“The Death Of Expertise“
January 17, 2014
The Internet has been accused of many things. It has been condemned as a destroyer of value. It has been reviled as the hiding place of gangsters and perverts. And now, in the pages of The Federalist, self-styled social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols accuses it of destroying expertise.
Nichols’ point, brutally summarized, is that by appearing to make everyone’s opinion of equal value, the Internet is slashing the value of an expert’s opinion to essentially zero. That’s dangerous, he says. To kill expertise is to reject knowledge and how we gain it. It is to raise the value of the opinions of people like Jenny McCarthy over those of doctors.
All agreed: we don’t want experts to go away. They offer tremendous value in society, and we would be lost without them.
And he is so very, very right when he notes:
People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.
All Hail the Expert
If this were as far as he took his argument, he would have won the day. Unfortunately, after a good start, Nichols goes off the rails in some important ways that hint at a larger, darker agenda.
He deems as “sanctimonious” and “silly” the idea that every person has a right to his or her own opinion. He launches into a screed against the incompetent taking part in discussions in the public arena. How dare, he suggests, that people who “can barely find their own nation on a map” have strong views on going to war? How dare those who cannot name their legislator have an opinion about how Congress handles a piece of legislation?
How dare, he asserts, anyone have an opinion on a field in which he is not an expert? Only experts, he implies, should be allowed to be heard on anything, unless, of course, the electorate become experts themselves. He doesn’t want a technocracy, mind you:
But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.
The threat: either people get a lot smarter about policy, or the experts are going to take over. We’ll let you have your opinions, but we control will remain in the hands of the people trained to run things.
It is sad that Nichols did not quit while he was ahead, making a case that we need to use care where we tread. In suggesting that we have a binary choice between everyone getting a lot smarter really quickly on the one hand, and letting the experts run things on the other, he is being disingenuous: the only likely outcome of those two is technocracy. And so what this article becomes is a case for the experts to take over.
Who is an Expert?
The reasons to distrust this reasoning are manifold. Let us dispose of the easy ones right away.
First, anyone who declares himself an expert is, in my opinion, immediately suspect. If someone who is in a position to know declares you an expert, you may well be one. If you declare yourself an expert, your status is suspect. Declare yourself a specialist or a professional if you must, but allow others do declare you an expert, a master, an authority.
Second, if we grant that he is an expert, his argument on behalf of the primacy of experts is self-serving, and thus suspect. In this, he is little different from the journalists decrying the Internet because it means we are reading less journalism. I feel bad for them, but the horse has left the barn, and experts, like journalists and the rest of us, are all facing a different world.
So, let us say that Nichols is an expert, and that he is being selfless. Handing over our policy decisions and our fates is a path fraught with problems. Primary among those “who gets to decide who the experts are?” Expertise is subjective, and the determination of whether someone is an expert demands other experts in that field. Who then appoints those people? This works us into a circular argument, and we wind up with a lot of people claiming expertise, but no objective way of making that determination.
I spent two decades working in China, and three decades studying it. Am any more or less an “expert” in China business than a newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. who did his dissertation on my field? Or than a journalist who has covered business in China for twenty five years? Says who? And why? You see where this is taking us. Multiply this problem by hundreds of fields, and the issue of determining expertise becomes non-trivial.
Once we have decided who the experts are, which ones do we trust? Any competent trial lawyer or white-shoe K Street lobbyist will tell you that on any issue, there are experts, but that often no two experts will reach the same conclusion, and often their conclusions will be diametric. Brookings, RAND, Heritage, CATO, and the Progressive Policy institute are all staffed by experts, but if you got all of their experts on any given issue in a room, you would have a war. Who decides among them and their recommendations?
Further, a reliance on experts implies that there are only two classes of people in any given field of knowledge: experts, and laymen, and only the former have value. This is poppycock. Apart from those with the highest level of mastery are polymaths (who are deeply conversant in multiple fields, though not necessarily expert in more than one;) apprentices, students, enthusiasts, buffs, and talented amateurs. People at any of these levels can make profound contributions to their fields.
Three examples jump to mind. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp proved the value of amateur astronomy when they discovered the comet that was later named after them. A clerk in the German patent office turned astrophysics upside down when he wrote a short paper describing a general theory of relativity. And corporate finance executive Edward Miller, Jonathan Parshall, a software executive, and Anthony Tully, an IT support specialist each conducted research and wrote books that have forced us to reevaluate the history of World War II in the Pacific.
Broad-based Problems, Narrow Solutions
But among all of these, the biggest problem is the nature of expertise itself. Experts are expert, by definition, because they spend their lives focused on a narrow enough field that they are able to achieve a greater degree of knowledge than most others in their field. For that reason, they are excellent at answering specialized and narrow questions. Unfortunately, their expertise is of declining value as they touch on questions that have implications far beyond their narrow field of expertise, and it is axiomatic that many of the most vexing problems faced by government go far beyond an expert’s ken.
Elizabeth Coleman, who retired from the presidency of Bennington College last year after a quarter century in the role, frames the problem with experts more eloquently:
Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the role model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. . . . Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making?”“What kind should we be making?” “And “What kind can we be making?” move off the table.
These are precisely the kinds of questions our polity faces today. You can substitute “nation” if you think “world” is too arrogant, but the issue stands. These are not the kinds of questions Mr. Nichols and his fellow experts are best suited to answer. They are the kind left to the rest of us.
The Tyranny of Experts
Which brings us to the final problem. Nichols contends that the idea that we all have a right to our own opinion is silly and sanctimonious. He is wrong. Giving us each the right to our own opinion, to express it, and to be proven wrong or vindicated is an essential part of the American democracy. To suggest otherwise steps beyond the arrogance of a learned man in awe of his credentials: it is to place us on the road to a technocratic tyranny where we are all the docile wards of the incredibly smart.
Aldous Huxley would have recognized what Nichols is suggesting, as would anyone who has read Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world where because all men are not equal, their say in the way the world is run is not equal. That may appeal to the elitists. But that is not democracy, that is not the way the founders of the United States meant this country to be, and it is not a country that I would want to live in, either as an expert or a layman.
Let us keep this in mind: experts have value in that they should always be invited to inform the broader debate. Laymen need to think more critically and question the definitive statements of those who are not deeply knowledgable in the field in question. When faced with an expert versus a layman, deference should be paid to the point of view of the expert, but critical deference should be paid to all.
But experts should never be allowed to dominate that debate or, even worse, by dint of their knowledge be allowed to circumvent it. They are our servants. We shall not be theirs.