It’s getting harder to have the expertise necessary to navigate every arena in our lives independently. Sometimes, we need to defer to the expertise of others, but how do we know who to trust?
We are a culture of explainers. You’ve met them and so have I—the people who think they’re more informed than the experts, always happy to share their thoughts with anyone who will listen. Such people sometimes were considered quirky, even endearing, because they meant well and were usually few and far between. However, “the public space is increasingly dominated by a loose assortment of poorly informed people,” writes Tom Nichols in his excellent book The Death of Expertise.
There is an intellectual Gresham’s Law emerging, as misinformation overtakes knowledge. But this isn’t really a new thing. The conflict between people who know and people who believe they know isn’t always so obvious, but as the gap between experts and the general citizenry grows, so too does the mistrust.
In some cases, ignorance has become hip. Consider the flat Earth movement, vaccines, or the raw milk craze of a few years ago. Rejecting the advice of experts has become a cultural symbol. Why listen to doctors about vaccines, or the Center for Disease Control about the hazards of raw milk? And don’t even get me started on the shape of the Earth.
Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in 1930 decried the “revolt of the masses,” writing:
Thus, in the intellectual life, which of its essence requires and presupposes qualification, one can note the progressive triumph of the pseudo-intellectual, unqualified, unqualifiable, and, by their very mental texture, disqualified.
I may be mistaken, but the present-day writer, when he takes his pen in his hand to treat a subject which he has studied deeply, has to bear in mind that the average reader, who has never concerned himself with this subject, if he reads, does so with the view, not of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader caries in his head.
Ortega y Gasset attributed the increasing numbers of the ignorant public to prosperity, among other things. It’s hard to argue with success. Technology, secondary education, and the emergence of the United States as a global power undermine the idea that average individuals are ill-equipped to decide for themselves. And yet those powerful forces also have demanded that individuals develop specialized expertise that conflicts with broader competence. Sometimes, we must even be content to know what we don’t know, and trust other experts.
In the 1960s, political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and competently perform for himself.” In his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter points out with concern that
In the original American populistic dream, the omnicompetence of the common man was fundamental and indispensable. It was believed that he could, without much special preparation, pursue the professions and run the government.
Today, he knows that he cannot even make his breakfast without using devices, more or less mysterious to him, which expertise has put at his disposal; and when he sits down to breakfast and looks at his morning newspaper, he reads about a whole range of issues and acknowledges, if he is candid with himself, that he has not acquired the competence to judge most of them.
This overwhelming complexity of modern life “produced feelings of helplessness and anger among a citizenry that knew itself increasingly to be at the mercy of smarter elites,” writes Nichols. And Hofstadter warns, “What used to be a jocular and usually benign ridicule of intellect and formal training has turned into a malign resentment of the intellectual in his capacity as expert. Once the intellectual was gently ridiculed because he was not needed; now he is fiercely resented because he is needed too much.”
Don’t get me wrong. Reasoned skepticism and disagreement are essential to progress and democracy. The problem is that most of what’s happening isn’t reasoned skepticism. It’s the adult equivalent of a two-year-old throwing a tantrum.
Sometimes experts are wrong and the common citizen is right, but those occasions are few and far between. What’s growing is our inability to distinguish between experts being wrong occasionally and experts being wrong consistently. Participants in public debate search for loopholes and exceptions—anything that provides an excuse to disregard opinions they don’t like.
This sets up binaries and polarities, demanding that things be either true or false. This eliminates nuance. The reality is that most expert opinions are true at least in part, and the real value in disagreement is not dismissing the thing entirely, but taking the time to argue the weak points to make the overall better.
Laypeople would do well to remember that reasoned disagreement is what moves us forward. Not every idea has to be complete and completely defensible right from the beginning. It is because we question and push ideas that we make the progress that we do. Experts would do well to remember that they may be masters of their fields, but they are servants to society. Mastery means nothing without trust and engagement.
It’s intellectual hubris to think that with a few minutes of googling our opinions are on par with people who have spent their lives in a domain. And yet we’ve been taught that we are entitled to our own opinion and that it deserves equal weighting. Sure you hold your own opinion, but it doesn’t deserve equal weighting.