Public policy expert Tom Nichols recently wrote an article entitled, “The Death of Expertise.” In it, he writes at some length about his fear of “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen.” Expertise, Mr. Nichols explains, is being replaced by “a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion,” which in his words is both “silly” and “dangerous.” For Mr. Nichols, it’s silly because “without real experts, everyone is an expert on everything.” It’s dangerous to him because you can’t have a bunch of uneducated proles running around making decisions, can you?
His fears aren’t completely unfounded and the article as a whole is a generally good examination of the relationship between us common folk and the egghead class in the information age. But there are some observations to be made on behalf of the laymen he chastises.
First, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the experts of any given field have one thing in common that binds them together across their various disciplines: They have no idea what it’s like to be a layman. Maybe they once did, but they don’t anymore. And perhaps they’ve become more enamored with their academic prowess than is healthy.
As one grows in scholastic stature and professional experience, one becomes increasingly out of touch with ordinary folks going about their lives and doing the best they can to make sense of a complex world. I don’t know Mr. Nichols personally but his background makes it apparent he’s not a blue-collar scholar spending scant free time studying subjects of interest before being whisked away to menial duties. Studying areas of global import is his full-time job. The rest of us little people can’t hope to keep up with him, and good on him for that.
We need people like Tom Nichols. If not for his profound knowledge of Sovietology than for his numerous entertaining appearances on Jeopardy!
That’s the second point to all of this. The lay people need experts, we rely on them for guidance in some of the most consequential decisions in our lives. That’s why we hire Realtors instead of selling our own homes and why we visit the dentist instead of keeping needle nose pliers near the bathroom sink. And, as Mr. Nichols observed in his article, when the experts we rely on for guidance screw up, they tend to screw up a lot bigger than us little people.
The bigger you are, the harder you fall and, as already mentioned, when you get big you tend to lose sight of the perspective held by those whose intellectual journey begins and ends with Google and a handful of trusted authorities on subjects near and dear to their unique circumstances. When you get big, your screw-ups, and those of your equally large fellow intellectuals, might not seem as terrible as they really are.
Mr. Nichols mentioned the Challenger disaster as an example of when experts get something wrong. He didn’t spend much time on it and he brushed past his second example, the thalidomide crisis that caused upwards of one hundred thousand worldwide cases of birth defects. Lay people lose their car keys and are late to work and when they get to work they may lose an account and get excoriated by the boss. When experts screw up, people die or are born disfigured. When experts screw up, the entire planet can be injured. Us lay folk are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of the mistakes made by the specialists we turn to for answers to the questions that have the most influence over our lives.
Experts shouldn’t get too big for their britches. A little humility and humanity go a long way.
Mr. Nichols says not every opinion is equally valid and he’s absolutely correct. But not every opinion must come from an expert to be valid. I’m sure he would likely agree, certainly with some caveats. Layman doesn’t mean stupid and/or uninformed. That brings us to the third point: Experts need the layman as much as the layman needs the experts.
Without the layman, who would experts be speaking to and for? They’d be conversing among themselves and influencing such and such policies to one degree or another, but who outside of the tight-knit and distant circles of intelligentsia would disseminate the truths and facts discovered by the experts? Mr. Nichols made a point to briefly elaborate on the era prior to the “democratization of knowledge” when the experts only spoke to one another and he was careful to say we shouldn’t return, so it’s reasonable to assume he understands the value of both educating laymen and encouraging them to promote the ideas received from on high.
But for every theory and argument put forward by an expert, there is a counter theory and counter argument. This is the fourth point. Every notion expounded upon by an expert is susceptible to challenges, many of which are successful and call into question the supposed expertise of the original expert. My father says, “When the experts disagree, you’re back to square one.” One expert may say Pepsi is better than Coke, Energizer is better than Duracell, and Crest is better than Colgate (it isn’t). And the layman would nod and feel satisfied until another expert releases a white paper explaining why his colleague is sorely mistaken on all fronts. At that point, the layman won’t know what to believe and will, in the end, rely on his own experience and judgment to come to a decision.
The experts at such a point have negated their importance and entrenched themselves in an echo chamber inaccessible and useless to those they seek to assist. Mr. Nichols bemoans the idea that everyone has an equally valid opinion but he seems to have missed the fact that we have our own opinions because we can’t always rely on experts when so many are at odds with one another. It goes well beyond Coke and Pepsi, of course. Who can know which side of the Israeli-Palestine conflict to be on? The solution to the opioid epidemic? Ending world hunger? The experts can’t find consensus on much of anything and that leaves the rest of us at square one when making the decisions for ourselves on a basis of not much more than faith.
Something tells me that’s not Mr. Nichols’ goal.
Mr. Nichols gives the impression of a well-intentioned, well-mannered, well-educated sophisticate. But he seems to have missed the forest for the trees: If expertise is dead, it’s the experts who killed it. He can blame us little people all he likes but the fact is, we’re doing the best we can with what they’re giving us, such as it is. When they’re wrong, they do damage that is wide-ranging, deep, and difficult to undo. When they’re right, it’s difficult to know for sure because there’s always another expert to contradict them. And they do all of this from their ivory towers, looking down on people who they don’t seem capable of relating to anymore, if ever they did.
Mr. Nichols is worried that without experts, everyone will think themselves an expert on everything. Well, with experts, none of us can really know anything, all we can do is hope for the best and prepare for the worst. That’s not our fault, it’s Tom Nichols’ fault and the fault of his fellow eggheads.
Thanks for nothing.