Winston Churchill? Harold Laski? George William Russell? Gertrude Mathews Shelby? Felix Frankfurter? Salvador de Madariaga? Robert Cecil? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: When a government or organization faces a difficult decision, its leaders must consult with expert thinkers and scientists; however, the resultant actions should not be dictated solely by the experts. Capable leaders are generalists with high-level comprehensive viewpoints; whereas, experts typically have insightful but overly narrow perspectives. Here are three ways to express this notion:
- Experts must be on tap, and not on top.
- Specialists should be on tap, never on top.
- Scientists should be on tap, but not on top.
This adage has been attributed to statesman Winston Churchill, influential economist Harold Laski, and Irish writer George William Russell. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI occurred in a Dublin, Ireland periodical called the “The Irish Homestead” in 1910. George William Russell was the editor, and he wrote a piece about legislation that included the following. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1
Our theory, which we have often put forward, is that experts ought to be on tap and not on top. We have had during our career a long and intimate knowledge of experts, most interesting men in their own speciality to which they have devoted themselves with great industry and zeal. But outside this special knowledge they are generally as foolish and ignorant as any person one could pick up in the street, with no broad knowledge of society or the general principles of legislation.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.