The Arrogance of Expertise

I spent the early part of today slamming doors and shouting in the plastic surgery department of Prague’s Vinohrady Hospital. My (excellent) dermatologist had assured me that it’s a world-class unit, so when I went there two weeks ago to have a lump removed from my upper lip I was confident I would receive good treatment.

The fact that the surgeon looked about fifteen years old didn’t initially worry me or ring alarm bells. Surgery is a manual thing, so you might think that children learn it more rapidly, just as they’re better at video games. But when the wound bled and the stitches fell out and she had to repeat the whole procedure a week later I began to have some doubts. I voiced them. ‘I am not impressed,’ I said. I don’t think anyone had ever said anything like that to any of the surgeons at this particular unit before. But I don’t think you need to be an expert to know whether you’ve been treated, and well-informed.

With surprisingly good grace this young surgeon continued to treat me. But the stitches fell out again a few days later, the wound opened, and when I returned today, two weeks after the first operation, I was told by the head of department I complained to that my surgeon was only a trainee. Why they assign a trainee plastic surgeon to operate on a part of the body that moves continuously  (I talk, smile and eat far too much) I don’t understand.

Hence the shouting and the slamming of doors. I am left with a pit in my upper lip.


I am an expert myself, I believe, and I’ve learned that listening is an essential first step in the process of business systems consulting. Not so, it seems, with Czech plastic surgeons. If they had the option they’d probably remove our mouths so that our capacity to ask questions or to complain could also be removed. They behave as if they know our bodies better than we do, and as if our own recall of what they’ve told us is entirely negligible.

We are too much in awe of experts, whether they are doctors, lawyers, surgeons, weather forecasters or fashion commentators. True, they know things that we don’t, just as we know things that they don’t. But I know that my grasp of logic is as fine as nearly anyone’s, and my powers of recall are still entirely reliable, so the fact that I’m under the knife rather than wielding it doesn’t empower the experts I’m dependent on to claim complete infallibility and invulnerability. We should never abandon our own judgement and simply submit ourselves to an expert’s opinion or skill.

I am inclined to sue. Tomorrow I am getting a second opinion (from another expert) and I shall be interested to see if he will allow be to describe what’s happened. The lump turns out to be entirely benign (assuming I can trust the expertise of those who analysed its tissues) but whilst that is an immense relief, disfigurement seems a high price to pay.

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