The Death of Expertise

The “Look.” We all get it sometimes.

I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but on many things in a particular but wide area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people, particularly laymen.

In fact, I have been paid by many institutions, academic and professional, to speak, based precisely on the assumption that my views on certain matters are worth paying for. And they are, generally.

Now, to most people that seems like a blindingly obvious thing to say. Unfortunately, an increasing number of other folks now reject every assumption in what I just wrote; they would whine that I’m defending the fallacious “appeal to authority,” they might then invoke the dread charge of “elitism,” and finally accuse me (or people like me) of trying to use credentials to stifle democratic dialogue.

But democracy, as I wrote in an essay about C.S. Lewis and the Snowden affair, denotes a system of government, not an actual state of equality. Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It means, instead, that we enjoy equal rights versus the government, and in relation to each other.

It assuredly does not mean that “everyone’s opinion about anything is as good as anyone else’s,” because no one really lives that way. Imagine taking that attitude with your mechanic. (I would say “imagine taking that attitude with your doctor,” except people really do take that attitude with their doctors now.) Imagine you hear a rumble in your car, you go to the garage, and the mechanic says: “I think it’s the transmission.”

You say: “Well, I read a few issues of Popular Mechanics, and I listened to Car Talk, and I think it’s the carburetor.”

“But your car doesn’t have a carburetor,” the mechanic says.

“Says you,” comes the confident answer. At which point the mechanic will (or should) hand your keys back to you and tell you to pound sand.

Discussion over.

More seriously, I wonder if we are witnessing the “death of expertise:” a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between students and teachers, knowers and wonderers, or even between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields.

Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live. A fair number of Americans now seem to reject the notion that one person is more likely to be right about something, due to education, experience, or other attributes of achievement, than any other.

Indeed, to a certain segment of the American public, the idea that one person knows more than another person is an appalling thought, and perhaps even a not-too-subtle attempt to put down one’s fellow citizen. It’s certainly thought to be rude: to judge from social media and op-eds, the claim of expertise — and especially any claim that expertise should guide the outcome of a disagreement — is now considered by many people to be worse than a direct personal insult.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, 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 just plain silly.

Worse, it’s 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. It’s a rejection of science. It’s a rejection, really, of the foundation of Western civilization: yes, that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations.

I’m not limiting this complaint to politics, which I’ll get to in a moment. No, we now live in a world where the perverse effect of the death of expertise is that, without real experts, everyone is an expert on everything. As a result, to take but one incredible example, that means 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 zip about medicine. (Yes, I mean people like Jenny McCarthy.)

In politics, the problem has reached ridiculous proportions. I could give a bushel of examples, but I’ll pick one or two involving things I wrote about.

A while back, John Schindler and I wrote about the collapse of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and specifically about the dangerous degree to which the Obama administration was ceding influence to Russia in the region. We wrote as two experts with differing views on many things but with a shared specialization in the politics and foreign policy of Russia.

Apparently, all that education, travel to the USSR and Russia, years of discussion, exchange, and research, and our long combined service in various government and non-government posts was all a waste of time. John and I were inundated by tweets and emails that crisply, often in fewer than 140 characters, explained to us how we just didn’t understand Russia, how we just didn’t get it about what Vladimir Putin is really all about, and how we had no idea about how foreign policy is really worked out in Washington. We were too blinkered to see how the Obama administration had really played the Russians, and not vice versa. And on and on.

This, I should note, came not from our peers, some of whom engaged us in public, and a few who engaged us electronically and in person. No, these long-awaited clarifications about Russia, finally delivering us from our bleak and ignorant state, came from ordinary folks. The ones who, you know, read websites and stuff.

Who knew? There I was 30 years ago, foolishly sitting in Leningrad during the Cold War, learning Russian, following the Soviet press, traveling to conferences, and writing books and articles, when all I had to do to understand Russia was talk to some guys on the internet. What a waste of money it all seems now. I’ll be dunning Columbia for a refund on my worthless degree in Russian affairs shortly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The reason people like us write at all is to engage the public, and we welcome discussion — within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. We also are seeking to inform the public, to provide points of reference for further thought.

We are not, however, offering to re-litigate every thought we’ve ever had or every word we’ve ever written. People think avoiding conflict in Syria was a good thing? We’re all for that conversation. Listening carefully while laymen tell us that we don’t really understand Russia? Not so much.

Schindler has a particular problem, in that he’s taken a strong stand on the Snowden/Greenwald treason fiasco, a cause near and dear to the hearts of the young. This is a problem because young people are the most ruthlessly opposed to any notion of expertise, largely because they are the segment of the population least likely to have any. These young free-thinkers have made clear to Dr. Schindler that his references to his advanced education and to his many years of experience actually working inside the NSA are just arrogant diversions, because he just doesn’t get it. 

Some of John’s debate partners, of course, are intelligent and well-intentioned people. But some of them are just insecure — and sometimes paranoid — scolds who feel the need to lecture Schindler on how the NSA and the intelligence community really works — that world “really” pops up a lot — and to point him to things he needs to read. (I always love it when people give scholars and experts homework assignments.) If he’d just read that one really cool thing they saw on some website, they’re sure he’d finally really, really get how they figured out stuff in the few years they’ve lived since high school that he missed over the past few decades of actually serving his country.

I won’t take up the lance much more here for John; he’s a big boy and can defend himself. I’d also be the first to admit that John’s style can be abrasive beyond words. (He gets like that in real life, too, but hey, he’s my friend, and I’m the last person who can criticize anyone for being arrogant or overbearing.)

But I will say this: I completely understand how people like Schindler and others finally just lose their temper and tell people to go read a damn book. It is exhausting, electronically or in 3-D, to have to start from the very beginning of every political argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument.

Sorry, everyone, but not every political argument is an excuse for the less informed person to demand a list of commonly available sources, and then insist on an immediate tutorial in the subject.

This ceaseless demand for information is especially frustrating, because people often reject the parts of whatever information an expert might provide if that information conflicts with their previously held beliefs. When they’re told something they don’t like, they reject what they’re hearing by saying “well, that’s not really evidence.”

Well, yes, it is. Moreover, the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” and what doesn’t. That’s a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn. (As I say so often, there’s a reason that articles and books are subjected to “peer review” and not to “everyone review.”)

And trust me, asking me again and again for more and more pieces of information as you try to sift through my mental attic won’t help your case. After a while, the arguments become about epistemology, rather than politics. And that bores everyone involved, especially me.

Sometimes, all we are left with is to ask people to take our word on it, a request we’ve earned through experience, research, publication, service, etc. When people ask me why I think Russia has an aggressive foreign policy because, gosh, they don’t see that at all — well, there just isn’t the time or energy to take the questioner through the years of education and experience that I have and they don’t.

Now, once upon a time — way back in the Dark Ages before the 2000s — people understood this difference between experts and laymen, and there was a clear demarcation in political food fights. Usually, objections and dissent among experts came from 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 later discussions (editors controlled their letters pages, which today would be called “moderating”), it also meant that sometimes public policy was just a jargon duel between pointy-heads.

No one — not me, anyway — wants to return to those days. I like the 21st century, and I like the democratization of knowledge and the wider circle of public participation. That greater participation, however, is endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight. How? Because people like me, sooner or later, will tune out people who insist that we’re all starting from the same point, which is to say from intellectual scratch. And if that happens, the experts will only talk to each other, and the public can go whistle. And that’s bad for democracy.

Yes, I know that sounds horribly elitist. Tough. Get over it. There are lot of things going on in the world that are more important than the egos of some people who think that an internet connection is the equivalent of years of study and experience.

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

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 (like, say, this one). There was once a time when participation in public debate 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 and credentials attached. Even then, it was a big deal to get a letter in a major newspaper.

Now, anyone can crowd the comments section of any major publication with inane blather. We live in a huge high school boys’ room, where anyone with a marker can write anything on the wall. Sometimes, that kind of free-for-all spurs good thinking. Most of the time, it just means people can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.

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. Today, 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. (On Syria, President Obama’s chief of staff managed to get the diplomatic team overridden. Impressive.)  I have a hard time imagining that I would be called to Washington today, for example, in the way I was back in 1990: a Senator from Pennsylvania asked a former U.S. Ambassador to the UN who she might recommend to advise him on foreign affairs, and she gave him my name — despite the fact that I had no connection to Pennsylvania and had never worked on a campaign.

I also would argue that colleges have to own some of this mess. The idea of telling students that professors run the show and know better than they do strikes many students as something like uppity lip from the help, and so many profs don’t do it. Many colleges are boutiques, in which the professors are expected to be something like intellectual valets. This produces nothing but a delusion of intellectual adequacy in children who should be instructed, not catered to.

There’s also something 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 believe is that there are “experts” who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of your own nitwittery. (I think there’s a lot of that loose on social media, for sure.)

Finally, the root of this collapse of standards lies in our manic reinterpretation of “democracy,” in which everyone must have their say, and it must not be, er, 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.”)

Ahrgh…my dissertation is complete…gack, grr

Part of this dismissal of expertise is the positive hostility to advanced degrees, an emotion almost entirely centered among people who do not have them. So, sure, some of it is envy, but some of it is based in ignorance about what a PhD means. Too many people, including the hapless folks who foolishly embarked on grad programs they can never finish, think a PhD is just several more years of college. It’s not.

If done properly, a PhD certifies that you are capable of conducting research to particular standards in your field, that you have contributed new knowledge to your field, and that you have an independent ability to frame questions and conduct serious, long-term analytical projects to answer them. That is a non-trivial set of skills, and to dismiss that level of intellectual training when arguing with a PhD is just plain hubris, and an unwise strategy for debate.

In the end, should experts rule the world? No. Technocrats and college professors make for lousy policy without some sort of political common sense. (Exhibit A: The Affordable Care Act).

Anyway, expertise isn’t going away, but unless we return it to a healthy role in public policy, we’re going to have stupider and less productive arguments every day. So here’s a good set of rules of thumb when arguing with an expert:

1.The expert isn’t always right.

2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are.

3. Your political opinions have value in terms of what you want to see happen, how you view justice and right. Your political analysis as a layman has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.

4. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, the expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. At that point, you’re best served by listening, not carping and arguing.

And how do I know all this? Just who do I think I am?

Well, of course: I’m an expert.



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  1. I don’t care if you post this as a comment or not but one thing you left out is the fault of the media (CNN and its appeal to the masses comes to mind) for pushing general public opinions as experts. Then there’s talk shows which are sold as news to the average viewer instead of opinion. Then there’s the businesses who push their most presentable employee as an expert in the things they do. With all this happening, no wonder people, especially the young people who grew up in this mess, confuse what an expert is. I’ll leave you with this:,682/

  2. While I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with your argument (I’m a little too tired to think that clearly…), I have to at least point out that you didn’t do yourself any favors by throwing in a comment about the ACA near the end.

    You may not remember me, but I’ve enjoyed many of your presentations at Belfer. Also a big fan of your writing on this blog – especially the 80’s pop culture references. However, I also know that while an expert on things related to arms control, nuclear weapons, and Russia I can’t think of anything in your history or education that provides expertise in health care.

    In fact, while I’m not taking a stand on the ACA either way, I’d probably could make an argument that I’ve had greater exposure to the relevant fields and experts.

    So is everyone even tangentially involved in public policy at some level allowed to professionally opine on the merits or pitfalls in the health care law, regardless of professional or educational background? Or is that diluting the notion of expertise?

    Just askin’…

    • Bogis, of course I remember you! I also made comments about thalidomide and the Challenger, too. I think the ACA is a classic case of experts getting disconnected from politics, but sure, it’s not my bailiwick. It’s just that I’ve beaten Syria and other cases to death. And yeah, I think the ACA is moving from “program” to “metaphor” rapidly. I suppose I could argue that having worked in the Senate and in state government, and now teaching policy analysis, I at least know a poorly designed policy when I see one. But I’m not a doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV.

  3. I’ll start by saying there’s a great deal in this essay I agree with. But since I’m the one who has repeatedly pointed out how you (and to a far greater extent Dr. Schindler) have engaged in the “appeal to authority” fallacy, I’ll take this as at least partly aimed at me and present my contrary perspective:

    The issue isn’t that I reject the concept of expertise. Far from it – I wouldn’t bother reading you and trying to understand and evaluate the strength of your arguments if I didn’t think I’d benefit from your expertise. My problem is that you (and again to a far greater extent Dr. Schindler) take this reasoning in practice to an unreasonable and dangerous extreme: that your status as expert and your interlocutor’s lack of that status entitles you to dismiss their challenges out of hand and reject their arguments based solely on that lack of expert status.

    You invoke the example of a car mechanic. My answer is that if you go through your life unquestioningly accepting every assertion made by a mechanic regarding what needs to be repaired in your car then you are a fool soon separated from your money. I recall at least a half-dozen times that I’ve saved myself hundreds or thousands of dollars because when I was told what’s wrong with my car I said “show me how you know that” and they weren’t able to do so to the satisfaction of my (admittedly amateur) understanding how how a car works.

    Being an expert does not make anyone immune from error, sloppy thinking, bias or indeed rank dishonesty. And lacking expertise does not make one a blithering fool incapable of understanding the well-formed reasoning of an expert. To take the position that Dr. Schindler regularly does is to elevate the valuable status of experts to the dangerous status of a priesthood.

    I get that this is all terribly tedious. I’ve spent literally thousands of hours over the past several decades pointing self-proclaimed “global warming skeptics” to the scientific evidence that contradicts their factual claims, or trying to get them to work through some piece of research or some event they’ve seized on as evidence that it’s all a hoax and get them to see why it doesn’t mean quite what they think it does and that while there are indeed open scientific questions they aren’t the questions they choose to focus on – all to frustratingly little visible effect. But I keep doing it because I think the issue is that important and even if I’m not persuading the person I’m directly addressing I might help others who are passively reading to understand the topic better.

    I think the recent exchange between Conor Friedersdorf and Dr. Schindler is sufficiently illustrative of the problem to be worth describing in depth:

    The exchange began with Mr. Friedersdorf opining that the obstacle to context in national security reporting is overclassification, not unwillingness to investigate. Dr. Schindler responded that this is BS because there are thousands of TS/SCI+ docs out there.

    This would have been a worthwhile argument to pursue, I think (for the record I don’t fully agree with either of them but I’m always open to persuasion) but Dr. Schindler then immediately derailed that discussion with an ad hominem attack: that Mr. Friedersdorf “treated Bamford’s book on #NSA fm ’82 as ‘news'” and he is therefore even “less informed re SIGINT than @ggreenwald, which says much.”

    First of all, this charge is simply false. Here is the post in question: – in the very first sentence it mentions that the book is from 1982. It goes on to say this is “an opportune moment to revisit it.” There’s no way even by the most tortured interpretation to read that as treating the book as “news.” Second, this is totally irrelevant to the issue Mr. Friedersdorf raised. It’s simply an attempt to dismiss the issue by virtue of dismissing anything he says as unworthy of consideration because of this nonexistent error.

    Friedersdorf asked what, if anything, was wrong in the chapter of “The Puzzle Palace” which he posted about. Amid calling Friedersdorf a “slimeball” and an “idiot” and trotting out his favorite “where was your PhD from again?” line, Dr. Schindler instead offered an allegation about a chapter in a different book – “Body of Secrets” – specifically that Bamford’s “sensational story re USS LIBERTY/EC-121 intercept is a total fabrication.”

    Asked to support this serious allegation, Dr. Schindler first resorted to the “I’m not your research assistant” dodge but then relented and offered this link: and claimed it supports his charge. The trouble is if you take the time (as I did the other night) to read the Nowicki documents at that link and compare them to the relevant passages in “Body of Secrets” you will find that those passages were lifted almost verbatim from Nowicki’s “Enclosure 1.”* The two of them do not appear to disagree on any point of fact – only on the conclusions which can be drawn from those facts.

    Furthermore, while the page at that link (not, apparently, written by Dr. Nowicki) states that “Bamford claims the Nowicki letter told him that the tapes establish that the Israelis knew they were attacking a US ship.” Bamford in fact does no such thing – at least not in “Body of Secrets.” The only mention he makes of Nowicki’s opinion of what the facts mean is “At the time, based on the fractured conversations he heard on the intercepts, Nowiki just assumed that the attack was a mistake.” One can fairly criticize Bamford for omitting the fact that Nowicki continued at least through 2001 to believe the attack was a mistake (basing that opinion on more than simply what he heard that day) but that’s a far cry from the whole account being a “fabrication.”

    Also notably, in his letter to the editor of the Washington Post, Dr. Nowicki does not say he was misquoted or that Bamford misrepresented any facts. Rather he simply disagrees with the conclusions Bamford draws from those facts.

    Historians (even those with the right kind of PhD) will sometimes get things wrong, and the release two years later of the EC-121 transcript in response to a FOIA request by Jay Cristol supports the case that Bamford did get it wrong in this case. But getting things wrong is not in and of itself evidence of fabrication. The charge of fabricating evidence is an extremely serious one, not to be meted out flippantly. Regarding Dr. Schindler’s specific claim that in “Body of Secrets” Bamford fabricated the material regarding the EC-121 flight over the Liberty attack, it is clearly refuted by the very link he provided to support his allegation. There may be other evidence but absent his supplying such I’d say the honorable thing would be for him to retract his charge. (I shall not hold my breath.)

    Was it right and proper that Dr. Schindler should thus denigrate and dismiss Mr. Friedersdorf on the basis of this “expert” error? You are free to believe this is a proper and productive way for a scholar to behave but I don’t think it is. My impression from reading him for the past nine months is that he’s a jerk and a bully who at times allows his bias and his anger to completely disrupt any capacity for dispassionate analysis, but who nevertheless will every once in a while write something I find really educational. I could do without the chore of wading through the former to get at the latter and I fear that by his actions he destroys any chance at being an effective advocate to any but the already persuaded.

    * Specifically, the passage on pp204-206 is aggregated from material in the first 2/3 of Enclosure 1. That on pp212-213 is from paragraphs 25 and 26, that on p216 is from paragraph 26.

    • @Jan Rooth

      I’m not defending or excusing Prof Schindler’s behavior here, but from what I’ve seen on his twitter time line he gets a lot of shit. I mean A LOT of shit – I recall one tweet someone threatened to have him fired; another tweet a person claimed he is defending evil. I’m not exactly sure how often he gets those kind of tweets, but I think he gets then often enough that they affect his behavior. Again, I’m not defending or excusing Prof Schindler’s behavior.

      • There is a highly active online campaign to have both myself and Prof Nichols fired from our jobs by people who do not like our online postings and statements. In my case, there have been multiple fake/impostor Twitter accounts as well, some of which have threatened violence.

        A LOT of shit indeed ….

        • I’m reminded of a quote from the fictitious character, Zaphod Beeblebrox in Douglas Adams’ brilliant play, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. While descending to the surface of the legendary planet Magrathea, Beeblebrox was informed that several nuclear-tipped, guided missiles were converging with his ship. He was ecstatic.

          “Man, this is GREAT!” he said, “We must really be onto something if they’re trying to kill us!”

          It’s an attitude thing.

          While I agree with the post in general, I can’t help perceiving a note of whininess to it. Yes, experts know more about their subject than other people, and so they will be saying things that other people find offensive or threatening. It’s a given. Accept it.

          On a not altogether unrelated note; Jesus was NOT nailed to a cross for just saying nice things to people and trying to get along. There is the concept of being guided by principles, which will naturally place one in conflict with popular culture, often quite apart from anyone’s accumulation of facts.

          Hayek and Keynes were both “experts” of a sort, for example. Both well educated and therefore they could be described as “experts” yet they were very much at odds in their conclusions.

          Eventually it is reality that will rear its sometimes ugly head and flush out which ideas or conclusion are “correct”, and so you needn’t worry overmuch whether this or that person “gets it” at the moment.

    • This was essentially my take on the Bamford issue as well – difference of analysis does not imply bad faith. I recognize that John – along with many other “spooks” – does not like Bamford. I recognize that there may be perfectly good reasons for this dislike, but said reasons have yet to be presented. Even when one is a legitimate expert, it is incumbent on the asserter to provide evidence of an assertion. To do otherwise is appeal to authority or ex cathedra regardless of actual expertise.

    • Jan, there’s too much to answer here, and the piece wasn’t aimed at you. It was actually spurred by a conversation I had in Boston with Sean Costigan some months ago. Anyway, I’ll say this about the Friedersdorf vs Schindler dustup: Friedersdorf was asking stuff he knew is unanswerable. It is literally impossible to answer “how much stuff do you think is over-classified” for many reasons, but mostly because (a) answering that question leads into the substance of classified material, and (b) without seeing the whole universe of classified material, you can’t answer that without referring only to the stuff you’ve seen and think is over-classified, and thus leading you back to (a).

      I bring this up not because I have an opinion about classification. I don’t. (In my time on the Hill and in DC, I saw things I thought were both over- and under- classified. So what?) Rather, I’m more interested in the fundamental problem with that exchange: either Friedersdorf knew he was asking an impossible question (in which case he was just being disingenuous), or he genuinely did not understand the nature of his own question (in which case he’s woefully under-prepared and needs to do more homework). The fact of the matter is that in any given environment — say, if you were putting together a syllabus — and you were to seek out someone to determine if the Bamford book should be included, you would ask John, and not Friedersdorf, period. Pestering John to present a chapter and verse takedown of a fairly old book in 140 characters is just playing games with the medium of Twitter. John could have handled that exchange better, but like I said in the piece, I understand the shortness. Scholars come on Twitter to exchange ideas, do public outreach, answer questions, get news, etc. We are not there to deconstruct the pet rock of every single lay person who has an itch about the NSA, Russia, cheese, puppies, or whatever their problem is. If you ask an expert for his evaluation of a book and he says it sucks, you’re free to ask for further info, and you should get it. But to play a “gotcha” game of 20 Questions, 140 characters at a time, is just tedious nonsense.

      I am already seeing many people in the academic and policy community on Twitter saying publicly that they will no longer engage most of their questioners. I’ve started paring down my answers to people as well, although I try (in the spirit of good teaching and academic outreach) to answer almost every serious question that comes my way. But like a restaurant with a table of patrons who just keep sending the food back over and over, there comes a time simply to say: enough already.

      • I think the “this question is unanswerable” argument is a reasonable one, although it arguably does more to support Mr. Friedersdorf’s initial assertion regarding pervasive secrecy being an impediment to reporting than it does Dr. Schindler’s position.

        But my point is that if that’s the argument, then make that argument. Don’t resort to the “I’m an expert and you’re not so you have absolutely no standing to question anything I say” argument. And don’t drag in unrelated and even false personal attacks. Mr. Friedersdorf didn’t bring up Bamford – Dr. Schindler did that in a purely bogus effort to use Friedersdorf post on chapter 1 of “The Puzzle Palace” as a means to dismiss him.

        • “Purely bogus”? Glad you can read my mind. Your skills are deeply impressive.

          Glad you don’t make personal attacks or use invective or anything, like you say I do.

          Stay classy!

          • If it’s not purely bogus then please explain what I got wrong in the evidence I laid out in my original post. Did Friedersdorf actually treat Bamford’s 1982 book as “news” in that post and I’m just somehow misinterpreting his reference to the date of publication or his use of the word “revisit?” Does Dr. Nowiki’s “Enclosure 1” not actually contain the material Mr. Bamford wrote about the EC-121 mission? I supplied the relevant correlation of text in my end-note – if I’m misinterpreting something, what is it exactly that I’m misinterpreting?

            I’m genuinely open to persuasion if I’m wrong. Tell me how I screwed up.

        • This is what I mean about constantly starting from scratch and answering endless barrages of questions that should be basic knowledge on the subject: the argument about why the question is unanswerable is not an argument that should have to be made in the first place. Perhaps to a layman, it might seem like a new or original point. To people familiar with these issues, however, the question itself flunks National Security Studies 101. Friedersdorf should have known better. And if he didn’t, he shouldn’t be writing on these issues for a major journal.

    • Dr Nowicki says (correctly) on the record that his position re USS LIBERTY is “the opposite” of Mr Bamford’s. If you were more familiar with this matter than you seem to be, you would understand the implications of this.

      And if you believe, as Mr Bamford has said repeatedly, that Israel attacked the LIBERTY to cover up its war crimes in 1967, I suggest you get professional help.

      • I suggest you read more carefully. I did not say I believe Mr. Bamford’s argument – in fact I said the exact opposite:

        “Historians (even those with the right kind of PhD) will sometimes get things wrong, and the release two years later of the EC-121 transcript in response to a FOIA request by Jay Cristol supports the case that Bamford did get it wrong in this case.”

        But getting it wrong is not “fabricating” the evidence – and the fact remains that even the link you yourself provided as support for that allegation demonstrates that the allegation is false.

  4. On the one hand, I agree completely. Expertise is valuable and should almost always be taken into account. On the other hand, I also agree with Richard Feynman when he said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” I try to balance that clear contradiction and remember that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

    As always, I greatly appreciate the benefit of your expertise, even when I disagree.

    • We get nowhere without disagreement, Sean, I believe in that. But it has to be *informed* debate, not an ever-shifting fusillade of basic questions (which is how some people now choose to argue).

      • Exactly. I’m not trying to excuse the mountain of crap I see you and John getting from the aggressively uninformed. There is a structure and rules to valid debate, and it seems that many people seem to have never learned anything about rhetoric or epistemology. Within that structure, fact-based arguments with experts is vital. Outside that structure it’s merely annoying to the experts. I get that.

        • The problem with using facts and reason to make your case nowadays is that there is a whole segment of the population that is “immune” to factually-based logical-reasoning: You cannot argue reasonably with someone who is arguing emotionally.

          – M

          • Yes. I agree, strongly, with the late Alasdair McIntyre’s point that all modern moral reasoning is really little more than varying forms of emotivism. And emotivist arguments aren’t arguments so much as they are mere statements of preferences, gussied up and phrased as rules.

  5. A response from the comment section: Some maxims of my own.

    1. Experts are worth listening to more than ordinary folks with opinions. But ordinary folks deserve a listen, too. You’ll often be surprised by the clarity of their thought and what they turn out to know. Of course, more often, ordinary folks spout the same old rubbish. And of course, so do experts.

    2. If an expert cites specific facts, she’s probably not just making shit up. But that does not mean her facts are correct. Sometimes she is just making shit up. More often, she can cite a source who just made it up.

    3. Experts are always right about some things, just like ordinary folks. But even when they are right about many things, they are often completely wrong about the main thing. Proof: Experts often disagree completely with each other, especially about the main thing.

    3. “I’m an expert, you’re not” may not be the lowest form of “argument,” but it’s pretty low (and common). If you’re such an expert, give a clear argument, state a few facts. If it isn’t worth your time, walk away. Nothing hurts a troll more than being ignored.

    4. The actual quality and content of discourse or argument is a better guide than the expert, academic, or official status of a speaker. Resort to insult, sarcasm, ridicule or hauteur is usually a sign of intellectual or moral weakness.

    5. In the end, if you really care about what is or isn’t true in a given subject area, you’ll have to become something of an expert on it yourself. At every level of expertise, from novice to Nobelist, a bit of humility will help your pursuit of truth.

    • Mark, I agree with most of what you’ve written, but I kinda like sarcasm and snark now and then. I don’t even mind being on the receiving end if it’s funny (which it often is). Politics is not engineering, and maintaining a good sense of humor and the ability give (and take) the occasional zinger isn’t such a bad thing.

      And yes, experts can be very wrong about the main thing. But the point of my venting here is that the people who are most capable of determining error among experts are other experts. If a colleague in Russian affairs tells me I’m fundamentally wrong on major interpretation of Russian politics, I’m going to have to take that seriously and hash it out with them until I have a better idea of where I did — or maybe didn’t — go wrong. If someone with a grasp of how social science research is done tells me I’m reading a poll incorrectly, or that I don’t understand a point about politics in Missouri, all to the good.

      But when someone says: “Well, I don’t really have anything to do with any of this stuff, and I’ve never been trained in even basic methods of inquiry, evidence, or argument, but here’s why I’m going to tell you how you’re all hosed up”…well, at some point that conversation ends. I don’t think of those people as trolls; the whole point of the post is that I increasingly think of people like that as everyone in America these days.

      And that’s what scares me about the future of serious debate about public policy.

  6. I think Dr. Schindler has ably demonstrated my point in these comments. He does not address any of the facts I presented. He offers one of those facts which I presented (that Dr. Nowicki disagrees with Mr. Bamford’s conclusions) as evidence that I somehow do not understand. And he speculates that I may suffer from a mental illness for holding a view which I have explicitly said I do not hold.

    Is there anyone who can say with a straight face that this is a productive way to argue?

    I want to say one thing more about the efforts to get him fired: I believe profoundly in the right of free speech generally and academic freedom specifically. Freedom to air ideas without fear of professional retribution is the bedrock of scholarship. We abridge that at our peril. However much I may personally dislike Dr. Schindler’s tactics, I unequivocally defend his right to use them.

    • Thank you for you defense of mine and Prof Nichols not being fired. You want a cookie?

      Again: NSA has declassified several hundred pages of documents relating to LIBERTY. You have either read them or you have not. If not, I won’t waste my expert time.

      Read and get back to me if you wish to discuss.

      Otherwise save your weak, pathetic, failed pontification.

      • No I don’t want a cookie. Perhaps you could benefit from a couple of Valium though.

        I’ll gladly read the rest of the declassified material I haven’t got to yet, but I fail to see how materials declassified after the 2001 publication of “Body of Secrets” can change the fact that Bamford’s passages regarding the EC-121 flight correspond with Dr. Nowicki’s “Enclosure 1” let alone make it any less false that Mr. Friedersdorf treated “The Puzzle Palace” as “news.”

        I’ve already repeatedly explained to you that I agree that Bamford’s conclusions about the Liberty episode are wrong, so that can’t be what you think I should be discovering from this assignment. But I suppose asking what I’m supposed to be looking to learn from this exercise that’s relevant to any argument I’ve actually made would be pointless.

          • Your status as an expert doesn’t change the fact that the arrow of time only points in one direction or that unrelated material can’t shed light on an issue. If you were challenging my expert opinion on what the most efficient way to implement a Fast Fourier Transform on a massively parallel architecture and I told you “go read all the available material on quantum mechanics and get back to me” you’d rightly suspect I was just giving you busy work so you’d go away.

            Again – you and I appear to have no disagreement on whether Bamford’s conclusions regarding the Liberty incident are right or wrong. He’s wrong. I’ve told you this repeatedly, so that can’t possibly be your point unless you’re just being deliberately obtuse. There must be some other thing you hope I’ll learn by reading the declassified material. I’m willing to do the work – last night I read through the “U.S.Cryptologic History Report, ‘Attack on a SIGINT Collector, the U.S.S. Liberty’, dated 1981.” I’ll start working on the other document in the “chronology of events” section tonight. I had previously examined the transcripts of the EC-121 intercepts and some of the material under “Oral History Interviews” and “Follow-up Reports.” As you say, there’s a wealth of material there and I don’t see getting through it all in less than a couple of weeks worth of evenings. I enjoy history so don’t begrudge the effort, but it would be helpful if you would at least deign to give me a hint of what I’m supposed to see there that will contradict anything I’ve actually said.

          • OK, last night I went through the other document in the “chronology of events” section – “USS Liberty (USN-855) (AGTR-5) Chronology of Events, 8 Jun 1967”. Lots of redactions and didn’t really add anything to the official report I read the day before, but interesting here and there.

            Still don’t see anything to change my basic understanding of what happened in the Liberty event, but since as far as I can see that understanding is basically the same as yours that shouldn’t be shocking (not that that would stop you from calling me an idiot for, I suppose, reaching the same conclusions you do without having the right PhD.)

            Would still appreciate that hint of what I’m supposed to be looking for, but not holding my breath. On to the oral histories tonight.

          • As it happens I had a little time over lunch, so I made a start on the oral histories: Lt Gen Marshall S. Carter (DIRNSA 1965-1969) and Richard W. Hickman (Hebrew linguist – USS Valdez).

            Notably, General Carter, in his 1988 interview, expresses the continued opinion that the attack must have been deliberate. I don’t think that makes him a fabricator or “in need of professional help” but to be consistent you must. Then again, no doubt consistency is one of those principles one is exempt from by dint of being an expert.

            And no doubt you will be outraged at my temerity as an amateur in drawing any conclusion, but I believe General Carter (like Mr. Bamford) is mistaken.

            • Gentlemen: If you want to argue the Liberty incident, please take that out of this thread. You might take it up with Schindler at his blog, since he’s far more the expert on this than I am.

              • I was merely doing the homework Dr. Schindler assigned me, even though reason dictates that this homework does not actually impinge on any argument I have actually made. I didn’t want to argue the Liberty incident at all – as far as I can see Dr. Schindler and I have no disagreement about what happened or what motivated it.

                But I will of course respect your request and end this thread. I point out to the readers here that it is Dr. Schindler (the expert) and not I who evades facts in favor of personal attack.

                • Thank you, Jan. I do not want to cut off debate, but that issue is tangential to this subject, and it is better conducted elsewhere with someone who knows more about it than I do. (Even experts — especially experts! — should know the limits of their expertise.)

                  • Tom,

                    This is actually a very beneficial side excursion for those of us who are spectators. The way that John is responding to Jan from the beginning is emblematic of why the general public has lost patience with the experts.

                • Wow, you read TWO oral histories and now you’re a world-class expert. Got it.

                  As Dr Nichols has repeatedly requested, if you wish to discuss LIBERTY further, take it to my blog. Be respectful or I will block you (as I blocked you on Twitter long ago for being an idiot).

                  As an expert my time is valuable; don’t waste it and be sure to show proper respect.

                  • I have never claimed to be an expert on this issue – any honest reader can easily verify that by simply noting the total absence of any such claim in any of my comments. At no time have I disagreed with you in any way whatsoever regarding the Liberty episode and have never claimed I am qualified to do so.

                    Neither have I at any time disagreed with the central theme of Dr. Nichols’ essay – I think it’s pretty much right – just far from complete.

                    My point is that your expertise, which I do not deny, does not save you from making elementary errors – repeatedly attributing to me arguments I have never made and conflating the drawing of a wrong conclusion with the fabrication of evidence. Again, any honest reader can easily confirm this by simply reviewing our exchange here.

                    You regularly use a person’s lack of expertise as a bludgeon to dismiss reasoned argument without addressing the actual argument – regularly resorting to apparently deliberate distortions of what the said. That’s what I object to.

                    I see no reason to post anything on your blog – you have admirably demonstrated the point I have been making right here.

  7. While I do agree with your points about expertise and experience, and have already forwarded this piece to friends, I would respectfully disagree with your point about “ceding influence to Russia in the Middle East.” While I cannot boast of any scholarship, I have been to the region many times, my family having emigrated there in the 1920s. Some situations just can’t yield a good outcome. Syria is one of them, and I am mindful that I am not the fellow who actually has to do the actual work. However, we should do our best to heed those who I would call “genuine” voices on any subject, who have the depth of knowledge, and most important, historical perspective on an issue. That even includes corn and soybean subsidies.

  8. One should note that there is a strong “interpersonal and institutional political element” that Professors and PhDs must navigate whilst working in academia.

    Gaining tenure, renewing a three year professorship contract, gaining access to research dollars all depend on some part to the “liking principle.” Do particular persons in power or committees of people like a particular academic or his line of thinking, is a question that all non-tenured scholars must ask themselves if they wish to have a long career in academia. Maybe this is what Dr. Nichols meant when he said that politics is not engineering. Academic research in Political Science/International Affairs is not about “Truth” but rather “truth as close as we can get to it given the constraints of my academic institution political realities.”

    So, if this interpersonal political element is present in the written and spoken opinions of academics there is a case to be made that it is not in the interest of any particular professor to pursue “Absolute Truth” on a manner, but rather color her opinion to gain maximum liking points so that she can soon get a re-appointment or a tenure position.

    Therefore, there certainly are cases where well informed amateurs could be closer to the “Absolute Truth” on a subject, as they have nothing really to lose. They will not be denied tenure or denied a renewal contract simply because the say words that are not welcome in the halls of certain institution. As an example, which un-tenured professor could really go to Harvard and talk about how great a patriarchal society would be, even if the academic presented certain evidence and then expect to gain tenure? Which scholar could stand on the lawn of the Naval War College and explain that the Muslims are probably correct in their assessment of Western imperialism and hope to have a continuously renewed contract? The answer is not one. Sure, PhDs can say what they like, but it does not mean that a particular institution will then give them employment.

    This conflict of interest between “Truth” and “interpersonal and institutional political expediency” is unavoidable, and is one reason why appeals to authority are shaky. This is exactly what religious institutions have done in the past, where priests can say, “God did it,” when they really mean “I have a certain power that you cannot challenge no matter your facts so that is that.”

    • There is no doubt that younger scholars live under a cloud that can, in fact, constrain them politically. However, most of them are judged on what they write in the journals of their field, and most of what they write outside those journals is ignored. But you’re quite right: a conservative scholar at a liberal school (the most common problem) is risking his or her career by taking certain positions.

      Nonetheless, a successfully completely PhD still confers skills and abilities on the graduate, even if he or she can’t get a job. And tenured faculty, as you know, are free to say what they wish. Your point about institutional pressures is a good one, but it doesn’t invalidate the expertise of a young PhD, especially if we’re comparing it (as I did in the post) to the non-existent expertise of a random person.

  9. I don’t question the value of expertise in its place. You, for example, are quite likely right about the state of play between the US and Russia with respect to Iran. But that is just one of many questions about the relations between the US and Iran. The question is whether any losses in the US stance are worth the gains. That is a political question, and your expertise isn’t useful.

    As to the NSA, the question is whether we gained from the exposure of the vast spying apparatus more than we lost. That too is a political question. Expertise doesn’t count, except insofar as we need help understanding what we lost. Schindler is not going to help with that, any more than he will help estimate the gains. In his case, it seems to me that partisanship trumps expertise.

    Perhaps that is a problem for you as well.

    • Normative questions (what should we do?) are more arguable than empirical questions (what is going on?) Even then, a broad training in knowledge of previous cases makes an expert historian or political analyst’s bets likely to be better than the average person. If you ask us what happens when a small power challenges a dominant power in general, we can give you a better read on what’s happened in previous cases — including the state of debate on much of that, good or bad — that you are unlikely to have.

      With that said, I don’t like scholars that try to hit to all fields. I myself have blogged here about gun control, but that’s why I put it on my blog, and not in a journal or newspaper: my views are just my views, perhaps slightly more informed, or more organized due to training in methods of inquiry. But overall, when it comes to comparing and generalizing cases even outside my specialized area, I’m probably going to have more information and more experience in thinking about that stuff than the average person. Not more than another expert, perhaps, but that’s why I emphasize “peer review” and not “everyone with a computer review”.

  10. While I enjoyed your article, I feel that some of your sarcasm and self referencing detract a bit from your point. Experience, Collecting, and correctly interpreting information are what make a person (eventually) an expert.

    My preferred way to illustrate this is with wilderness survival. If you took the equivalent level of expertise on a given subject, between and indignant, opinionated lay person who has read a few articles on the internet, and a true expert on subject. Converted it to survival skills, and deposited those people in a wilderness survival situation, the difference would be very clear in less than one weeks time. The situation wouldn’t even have to be inherently dangerous for the differences to be very evident.

    For some reason when the practical application of expertise is limited to ideas or concepts, the idea of expertise falls off quickly. It’s not that an expert is infallible, or never wrong, or even never dishonest. More available information is a great thing for everyone. At the same time, there’s a reason you have a resume. Everyone has an area where their experience and learning is a strength. Claiming to be an expert (or at least extremely proficient in an area) then blasting away at someone else on the internet for their proclaimed expertise is a bit hypocritical.

  11. While, like you, I am sympathetic with the “democratization of knowledge” idea, I think what I imagined that meant, in the early days of, e.g. Wikipedia, was that “anyone could contribute to the discussion,” a notion it’s hard to disagree with. What it has come down to, as you say so ably, though, is an actual aggression toward people with demonstrated expertise, especially when that expertise contradicts the knee-jerk impulses of (particularly young) people, who may have swallowed hook-line-and-sinker a particular “revolutionary” story and think it is world-altering wisdom from on high. We see this in full flower on Wikipedia now, where it is very difficult to contribute to articles on which one is an actual expert, because a new form of “expert,” a Wikipedia expert, who believes that the “democratization of expertise” has eliminate the claims of (say) physicists to write about Newton’s laws of motion, but *also*–and this is the crucial point–elevated a new kind of “ultra-expert” whose knowledge (of Wikipedia’s rules etc.) trumps the other. You will almost never get Wikipedians to admit they are playing this game–they’ll always claim their kind of expertise is different in kind from, and therefore better than, the other, despite it being on the whole a much less “democratic” and in many ways more hierarchical form of power than the other (the process of and path to becoming a Wikipedia power user is much less transparent than getting a PhD in Physics, for example). This “hacking of expertise” is visible everywhere in our society, from obnoxious & arrogant “let’s build it all over from scratch because everyone before us was stupid” projects like, to “civic hacking” and so on, and all the way up to climate change. It is profoundly undemocratic for many of the reasons you lay out. It gives the lie to the notion that the widely distributed information network itself will allow the best ideas, or opinions, or most accurate information to work itself out in the end–it proves that (very formal, and very knee-jerk) idea of the function of democratized knowledge is plain wrong. How society works to fix it is, to my mind, not at all clear.

  12. Each person has their own unique core values (or assumptions) that are not provable by any kind of science. Given the exact same information and the application of basic logic to these assumptions would likely give vastly different answers for different people for what is a right or a wrong decision in any given situation. Don’t you agree with this Tom?

    So are you suggesting that people simply use the opinions of “experts” as the primary way to make decisions? What’s wrong with just using experts as sources of information and guidance?

    • You’re talking about ethics and value systems, which I say up front are arguable and personal. I’m talking about things that are more accessible to intellectual debate. “Russian foreign policy has been focused on displacing the US in the Middle East” is an argument for experts who know something about that subject. “I don’t think it would be moral or right to use force in Syria” is a more open debate that involves each person’s values and in which expertise can point out costs and benefits of action, but can’t replace faith or morals or values.

      • I think it also applies to the medical industry (which you keep referring to). Whether some food is safe to eat depends a lot on one’s definition of safe, and whether someone should take some medicine rather than an alternative depends a lot on someone’s beliefs (I think).

        I keep reading things like “x is safe because many reputable scientists say so” (but it depends on the definition) and people seem to overstate the scope of science. I work in science and I know that it is based on very simplified models that work very well for predicting the results of some measurements, but this doesn’t mean that you can start predicting things like human well-being. Also, economics I think is a very imprecise and overstated science. To think that a few people sitting in a central bank can take into account all the effects necessary to efficiently allocate resources between millions of people in a better way than the free market is quite far fetched.

    • A group of Science Fiction writers some years back created a truly hideous and unreadable manuscript to troll a vanity publisher. Search online for “Atlanta Nights” for the details, it was a funny and successful sting.

      • And let us not forget the Alan Sokal hoax, which in a better world would have brought down any number of university departments but didn’t.

  13. I’m curious about one other thing. You write:

    “If done properly, a PhD certifies that you are capable of conducting research to particular standards in your field, that you have contributed new knowledge to your field, and that you have an independent ability to frame questions and conduct serious, long-term analytical projects to answer them. That is a non-trivial set of skills, and to dismiss that level of intellectual training when arguing with a PhD is just plain hubris, and an unwise strategy for debate.”

    A while back you approvingly re-tweeted Dr. Schindler’s derisive comment about Marcy Wheeler’s PhD in literature. When I questioned that, you gave me an “I believe in expertise” answer. So is it your view that a PhD in literature doesn’t imply the skills you list above? Are there other fields we should be on the lookout for that are on the “this PhD doesn’t mean what mine does” list? Or is it that these skills really are trivial in your view, when it’s convenient for them to be so?

        • I’m going to be frank and crude here: I get both of your fucking points, okay. I really do. But can’t everyone drop the bullshit and talk to one another honestly like fucking human beings? Huh? Is it really necessary to get all formal and project rationality and reason all the fucking time?

          • To each his own. I’m probably a good deal older than you and I grew up in a family with a long academic tradition – it was ingrained in me from an early age to treat people with respect and address them by their formal title until invited by them to drop the formality. I realize this may come off as “bullshit” but for what it’s worth I genuinely don’t mean it that way. To my perspective you’re asking me to make a conscious effort to be rude.

            • You are not wrong, Jan. Being polite and respectful is not only natural for many people like yourself, but it is infinitely better than artificially being “real” for someone whose life experience involved more four-letter words. It irks me when we are asked to behave impolitely because it doesn’t fit the expectations of someone else. Politeness and respect are admirable, and you should never be asked to apologize for it or to behave otherwise.

              At that, the call to avoid projecting rationality and reason is difficult to take seriously. I believe that rationality and reason is the defining characteristic of a society. Without those, we are not real human beings.

            • “To my perspective you’re asking me to make a conscious effort to be rude.”

              Nah, man. I’m not asking you to be rude or anything like that. I’m not admonishing you for being polite either. I’m just saying everything doesn’t have to be, you know, a line of inquiry.

    • I missed this comment earlier, but it makes my point: Wheeler has a PhD in comparative literature. How that makes her an expert on the NSA is beyond me; that’s like me saying that my PhD in Government qualifies me to write a new interpretation of Beowulf.

      Part of what makes a profession a “profession” is the respect for the boundaries of other specializations. There’s a reason that doctors don’t practice law and lawyers don’t design bridges.

      When I pull out the “I’m an expert” zinger, it’s on things I know about. I also post on things like the ACA, gun control, and other matters, but I put those forward as, at best, informed opinion rather than a professional judgment. If only people like Marcy Wheeler would do the same, we might get somewhere.

      • It doesn’t make her an expert. What it does do (according to your own argument) is endow her with “an independent ability to frame questions and conduct serious, long-term analytical projects to answer them.” And indeed that’s what she’s been doing for quite some time now in the field of the intersection of public policy and intelligence activities.

        Does she qualify as an “expert” yet? Perhaps not – but it ain’t for lack of serious effort that is surely moving her gradually in that direction. And unless we are going to surrender to and even embrace the general ignorance of the public which you rightly lament, we ought to be supporting such effort rather than scornfully dismissing and deriding it.

  14. I found myself as I read thinking “he’s an expert on Russia, but obviously not on social media”, then a third of the way through, you demonstrated you have at least the same working understanding of it that I do, if not more so (Dunning-Kruger, for example, is a principle I know well and have heard cited frequently for more than a decade, but had yet never heard of). In a face-to-face environment, I’d have raised my hand and asked a “but what about…”, only to be told you were getting to that. What I find with a lot of comments on websites is that people stop when they would interject, but since the comments section isn’t real-time, they just stop there, with a set of comments that show utter ignorance of anything past a couple paragraphs in. If they spell reasonably well and put their punctuation in places that aren’t too terrifying, it can spark debate-in-ignorance in the comments.

    You may have seen the banana gun blog, in which someone wrote a meaningless piece on gun ownership, with a title that implied something contrary to the piece itself – and a sentence in the middle saying to include the word “banana” in the comments if you read the whole piece. I believe it was three pages of comments before someone excitedly noted that they were the first to type the word ‘banana”. While it’s possible that some forgot by the time they went to comment, the fact that something so glaring didn’t make it in the minds of those commenting is disturbing.

    It makes it difficult to be an “expert” online, particularly for those linking you to sources, when you can’t read and retain key information out of something as short as a blog post.

    I would suggest this is partially an issue of negative education. I was taught in school to skim. To glean information in less time than it took to read, process that information, and put out a product that will be graded. Not by the instructions of the teachers, but by what the teachers required and what they accepted. When you have multiple teachers assign reading and writing projects that each would be a challenge if you had just one class, then you learn to fake it. I have since gone back and read the books, but through high school and college, nearly every book report was written before I read the book and I got full marks every time, in total ignorance of what was on the pages (If you don’t know the trick – listen to the teacher in class, then parrot back the things he/she talked about in your own words). Sadly, when I actually did read and formed my own opinions on the material, I didn’t receive full marks. I’ve talked with dozens of people since, and nearly all learned the same lesson – fake having the knowledge because the grade is all that matters. As a point of pride, when not faced with the scheduling of multiple teachers who don’t talk to one another before making assignments, I went back and learned what I was supposed to have been learning, but I’m one of those weirdos who reads the full blog before commenting too.

    With American, and possibly western education in general teaching that fake knowledge is success and real knowledge is wasted effort, I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised to see real expertise shunned while passionate, opinionated drivel is lauded.

    That may be why I went into STEM rather than other options. At the end of the day, what I do will actually work or not work. There are debates over methodologies, but when someone questions my expertise, I can tell them to do it themselves, where I don’t want you telling your Twitter critics to negotiate trade agreements with Russia themselves.

    • That’s a great story, and reminds me of the many (maybe apocryphal) stories of PhD dissertations that have a $100 bill in the middle, or pages of gibberish, or porn, as proof that they’re not read by committees. (Judging from the red ink all over mine, pretty sure they read it.)

  15. Tom, I’m going to have make a confession here, because I honestly didn’t realize who I was talking to. Again, I found your piece highly compelling, relevant and timely. But I discovered a problem here, and the problem is you may not believe what you wrote yourself. In a day of hyper communication as we have now, seeking who we would want to be a “genuine” or “authentic” voice on a subject becomes ever more critical, and frankly, it’s becoming a very frightening dynamic as more and more people don’t. The old saw is a “Lie goes half way around the world before the Truth has a chance to get it’s boots on.” Now, a tweet can circle the world millions of times over before the Truth is even awake. This is not a small risk we endure. We need to get more of our information from those sources who have invested the time and the effort, AND have the talent and method, to understand what are highly complex problems. Oddly, as complex as our cell phones and our cars have become, people still think some old homespun “knowledge” (or just sloganeering) is a replacement for discourse or hard study. Take any issue- health care, geopolitics, economics….all of these require “getting into the weeds” on each one to obtain the firm intellectual grasp required so one can arrive at a truth. That doesn’t mean everyone winds up in universal agreement. But at least people get out of the gate with some knowledge in hand- a rational basis to make a decision, and apply a “policy.”

    Last week, on Twitter, you blocked me when I referred to Charles Krauthammer as another Goebbels, and invoked “Godwin’s Law”as a reason to do this. I thought that was cowardly. Having been born when Truman was still in office, I was well drenched in William L. Schirer, John Toland, Barbara Tuchman, etc., and I know something about Nazi propaganda techniques: they wrote the book on it, and almost everything you see today, regardless of political persuasion, borrows from some of their techniques, including Michael Moore’s use of cutting from scene to “punchline.” The Nazis DID happen, unfortunately, and if they didn’t, Godwin would have to substitute Hitler for Pius XI, one of the most notorious anti-Semites ever to sit on the Throne of Peter, or ANY throne. What motivated me to write you was the appearance of Krauthammer’s column today, calling the President “clueless” and pretending that large governments aren’t really supposed to be bureaucratic at all. You know, like your health insurance company or something. It’s a truly infantile screed, and misses the point entirely about what Obama was saying about our creaking institutions, but that is all Mr. Krauthammer is good for. Whether it’s fiendishly complex issues like health care, the economy, geopolitics, especially Israel and the Middle East, Charles Krauthammer is Mr. Know It All, except oddly, he ALWAYS manages to wrap it into a blanket of personal insult and utter contempt for the Administration no matter if it succeeds or fails. In Krauthammer’s world, it ALWAYS fails. The subject at hand may as well be the President’s choice of ties.

    If we are to be true to ourselves about seeking the authentic voice, and trusting those who have impartiality, the fairness of mind, and the depth of knowledge on a subject, a Beltway blowhard and a third rate hatchet man like old Sour Kraut would not be my first choice. I have no idea why people would read his column, becuase all he can do for his followers is re-validate the prejudices they already hold. Why he has such currency in DC is more a reflection of the sorry state of “The Death of Expertise” than anything. Krauthammer has no “expertise.” He’s a symptom of the very disease you gave a name to.

    And that, folks, is that.

  16. I stumbled upon Dr. Schindler’s blog a while back. I didn’t know or care who he was for quite a while (I’m funny that way – if you seem to know what’s what and are an entertaining writer, I’ll read what you write and not worry much about who’s writing it). I even humiliated myself by getting it utterly wrong when he wrote about the Holomodor – the only websites I’d seen it mentioned were ones where neo-Nazis used it to denigrate the significance of the Holocaust. Turns out some people come across that information the old fashioned way – academically. Anyway, his blog led me to yours.

    I agree with you to an extent. Surely the Jenny McCarthys of the world are a bane, and certainly literal expertise does matter. If I’m sick, I’ll take an obscure, credentialed doctor over a famous, fatuous bimbo. BUT that doesn’t mean “expert” means “right”, especially at a time where the generally accepted nature of reality changes so often.

    We’re approaching the centennial of the beginning of World War I. Nobody, with the exception of a few fanatical Serbian nationalists and the infamous Count Berchtold, wanted the assassination of the Austrian heir apparent to trigger a Balkan war. Nobody, with the exception of a few fanatical French revanchists, wanted it to trigger a general European war. All the “experts” were sure that it wouldn’t, but it did.

    Once the war started, the “experts” of every belligerent’s military command were totally wrong about how it would play out. For years, every “expert” opinion of how to win the war was totally wrong. It just became mindless, brutal slaughter on a scale never seen before, until, in forms again totally unanticipated by the “experts”, exhaustion and revolution ended the conflict. Four empires and ten million people were dead, and the “experts” who tried to make what passed for the postwar peace into something meaningful and enduring did nothing but lay the groundwork for an even worse war.

    I don’t see anything in the century that followed to make me have faith in today’s experts. Experts caused the Great Depression and then botched the response to it. Experts thought Hitler was “just another politician”. Experts thought Stalin could be trusted. Experts thought the Bay of Pigs landing would be a picnic. Experts thought the Vietnam War was about communism. Experts though the collapse of the USSR meant the “end of history”. Afghanistan. Iraq. No down payment mortgages. AAA credit ratings. Lehman Brothers. Manning. Snowden. Obamacare. Everywhere there are experts getting it wrong, and everywhere there are people suffering as a result.

    Understand, I’m not denigrating intelligence, education and professional experience. I’m just saying that in a world where so many of the best and brightest have gotten it so wrong so often, it’s not surprising that so many people would rather trust their own judgment.

    As for me, I have the exquisite luxury of being totally inconsequential to all but a handful of people, so I can wag my finger at those who do matter, knowing I’ll not be held responsible the next time experts get it wrong.

    • As you can see in the post, I admit that experts can be wrong. But I stand by the idea that on balance, they’re right a lot more often than the laymen who argue with them.

    • I think that’s confusing what Nasim Taleb calls “Fat Tail Risk.” Expertise does not give anyone the ability to foretell the future.

      • No one can tell the future, but our guesses on a range of things are better than most people’s. When we fail, we fail spectacularly (missing the fall of the USSR, for one, which was predicted by some experts but not by most), but overall, I’d rather take the prediction of an informed expert than of a random person who — if educational surveys are to be believed — often cannot identify most countries, sometimes including our own, on a map.

        • I agree. One could not predict the fall of the Soviet Empire outright, but if you remember some of the books that came out at the time, like Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” and a particularly funny one called “The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union” and a very good BBC series on the average Russian’s life, one could see this was essentially a third world country with enormous pretensions. The Western press corp called it “Upper Volta With Rockets.” How long this external farce could be maintained was anyone’s guess, but – as with our own country- a day of reckoning will come.

  17. Thanks for the interesting post. Maybe it would be illuminating if you wrote a little something up on how you grapple with issues that you are not an expert on? If I may suggest the issue to be climate change which I assume you are not an expert on (correct me if I am wrong). The few comments you have made about cc seems less than 100% respectful to the experts in that field (again correct me if I’m wrong).

    Happy Holidays

    • You’ll notice that I don’t blog about climate change. I have an opinion about it, and I don’t argue the methods of the experts. What I find most interesting about the debate is the way the experts try to marginalize dissenters in their own ranks, actually; I followed the East Anglia scandal, as a academic, with keen interest in the notion of gatekeeping journals, etc.

      If only the climate change scientists were as respectful of policy expertise, and kept in their lane as I try to keep in mine 😉

      But your question is a serious one: how do I grapple with things outside my field? Like everyone else does. I try to stay informed and consume a wide diet of information. I think I have a better grip on basic issues of data, causality, research design, etc, than the average person, but I don’t really know if men should stop getting PSA tests, or if children should go back to rote learning, or if the speed limit should be 65 or 55. I have opinions on all of them, but I seek out the views of — wait for it — experts on all of them as well. What I don’t do is argue with my doctor about the science of tests, my kid’s teacher about the way she teaches, or traffic cops about how I know what the real speed limit is.

  18. While I agree with you in general about value of expertise and deplore the idea that all opinions are equally valid, I resist the idea that expertise is equally valid (maybe useful is a better term) in all areas of knowledge. Using your mechanic example, expertise can be easily evaluated; can the mechanic fix the problem or not. Similar for many areas of science and technology, the test is whether the alleged expertise can be empirically validated. Not so for social sciences and politics where complexity, self-interest and self-deception come into play.

    Consider the late Robert McNamara. Bright, learned, and with access to information not available to those outside a select group at the heart of government. Yet he was disastrously wrong about nearly everything concerning Vietnam, from the technical (the utility of listening devices along the Ho Chi Minh trail) on up to the strategic. I have encountered many highly credentialed individuals with impressive CVs in government and at universities who command respect as experts despite track records of consistently being wrong in their predictions. The role of alleged expertise in the run up to the war in Iraq and the conduct of operations in Afghanistan requires no comment from me.

    I don’t know Dr. Schindler and my knowledge of the the instant controversy in this blog is limited to the above comments. But his responses certainly call into question his impulse control and general good judgment. Often the smartest thing to do is remain silent.

    • Yeah, John’s comments sometimes drop the hammer hard on people, or harder than I would. But as I said, I sympathize with his basic problem: he’s willing to talk and engage with thousands of people, and yet he ends up taking a raft of crap, including threats and insults, from people who don’t begin from even a basic understanding of history or government.

      And I agree completely that no one can screw things up like the “best and brightest,” and I share your disdain for McNamara. He is the object lesson in trying to extend talent in one area — business — to another. (And we could argue that he wasn’t all that good at making cars, either.) In my new book, I am deeply critical of the nuclear thinkers who produced increasingly intricate and increasingly ridiculous nuclear strategies during the Cold War, using huge amounts of brain-power to generate thousands of pages of nonsense.

      Nonetheless, I reject the alternative we seem to have today, which is to reject any claims of expertise, and indeed to regard such claims as insulting or elitist. I can’t emphasize this one point enough: experts can be wrong, but they’re more likely to be right than non-experts. Consider the Cold War nuclear problem I just mentioned. The public in the 1950s and 1960s had pretty strong opinions about nuclear weapons, with some arguing that we could use them at will (in Vietnam, no less) and others screaming in the streets to ban them completely. However lousy the performance of the “experts” in this period, it was certainly better to have experts dealing with our nuclear arsenal than the average Joe, who couldn’t explain nuclear arms or name half the countries in NATO we were supposedly defending with them. I am deeply opposed to nuclear weapons as a practical and moral matter, but “ban the bomb” movements were worse than pointless, and may actually have prolonged an arms race they were seeking to curtail (which, as an avowed moderate, I think is characteristic of activist movements in general).

      No one’s arguing for slavish deference to experts. But the idea that all our opinions on public policy are equally valid, or even equally informed, is laughable on its face.

  19. I came across your article, Generation Snowden. I have a two year old and five year old and am searching for what they will look like when mature. My generation (33 years old) has a certain flavour which you quantify so aptly in the article Generation Snowden and this one about the death of expertise. There is something drastically different about my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents’ core thinking that I’m desperate to save or revive in our children.

    I think the change is starting from very young in board books about “learning” colours, numbers etc and a lack of teaching morals through reading and stories. The exposure to this “literature” is rubbish. Within a story about a moral you can count, in daily life you can count. There is no need for shelves of these books to replace books with morals. In books for children learning to read, same dilemma. Fill them with examples of kindness giving, opening the door for your grandmother, watching a bird in a bird bath. But my generation and children deem these as old fashioned or boring for children.

    And television is a highly influential teacher. More powerful than teaching. Little students are taught at school to eat healthy, be kind and polite. But many of the shows portray terrible and powerful patterning of rudeness and how-to-live-like-scum 101. I find children subconsciously follow the television “teaching” more faithfully than the school. When given a choice on what to eat, they go for their heart not their head. (Our children don’t watch tv or play with electronics for that reason. We want real people to be their guide. I would never give a six year old learning addition a calculator.) I’m realizing this but also want to project what these young ones will look like in the future. Your articles are highly insightful and alarming.

    Through my dear, faithful husband, who has been pointing out my shortcomings that you’ve stated in your articles, I can identify and be disgusted with many things within me and others. To be disrespectful to others with wisdom, and self-confident when we have nothing to be self-confident about is frustrating for others.

    I realize that the nature of this comment is completely off topic when compared with the others, but the articles are so riveting. Even mothers can take something away from them.

    • Sarah – no worries. I’m a father, much older (53) and I think the same thing about how to raise my own child. I’ve been accused of being just a typical “younger generation sucks” old crank, but I’ve taught undergraduates since the mid-1980s, and I have never encountered anything like the millennials. I kind of liked the younger generation of the early to mid 1990s; indeed, my criticism of them is that they were too serious and too driven, and they didn’t seem to be enjoying life very much. But they at least seemed to have a sense of responsibility, and their sense of entitlement is dwarfed by the culture of the Trophy Generation now.

      Btw, I have completely banned those snotty tweener shows (thanks for nothing, Disney Channel) from my television, but that can only last so long.

      Very glad you enjoy the blog.

      • Tom,

        First of all, I feel completely intellectually inadequate to be posting in this thread. I just can’t seem to express myself in the ways that you can. But I am compelled to chime in on your comments about the 90’s kids.

        I graduated high school in ’92 and feel that you are dead correct about me being too serious and too driven. I also have been driven insane by the many ways our current society has thrown away all sense of decorum & common sense in exchange for a never ending supply of narcissism. Perhaps it’s the ‘J’ in me (ISTJ) that wants to strangle that crap and go back to the way it used to be in the ‘good ole days.’

        Do you think the ruling class will ever leave the current politico playbook and try to speak the truth in order to actually fix things? Political division is now a great chasm and we cannot have an honest discussion anymore. All the while the debt spirals upwards, rule of law is trampled, and the Constitution is being (has already been?) fed through the cross-cut shredder.

        I enjoyed your article!

        • Dale – There’s no literacy test for posting here. As long as you keep it above the belt and on topic, you’re always welcome! My one comment on what you’ve written is this: the answer is not in our political system, in my opinion. Political leaders respond to the zeitgeist, but they don’t create it as much as we might think. I can’t help but think that the kind of narcissism you’re noticing in younger generations comes from parenting, schooling, and the popular culture. Spend an hour watching the tweener sitcoms on the Disney channel, and you’ll realize it’s a world ruled by snarky, hideous 14-year-olds, all of whom are impossibly more clever than the clueless, dorky adults around them. I also think the therapeutic culture of never hurting a kid’s feelings, and changing grades from “D” to “not proficient” and other silly esteem boosters, has a lot to do with it, but I’ve already written about that.

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  21. Guy says people pay him for his opinion; that’s all that should matter. His butthurt over “laypeople” failing to acknowledge his superiority is pathetic, and maybe hints at a psychological problem with self-image, etc. At least that’s what I read on the internet; take my opinion on that for what it’s worth which ain’t much.

    What I do know for reals though, is that the world is full of “experts” as my daddy defined them (an ex is a has-been and a spurt’s just a drip). They can feel what they want, think what they want, and say what they want, and have degrees out the ass. But unless the market puts a dollar value on it, it don’t mean s–t. And if it does have market value, that’s all the validation one should need.

    So pull up your pants, wipe your nose, and quit whining, ya drip.

  22. To a certain extent the brand of “Expert” is tarnished by some experts who are transparently motivated by political partisanship, in some cases contradicting their earlier published work without explaining why their results have changed. After a while the layman loses faith in the lot of you. Add to that the fact that in our anonymous, democratic internet you have no clue who you’re talking to. By way of example, I don’t often have occasion to do more than dip a brain cell into the shallow end of your field, so don’t know who all the players are. I don’t know who you are, or if the person typing your words is in fact who he claims to be and is not, in fact, a particularly glib nineteen-year-old Target cashier. There is so much to learn to master any one broad area of knowledge that we really don’t have time to do more than take a lot of the rest on faith. The signal-to-noise ratio in our culture has plummeted and the curve shows no sign of flattening out.

  23. I have to agree in part with Mark Fischer. I’ve met a lot of experts, and I’ve read or spoken with many more and there is essentially two types. True experts and credentialed experts. True experts come in many different forms, some credentialed, some not* but it becomes almost immediately apparent from talking and listening to these people who they are. They have strong opinions on their area of expertise, and are willing and able to acknowledge both when they’re going outside their expertise and when they’ve missed something. They’re also more than willing to teach anyone who is willing to learn.

    On the other hand, there are credentialed experts. These are people who would in the business world be referred to as “promoted to their level of incompetence”. These people may actually be experts in a particular field, but either they are too enamored with their own success or are too caught up in their own authority to recognize both when they’ve overstepped their expertise, and when someone else might have something to contribute. I work in the medical field and interact with thousands of doctors, and the longer I work, the more critical and picky I’ve become of my own doctors. I’ve met far too many who would honestly rather their patient suffer or be given sub-optimal treatment because they can’t by arsed to listen to anyone else, or to lower themselves to doing “hard” work, or worse because there’s better money to be made in the sub-optimal treatment. And frankly if medical doctors, who swore to “first do no harm” are susceptible to this, there’s no reason to suspect that other fields are any less susceptible. I’ve also met far too many experts that might be experts in a field in general, but when it comes to actual boots on the ground experience, they’re more dangerous than a wet behind the ears rookie. Book learning vs practical learning. Too many credentialed experts have never practically applied their knowledge.

    “So what,” you might say, “every field has their jerks, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give respect / deference to experts in their field,” and I would agree with you, but there is something else at work here to. Turn on the news and look at the “experts” who are on TV, who are on the radio and who are being published. You alluded to it yourself in your post, it’s not what you know any more, it’s what you did for a campaign. Or it’s whether you’re marketable enough (Dr. Oz). Sometimes, it’s just plain old games of telephone, where by the time the study makes it to a 12 second sound bite, it’s gone from “There is a correlation between X and Y” to “The secret lie that manufacturers of X don’t want to know about and how it’s causing Y”. This is so common and recognized that I’ve seen the PHD Comics strip about it hanging in almost every university I’ve been to. And that doesn’t even begin to address the number of times the “expert opinion” (always something “they” say, but never a specific reference) changes back and forth. Is coffee good or bad for you? Salt? Eggs? Fat? If you wonder why so many people are more willing to listen to Aunt Bertha than the experts on topics, it’s because while every 3 years, the experts will change their mind on whether X is a good thing or not, Aunt Bertha always says “everything in moderation” and chances are, when you dig deep enough into the expert studies, that’s what it boils down to.

    Experts aren’t doing enough to control their message. I know that it’s only relatively recently that the internet has allowed for more free communication, that before even as an expert you likely needed either you’re university’s pr department or a willing newspaper to get a correction or criticism out, but that’s changing and I think more experts need to be willing and able to call out others in their field. Not all infighting in a profession needs to be aired as dirty laundry for the public, but when CNN misquotes you (royal, not you in particular), when a colleague gets promoted to a job and changes their tune to follow the money, you need to open your mouth. You need to say “no that’s wrong” and go on the record correcting it. Sure it might not mean much for you to publish a “No, CNN botched that up something awful” on your blog, but when people reference it in the future, it will help to keep things clear. As they say silence is consent, and if your message is being twisted after it leaves your hands, then speak up and take your message and your expertise back. The democratizing of information is more than just more people having more input, it also means the experts can get back to talking with the people directly. And if the people can’t understand what you’re saying, then either rethink how you present your message, or teach them. It’s no use bemoaning a society of people being suckered by charlatans if they haven’t been given the tools to properly evaluate charlatans from experts, and if the schools aren’t doing that, then it’s up to the experts to do it. Yes it sucks, yes it’s more work and yes it isn’t what you signed up for, but as you have pointed out, the alternative appears to be traveling quickly in a hand basket and wondering why it’s so hot.

    *I don’t think my mechanic has a PHD in mechanical engineering, but when my car breaks down, I’m bringing it to him not to the local university, though admittedly there is different credentialing for mechanics as well, but I’ll substitute my uncle for a mechanic from time to time too, not everything needs an expert.

  24. Part of this dismissal of expertise is the positive hostility to advanced degrees, an emotion almost entirely centered among people who do not have them.

    As someone who works at a University, and therefore comes into contact with an extraordinarily high number of people with advanced degrees, I have to say that part of this issue is the very effect you’re talking about, magnified through the lens of an advanced degree.

    Because, really, it doesn’t take many instances of hearing “But I have a Ph.D!” in a discussion before you’re about ready to lose your cool and finally actually respond with “Ma’am, your Ph.D is in Geology, which means it has precisely zero bearing on the question of which of us knows more about how to set up the network in your lab.”

    Even worse than the fellow who thinks his opinion has equal value to yours, simply because he has a link light on his cable modem, is the fellow who thinks his opinions have higher value than yours on every subject in the world because he’s got a very expensive piece of paper.

    • But really, I wanted to say that I agreed with this post wholeheartedly. And to be fair, it’s not anything even close to a majority of people with advanced degrees that do that. But man, the ones that do really get up my left nostril.

    • This is actually a real problem that professionals and experts used to have a better handle on, imo: the idea that expertise or achievement in one area means expertise in any area. I agree with you: a PhD in one subject does not automatically credential you in anything, and too many PhDs act that way. But let’s not ignore the biggest violators of this rule: celebrities. “I’m an actor. So let me tell you about my analysis of events in Iran.” Ah, no, thank you. If PhDs got out of their lane as often as entertainers do, we’d all be out of business. I wish I could make a deal with every boring jackass who injects politics into their Oscar-night speeches: you don’t tell me how to solve world peace, and I won’t tell you how to direct a movie.

  25. Tom, I do believe that last comment nails the whole problem on the head more precisely than the entire post you wrote! The real issue here is not necessarily that people don’t acknowledge the expertise of the experts, but rather than they do NOT acknowledge their own LACK of expertise in anything.

    And, at the same time experts often (not always, of course) know the boundaries of their expertise in the formal setting and respect that set of limits. You have already made this observation with respect to yourself (on topics like ACA, AGW, GC, etc.) but use your knowledge as a policy expert to comment on them tangentially – which apparently leads some to think you are using your expertise inappropriately.

    I was directed to this blog just today, and I see I have some catching up to do.

    Keep fighting the good fight.

  26. Life is like a box of PhD’s. You never know what you are going to get.
    Just because someone has alphabet soup after their name doesn’t mean that they have or even can apply any practical or real knowledge to current real world problems.

    • True enough. But we’re likely to have thought about it a bit more, and have a bit more background, than the people who don’t.

  27. The American Public has had it with trust.

    Trust in politicians died with Watergate. Trust in the news media died on the Right, with the sharp Left-bent of the 1980s and 90s. I think trust in the media from the Left might be dying with the way this administration has been covered (i.e. given cover).

    Trust in academia and the alphabet soup of credentials is part and parcel.

    And then there are the ideas of “experts” that got put into practice.

    Somebody with a Ph.D. instituted the “open concept school” or the “classroom without walls.” (My father was principal of an open-concept school. Outcomes were dismal, and he oversaw the building of walls.)

    Somebody with a Ph.D. devised the “whole language” system of education, and a whole raft of Ph.Ds promulgated it even after it was shown to be “less than optimal” and spawned “Hooked on Phonics” as a cottage industry.

    Urban planners built Cabrini Green in Chicago.

    (The Edsel is an interesting failure of a product in the market; the Pinto was a failure of different sort. How many experts told the good folks of Japan that nuclear power was safe? How many today are convinced that nuclear power can never be safe? (Europe seems to do OK with its nukes.)

    Anecdotal evidence may not be proof that expertise has no value, but it does prove that we shouldn’t just turn things over to the “philosopher kings,” or the Mensa membership list. Because the self-described experts, often get it wrong. And the self-described experts on Russia missed the Holodomor, or they didn’t bring it up because they liked the politics of the Left.

    • If we conversed with someone who has spent decades absorbed in a topic that eventually warrants a PhD, we would rightly be impressed with their rhetorical skill. If we don’t agree with their manner and “write them off” because of the way they speak, carry themselves, etc that might be a shallow deduction on our part.

      Someone who is single focused might be a bit strange to most people, but they are so wise and deep in their area of expertise and interest. I speak this from experience of people around me. An 85 year old gardener. Why not listen to her, learn from her and absorb some of her principles. It is not only what she says but who she is. A Chinese medical doctor who has studied and treated for decades. Why not listen to him and learn. An international lawyer. They may be a bit odd, speak too much, too little, live too extravagant, too simple. They may not explain things in the way you prefer. So drop your way and stretch your mind. Listen to them.

      Watching television and reading news on the net does not give us a real life view of experts. If that is how we surmise our definition, we are short.

      Today the bus driver asked the people in the back to watch their language and keep their feet off the seat backs or they would be asked to exit the bus. Their response was one of defiance and who is she (the driver) to tell us what to do. Actually, the driver was a very sensible person and spoke with gravity. As we got off the bus we told our five year old son to be careful and thoughtful in who he hangs around with. If we spend time with nice, polite people that’s what we will be. And it’s good to learn to listen to Mommy and Daddy about keeping feet off the chairs and speaking politely so that we don’t have to have others rebuke us later on.

      No theory in that.

  28. I think it’s telling that Wikipedia’s notorious co-f(l)ounder Jimmy Wales once said, “It often happens that the 17-year-old is right and the professor is wrong.” This is typical of the problem Nichols describes, and it’s no coincidence that Wales is very often glaringly wrong about so many things.

    • Well, I wouldn’t use a 17 year old against a professor for MOST cases, but as a financial advisor who follows economist’s “predictions” year after year, only to have them being proven embarrassingly wrong is something of an annual rite at this time of year.

      Unfortunately, and as I pointed out to Tom before, some people confuse expertise with ingrained dogma. We see this in economics all the time. So called “scholars” and “fellows” at “research” groups at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, who have an odd habit of ignoring empirical evidence, convince people that they are consuming genuine scholarship on a given subject instead of a diet of corporate funded pap. And the veneer of intellectual integrity foisted on themselves is something to behold.

      Last year, Professor Greg Mankiw, one of the architects of the economic meltdown, endured a walkout of his class by his own students. Having witnessed for themselves the utter falsity of his theories (the students becoming aware of the opportunities available to them after they graduate thanks to them) they simply walked out on one of his lectures. Mankiw will never change his mind, no matter the truth of his failures, and even living through them.