Are We Dumping “Experts”?

Some folks are alarmed by what they see as “the death of expertise.” Writing for The Federalist, Tom Nichols worries that, while spheres of specialized knowledge are as prominent as ever, culture no longer sees itself as in need expert analysis:

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. 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.

 

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 silly.

If I understand Nichols correctly, it’s not the reality of expertise that is declining, it’s the appreciation of it. The necessity of experts who, by virtue of education, experience, etc, rise above the mainstream of social thought is no longer creating an ethos of humble submission. The Information Age has given a sensation of empowerment to the masses who feel as educated and equipped to comment on an issue as any professor or dignitary. You don’t have to consult a physician with years of study; WebMD should do the trick. I think what Nichols is saying is that this phenomenon has two effects: One, it distributes knowledge freely (which is good), and two, it creates a culture of distrust or even disdain for “experts” (which is bad).

Likewise, John Paul Flintoff calls our age the “age of the amateur.” Conversing with British author Andrew Keen (whose new book is entitled “The Cult of the Amateur”), Flintoff contemplates the emerging potential of an epistemological mob.

Worse still, the vaunted “democratisation” of the web has been a sham. “Despite its lofty idealisation, it’s undermining truth, souring civic discourse, and belittling expertise, experience and talent,” says Keen.

 

Take the vaunted “wisdom of crowds”, which has led to the astonishing growth of the free online reference work, Wikipedia. The English site alone boasts 1.8m articles freely contributed by ordinary web users, and more are created every minute…

 

“What defines the best minds,” Keen argues, “is their ability to go beyond the “wisdom” of the crowd and mainstream opinion.” Wikipedia is premised on a contrary theory of truth that would have seemed familiar to George Orwell: if the crowd says that two plus two equals five, then two plus two really does equal five.

The trend is reaching into theology too. Bart Gingerich recently chided the progressive evangelical camp for seemingly celebrating lack of formal theological training and accountability. Referencing the debate over Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian, Gingerich explains what’s wrong with a purely populist model of theological conversation:

…Everyone has been given just enough knowledge and literacy to get them into trouble and yet none of the patience or discipline to get them out of it. Everyone with a blog or Twitter account can shoot out lots of small ideas that lack depth, grounding, and merit. Thus, American Christians are confronted with more and more theological ideas that have less and less worth.

Furthermore, there are no official channels to handle false teaching, only moral suasion. Reasoning and rhetoric outside conciliar and synodal settings have always been important features of Christian theology. However, theological ideas would meet with accountability under the auspices of diocesan bishops, synods, and councils. Today, most of the Evangelical Left aren’t built into any disciplined structure. They are perpetual digital gadflies. The only court in which to try them is the court of public opinion. There is no way to interact with them in an ordered, ecclesiastical manner. Everyone is doing their own congregational thing. Thus, conservatives and liberals have to yell at each other on the internet. This is a crisis of church polity that will not be easily remedied.

I think Gingerich’s first sentence is hugely important: “Everyone has been given just enough knowledge and literacy to get them into trouble and yet none of the patience or discipline to get them out of it.” Knowledge is not value-neutral, in other words. The power to express oneself carries with it both the duty to express responsibly and the price of accountability within the market of ideas. Within religious tradition, the duty and the price have been furnished by authority-carrying institutions (local churches for Protestants, Rome for Catholics). That is what populism lacks—the apparatus of authoritative dialogue.

I think it’s possible to agree with the above analysis, while at the same time taking a more optimistic view of the Information Age. It is certainly true, as Nichols says, that populism and unfiltered celebrity platforming can and will produce harmful effects. He points to Jenny McCarthy’s campaign against vaccination as an example of how “people who know zip about medicine” can influence thousands of people into unwise and potentially fatal choices. Fair point, but Nichols could have acknowledged that McCarthy did not invent the autism-vaccination scare—Andrew Wakefield did. And Wakefield was as much an expert as you could possibly want. A fair question would be how much of popularly distributed misinformation is begotten by real experts in room A, only to be lamented by those in room B.

No one would claim today that universities are threatened by mass publishing. The golden age of the book has coincided with the health and flourishing of higher education. Why can’t that be true of the new informational landscape? Perhaps what we will see in the coming years is not the degradation of expertise but a new way of measuring it. As long as humans are rational beings (which despite blog comments, is and will remain true), the minds among us who can grasp and communicate the fundamental ideas of human flourishing will gravitate towards the top of the social order. I certainly expect this to look differently in 2050 than it did in 1950, but it need not signal the end of our need for experts.

Mass information technology will always give voice to those who should have none. Many times the individuals in that undeserving group find each other and make websites. Yet the risk can be accepted for the sake of the immense benefits. Interestingly, much research has concluded that Wikipedia is pretty good when compared to the prestigious encyclopedias. Millions of people thus have access a mind boggling array of valuable information, without having to come to the door to talk to a salesman. That idea sounds so good an expert must have come up with it.

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