Sunday, June 2, 2019

"How We Killed Expertise" and Why That's a Giant Problem | Politico

Three notable pieces appeared this past year in the pages of Foreign Affairs, Politico, and The Federalist, on the ongoing marginalization of expertise in western society, and America in-particular, its causes, and consequences. In the first, and most significant, "How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why That's a Giant Problem", Tom Nichols tackles the notion of "How We Killed Expertise" for Politico's The Big Idea series: "Average Americans have never much liked eggheads. That’s not a bad thing in itself: Americans are a skeptical but level-headed people - or were until recently - whose common sense and ingenuity allowed their nation to achieve great heights in science, diplomacy and the arts, while never displacing the ordinary voter as the deciding voice in affairs of state. But recently skepticism has curdled into something more toxic, even dangerous. Donald Trump explicitly campaigned against experts, calling them “terrible” and saying he didn’t need them. As president, he seems determined to prove that experts are unnecessary to the running of a superpower - winging important conversations with foreign leaders, issuing an executive order without advice from his own Cabinet and picking a radio talk-show host with no background in science or agriculture for the top science position in the Department of Agriculture."

"How all this happened, and why it threatens our democracy, is a complicated story. Even Alexis de Tocqueville took note of the American distrust of intellectuals in the 19th century, and it only deepened with the social and political traumas of the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, globalization and technological advances have created a gulf between people with enough knowledge and education to cope with these changes, and people who feel threatened and left behind in the new world of the 21st century. As a result, the implicit social contract between educated elites and laypeople - in which professionals were rewarded for their expertise and, in turn, were expected to spread the benefits of their knowledge - is fraying. Americans live increasingly separate lives based on education and wealth, part of a decades-long “big sort." What is qualitatively different today is that ordinary citizens seem increasingly confident in their views, but no more competent than they were 30 or 40 years ago. A significant number of laypeople now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field. They have come to this conclusion after being coddled in classrooms from kindergarten through college, continually assured by infotainment personalities in increasingly segmented media that popular views, no matter how nutty, are virtuous and right, and mesmerized by an internet that tells them exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ridiculous the question."

Nichols's previous piece, "The Death of Expertise" in the pages of for the Federalist, makes for complimentary reading in unison with the above Big Ideas entry. He further plumbs the role of the web-enabled consumer and layman, and their assertion over trained professionals, credible news institutions and journalists who have dedicated their lives to experience, knowledge and research in specialized fiends: "Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. I fear we are witnessing the 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."

"Some of it is purely due to the globalization of communication. There are no longer any gatekeepers: the journals and op-ed pages that were once strictly edited have been drowned under the weight of self-publishable blogs and social media posts. There was once a time when participation in public debate, even in the pages of the local newspaper, required submission of a letter or an article, and that submission had to be written intelligently, pass editorial review, and stand with the author’s name attached. Even then, it was a big deal to get a letter in a major newspaper. Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong. All of these are symptoms of the same disease: a manic reinterpretation of “democracy” in which everyone must have their say, and no one must be “disrespected.” This yearning for respect and equality, even - perhaps especially - if unearned, is so intense that it brooks no disagreement. It represents the full flowering of a therapeutic culture where self-esteem, not achievement, is the ultimate human value, and it’s making us all dumber by the day. Thus, at least some of the people who reject expertise are not really, as they often claim, showing their independence of thought. They are instead rejecting anything that might stir a gnawing insecurity that their own opinion might not be worth all that much."

Focusing on the discussion of the rise of the "expert consumer" as a force in the marginalization of expertise, Andrew Keen director of the Silicon Valley salon FutureCast a technology columnist with CNN, author of "Digital Vertigo" and "The Cult of the Amateur", also makes for essential reading. He elucidates expertise's diminishing role in public discourse as a byproduct of the environment of the web's self-broadcasting culture, where amateurism is celebrated and anyone with an opinion can publish, post, or change an entry on Wikipedia. Producing an environment wherein the distinction between trained expert and uninformed amateur becomes increasingly blurred. Regardless of how unsubstantiated, lacking in credible references or citation, and ill-informed these opinions may be. When anonymous posters on social media and videographers, unconstrained by professional standards or editorial filters, can alter the public debate and manipulate public opinion, truth becomes a commodity to be bought, sold, packaged, and reinvented. The resulting conditions making the the ego and self-image of the consumer central to any discussion, resulting in the further rejection of other equally, or more qualified opinions, as Eleanor Catton puts it, in her investigation on "Literature and Elitism": "The idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion - not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood. We are led to believe that our brand loyalties are the result of a deep, essential affinity between the consumer and product - this soap is “you”; this bank is “yours” - and social networking affords us countless opportunities to publicize and justify these brand loyalties as partial explanations of who we are."