partisan (which is not to say irrelevant) topic. What really gets us talking, across the board, is brick and mortar.

Which is all rather grandiose and old-fashioned. Perhaps more than anything, it brings to mind images of knights building triumphal arches in villages they called 'cities', or of a certain Italian dictator swinging his piccone (pickaxe) at some foundation stone. But that's not my point.

Rather, I'm interested in the 'cast' (to abuse the theatre metaphor) of contemporary public debate in Malta. Schematically speaking, it includes three types: first, politicians; second, experts in the field of holes-in-the-ground, roofless architecture, power stations, or whatever it is that's being discussed; and third, what we might call 'popular' politics, NGOs, bloggers, and so on.

I refer to types, not necessarily to particular individuals - ours being such a small patch, it's inevitable that people will regularly and quite happily commute across roles.

Given that the first and the third have such well-trodden and obvious roles, let me limit myself to talking about the second type. Any public debate worth its salt will involve a number of esperti or tekniċi. Examples being geologist Peter Gatt in the case of the unholy hole, Joseph Calleja on the opera house, and Prof. Edward Mallia with the power station. Hand on heart, I mention these names without the slightest hint of malice.

This type bring to the fray a very particular ingredient, which we might call 'expert/technical commentaries'. They will tell us about the friable nature of Valletta's bedrock, the spatial requirements of grand opera, or the combustive by-products of heavy fuel oil. And we - which is to say the first and second types - will use these commentaries to whichever end we have in mind, without the slightest hint of critical appraisal.

Some will say that's as things should be. Expert commentaries are, after all, expert, and ours is not. I disagree. As I see it, one of the big problems with public debate in Malta is precisely this, that experts are cited and only very rarely, if ever, contested. It may seem like a respectful attitude but is in fact, highly dismissive of the very people it pretends to respect.

It's wrong to take expert commentaries at face value as if they were cast in stone. It's wrong not to take experts to task. When that happens, this type becomes pretty much a parody, disengaged from the issues being discussed.

The worst insult one can level at a scholar or a technician is to call them dogmatic. Science is about contestation and there is little room for dogma at, say, academic conferences.

There's more. When politicians, bloggers, and so forth detach themselves from expert commentaries, public debate tends to degenerate into pathetic and partisan mudslinging - for the simple reason that there's little tangible left to contest. So, instead of discussing Prof. Mallia's views on pollution and comparing them with different expert versions, we end up squabbling over whether or not Mario Galea was sober.

I'm intrigued by our reluctance to engage expert commentaries for what they are, to the extent that I might hazard some explanations. These are probably many and complex, but three in particular strike me as telling.

First, the 'shallow' nature of expertise in Malta - historically shallow I mean, not in terms of substance. It's only been a few years since we've seen the growth of a generation of home-grown experts (people with PhDs and such) in various technical fields. Until recently, our bright lights were either lawyers or, less commonly, doctors. (Those who disagree might want to check out the Caruana Dingli exhibition at the Palace.)

The result is that we haven't yet developed a mature understanding of qualifications and expertise. We either ignore them completely or hold them in awe, in a sort of cult of paper qualifications or national obsession with dottijiet and gowns. (Those who disagree might want to check out the 'Social' pages in this newspaper.)

That's why experts can get away with saying, on national television, things like 'A study in America has proved that the children of divorced parents...' 'Proved', yeah right.

The second reason is also at the Palace exhibition. It's the clergy, stupid. The model of the priest as the ultimate and unquestionable authority in his field is not just alive and well. It has been grafted onto the newly-qualified class. Expert commentators are seen (and often see themselves, alas) as a sort of secular priesthood, free to pass science off as dogma and get away with it.

The third reason is more pragmatic, and has to do with smallness. I've already mentioned that individuals in Malta slip very easily from one role to another. It's also the case that experts tend to move in very tight social circles.

There are about four professional anthropologists in Malta, and I know all of them personally and value their friendship. Would I be ready to take them on, in public, over a technical matter? I hope so, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Territoriality and vulnerability grow well on small island soils. When I said it would be good to bring in competing commentaries, I was assuming they could be bothered in the first place.

The three reasons ought to be taken in conjunction. Which is good, because it means we're not condemned to be paranoid small islanders forever. Qualifications cults and secular priesthoods die hard, but they just might eventually.

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