Everyone’s an Expert

Our anonymous blogger ponders the irritating rise of the armchair engineer

Recently there were two news items of such magnitude that they generated repeated headlines and the consequences are likely to rumble on for much longer. They occurred within days of each other and the response I witnessed on social media seemed to be very telling.

The first was the disaster at the Shoreham air show. In case the details have escaped anyone, this was the largest British air show disaster since Derry went in at Farnborough during the 1950’s. At the start of the afternoon’s flying on the Saturday a 2 seat Hawker Hunter entered a loop and failed to pull out, crashing onto the A27 – a main arterial route on the South coast. 11 people are confirmed dead with, hopefully, the fears for this number growing proving unfounded.

The second was China’s stock market crash. The markets operate on an international level so the ramifications are twofold. Foreign investors in China will have had their shares dramatically fall in value and other stock market centres have had their local stocks influenced with these too being devalued. Theoretical money it may have been but still billions were lost.

So how were these addressed by the public on social media? I can only rely on my “friends” online but there are a large number of them with a wide range of backgrounds and general outlook.

Therefore although I make no claims to this being a scientific survey I am confident it can be seen as representative.  Broadly speaking the Shoreham crash generated a high level of response. This varied from those in the aerospace community cautioning against the more lurid coverage in the press and speculation regarding the cause, to people generally ignorant of aircraft operations offering views in a tone of absolute certainty. I have lost count of the number of times I saw comments about banning aerobatics over residential areas (of course this is already illegal and air shows certainly aren’t held over built up areas.)

People who I wouldn’t trust to put oil in their car were suddenly experts gleefully calling for sweeping changes and declaring how it is obviously dangerous to do anything with an old jet except park it permanently in the hanger. By contrast I have seen absolutely no comment regarding the stock market crash, the closest being one person posting a newspaper article about the Chinese government accusing a journalist of causing it.

There is the fact that fireballs and fatalities have their own sensationalist draw but on the one hand we have an accident that thankfully directly affects a very few people, and on the other an event that (through pensions and the like) affects most people.

In addition there is a social emphasis on us to take personal control of our finances and to invest for the future, there is no similar drive for the general public to have a knowledge of engineering.

Why then should our field of expertise be the one seen as appropriate for ill conceived judgement?