The attack on expertise

How ludicrous it is that what Adam Frank says needs to be said:

The attack on expertise was given its most visceral form by British politician Michael Gove during the Brexit campaign last year when he famously claimed, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” The same kinds of issues, however, are also at stake here in the U.S. in our discussions about “alternative facts,” “fake news” and “denial” of various kinds. That issue can be put as a simple question: When does one opinion count more than another?

By definition, an expert is someone whose learning and experience lets them understand a subject deeper than you or I do (assuming we’re not an expert in that subject, too). The weird thing about having to write this essay at all is this: Who would have a problem with that? Doesn’t everyone want their brain surgery done by an expert surgeon rather than the guy who fixes their brakes? On the other hand, doesn’t everyone want their brakes fixed by an expert auto mechanic rather than a brain surgeon who has never fixed a flat?

To put it more broadly, doesn’t everyone grasp that people who know more about X know more about X than people who don’t know more about X? It’s tautologous because what else can it be? If you’re dissing expertise you’re saying there’s no value in knowing more about X no matter what X is, and that’s just bonkers.

(I know this because I’m an expert in spotting when things are bonkers.)

Every day, all of us entrust our lives to experts from airline pilots to pharmacists. Yet, somehow, we’ve come to a point where people can put their ignorance on a subject of national importance on display for all to see — and then call it a virtue.


There are non-bonkers reasons for wanting things like fresh perspectives, people with no vested interest in X, outsiders, rebels, and so on…but there are no non-bonkers reasons for just opposing expertise as such, or for pretending ignorance is a virtue.

How did we reach this remarkable state of affairs? The answer to that question can be found in a new book by Tom Nichols titled The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Nichols is a politically conservative professor of international relations at the U.S. War College. (He’s also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion, so you don’t wanna mess with him.)

First, it’s important to note, Nichols is not arguing for a slavish adherence to anything that comes out of an expert’s mouth. In a wonderful essay that preceded the book, he tells us: “It’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us.”

But it wasn’t the experts who made the mistake that caused the Challenger explosion. Quite the opposite: it was management who overruled the experts. NASA management overruled the engineers who said it was not safe to launch when the temperature was too low. The engineers had the relevant expertise and the management simply said but we really really want to launch so we’re going to ignore the engineers. That didn’t go well.

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