Categories
Kushay's Matter Bank Science and Technology

[AK] The Death of Expertise

This note will discuss how expert’s opinion are becoming to have less and less value inside society and the harm brought because of it.

Supposedly, expert’s opinions about his field of expertise holds more weight than that of most other people. Right now, not that much. Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from some people who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.

But democracy denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. It means that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s.”

We are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. What has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. While it’s true that experts can make mistakes, most of the time experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.

It’s also dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality.

The perverse effect of the death of expertise is that without real experts, everyone is an expert on everything. To take but one horrifying example, we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zero thing about medicine.

In politics, too, the problem exists. People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.

Critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House.

None of this ignorance stops people from arguing as though they are research scientists. Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever-increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case, even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented. The use of evidence is a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn, which is why articles and books are subjected to “peer review” and not to “everyone review,”.

This subverts any real hope of a conversation, because it is simply exhausting to have to start from the very beginning of every argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument. Most people are already huffy and offended before ever encountering the substance of the issue at hand.

Once upon a time — way back in the Dark Ages before the 2000s — people seemed to understand, in a general way, the difference between experts and laymen. There was a clear demarcation in political food fights, as objections and dissent among experts came from their peers — that is, from people equipped with similar knowledge. The public, largely, were spectators.

This was both good and bad. While it strained out the kook factor in discussions (editors controlled their letters pages, which today would be called “moderating”), it also meant that sometimes public policy debate was too esoteric, conducted less for public enlightenment and more as just so much dueling jargon between experts. If experts go back to only talking to each other, that’s bad for democracy.

No one wants to return to those days. The democratization of knowledge and the wider circle of public participation is good. That greater participation, however, is endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight, because experts, sooner or later, are forced to tune out people who insist that they’re all starting from intellectual scratch. And if that happens, experts will go back to only talking to each other. And that’s bad for democracy.

How did this peevishness about expertise come about, and how can it have gotten so immensely foolish?

1. Some of it is purely due to the globalization of communication. There are no longer any gatekeepers: the journals and op-ed pages that were once strictly edited have been drowned under the weight of self-publishable blogs. There was once a time when participation in public debate, even in the pages of the local newspaper, required submission of a letter or an article, and that submission had to be written intelligently, pass editorial review, and stand with the author’s name attached. Even then, it was a big deal to get a letter in a major newspaper.

Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.

2. Another reason for the collapse of expertise lies not with the global commons but with the increasingly partisan nature of U.S. political campaigns. There was once a time when presidents would win elections and then scour universities and think-tanks for a brain trust; that’s how Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski and others ended up in government service while moving between places like Harvard and Columbia.

Those days are gone. To be sure, some of the blame rests with the increasing irrelevance of overly narrow research in the social sciences. But it is also because the primary requisite of seniority in the policy world is too often an answer to the question: “What did you do during the campaign?” This is the code of the samurai, not the intellectual, and it privileges the campaign loyalist over the expert.

3. There’s also that immutable problem known as “human nature.” It has a name now: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb. And when you get invested in being aggressively dumb…well, the last thing you want to encounter are experts who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of yourself. (There’s a lot of that loose on social media, especially.)

All of these are symptoms of the same disease: a manic reinterpretation of “democracy” in which everyone must have their say, and no one must be “disrespected.” (The verb to disrespect is one of the most obnoxious and insidious innovations in our language in years, because it really means “to fail to pay me the impossibly high requirement of respect I demand.”) This yearning for respect and equality, even—perhaps especially—if unearned, is so intense that it brooks no disagreement. It represents the full flowering of a therapeutic culture where self-esteem, not achievement, is the ultimate human value, and it’s making us all dumber by the day.

Thus, at least some of the people who reject expertise are not really, as they often claim, showing their independence of thought. They are instead rejecting anything that might stir a gnawing insecurity that their own opinion might not be worth all that much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *