The Death of Expertise

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.”)

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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