The Demise of the Expert

These days, I find myself turning off the news while thinking the same question. When did we stop valuing knowledge and expertise? When did impressive academic credentials become a political liability? When did the medical advice of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Ricki Lake become more trusted than those of government safety panels, scientists, and physicians? When did running a small business or being a soccer mom qualify a person to hold the office of president and make economic and foreign policy decisions?

As Rick Perry, the Republican front-runner for president recently told us, “You don’t have to have a PhD in economics from Harvard to really understand how to get America back working again.” Really? Why not? It certainly seems to me that some formal training would help. And yet many in Congress pooh-poohed economists’ warnings about the importance of raising the debt ceiling and have insisted on decreasing regulations despite the evidence that this won’t help to improve our economy (and will further harm our environment.) Meanwhile, man-made climate change is already affecting our planet. Natural disasters such as droughts and hurricanes are on the rise, just as scientists predicted. But we were slow to accept their warnings and have been slow to enact any meaningful policies to stem the course of this calamity.

The devaluation of expertise is puzzling enough, but perhaps more puzzling still is the timing. Never before in human history have we witnessed the fruits of expertise as we do today. Thanks to scientists and engineers, we rely on cell phones that wirelessly connect us to the very person we want to talk to at the moment we want to talk. In turn, these cell phones operate through satellites that nameless experts have set spinning in precise orbits around Earth. We keep in touch with friends, do our banking and bill-paying, and make major purchases using software written in codes we don’t understand and transmitted over a network whose very essence we struggle to comprehend. (I mean, what exactly is the Internet?) Meanwhile, physicians use lasers to excise tumors and correct poor vision. They replace damaged livers and hearts. They fit amputees with hi-tech artificial limbs, some with feet that flex and hands that grasp.

Obviously none of this would have been possible without experts. You need more than high school math and a casual grasp of physics or anatomy to develop these complex systems, tools, and techniques. So why on Earth would we discount experts now, when we have more proof than ever of their worth?

My only guess is education. Our national public education system is in shambles. American children rank 25th globally in math and 21st in science. At least two-thirds of American students cannot read at grade level. But there is something our student score high on. As the documentary Waiting for Superman highlighted, American students rank number one in confidence. This may stem from the can-do culture of the United States or from the success our nation has enjoyed over the last 65 years. But it makes for a dangerous combination. We are churning out students with inadequate knowledge and skills, but who believe they can intuit and accomplish anything. And if you believe that, then why not believe you know better than the experts?

I think the only remedy for this situation is better education, but not for the reasons you might think. In my opinion, the more a person learns about any given academic subject, the more realistic and targeted his or her self-confidence becomes.

The analogy that comes to mind is of a blind man trying to climb a tree. When he’s still at the base of the tree, all he can feel is the trunk. From there, he has little sense of the size or shape of the rest of the tree.  But suppose he climbs up on a limb and then out to even smaller branches. He still won’t know the shape of the rest of the tree, but from his perch on one branch, he can feel the extensive foliage. He’ll know that the tree must be large and he can presume that the other branches are equally long and intricate. He can appreciate how very much there must be of the tree that’s beyond his reach.

I think the same principle applies to knowledge. The more we know, the more we can appreciate how much else there is out there to know – things about which we haven’t got a clue. As we climb out on our tiny branches, acquiring knowledge, we also gain an awareness of our profound ignorance. Unfortunately, many of America’s children (and by now, adults too) aren’t climbing the tree at all; they’re still lounging at the base, enjoying a picnic in the shade.

Should it surprise us, then, to learn that they don’t see the value in expertise? That they can support political candidates who disparage the advice of specialists and depict academic achievement as a form of elitism? Why shouldn’t they trust the advice of a neighbor, a talk show host, or an actor over the warnings of the ‘educated elite’?

No single person can know everything there is to know in today’s world, so the sum of human knowledge must be dispersed among millions of specialized experts. Human progress relies on these people, dangling from their obscure little branches, to help guide our technology, our public policy, our research and governance. Our world has no shortage of experts. Now if only people would start listening to them.

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