Once upon a time, this statement, from a Facebook post, would not have raised any eyebrows:
“I am an expert in very, very few things. But in those areas, my expertise is hard earned through study, work, experience, and aptitude. None of it comes from attending Google University. But unless you are an expert in exactly the same areas, your opinion is not just as valid as mine. It’s not.”
In today’s world of anti-social media, there are no experts. Everything is an opinion: “The sun rises in the East.” “That’s YOUR opinion!” And they’re all considered equal.
When dealing with a pandemic, such disdaining of experts can and does cost lives.
Here are some of the responses to the above expert’s post:
“I trust intuition and heart sense.”
“Gifts, callings and talents, even random revelations and chance, often trumps expertise!”
“Highly qualified experts in their field disagree all the time and it’s not uncommon to see scientific and medical experts disagree in large numbers, down the middle, with no definitive consensus.”
“I can’t support shunning outside perspectives. Experts used to agree homosexuality was a mental disorder. Experts used to agree climate change wasn’t real. Experts used to agree the Earth was quite a bit younger than it is.”
Some of those are well reasoned. Most (and there are many, many more) reject the idea that someone else might know better.
It’s a manifestation of anti-intellectualism that has plagued society for decades. It’s the idea that experts don‘t know what they’re talking about, because, hell, they don’t even know how to milk a cow.
I’m sure we can go back even further, but Washington columnist Stewart Alsop set the tone in 1952, when he coined the derogatory term “egghead” to describe Adlai Stevenson, the learned and intelligent Democratic candidate for president, facing war hero Dwight Eisenhower. Stevenson, one of the most qualified candidates ever to run for president, lost to Eisenhower. Twice. He couldn’t shake the “egghead” image.
In 1970, one of President Richard Nixon’s hatchetmen, Spiro Agnew, spoke out against the “effete corps of impudent snobs,” among other gems.
By 1972, archetypical racist George Wallace had taken up the cause, repeatedly denouncing “pointy-headed intellectuals” who “can’t park their bicycles straight.”
Today, academia is painted, correctly to some extent, as a closed bastion of liberals and political correctness, where radical professors run wild, and students are bullied onto lefty group-think when they’re not searching out safe spaces and avoiding triggers.
So little wonder that “experts,” who invariably have letters like PhD after their names, are lumped into that whole image of “pointy-headed intellectuals” who are isolated from the “real world” (whatever that is) and don’t know what it’s like out there any better than you do.
Here’s what happens. I am an expert in Israeli and Middle East politics. I come by that as a professional journalist, reporting at ground level and all the other levels for the past 40+ years. I covered all the major events, talked to the main players in person, talked to people on all sides, wrote two books. So imagine my reaction when a not-stupid person on Facebook challenges my analysis by stating that he, too, has “covered the Mideast for decades,” but he’s never been within 6,000 miles of here!
Today’s equivalent is rejecting the advice of experts to stay home, maintain social distancing, and wear a mask—not by citing other experts, but by sourcing some Facebook post by someone who doesn’t like wearing a mask because it infringes on his “rights.”
The experts say, over and over, that wearing a simple mask does not protect you—it protects others. You might be an asymptomatic COVID-19 carrier. By sneezing or coughing or just talking, you could infect people nearby. You do not have the right to murder your neighbor.
But you shouldn’t need that explanation. I should have been able to stop after, “the advice of experts to stay home, maintain social distancing, and wear a mask,” because “experts.”
Do I mean we should all follow the advice of everyone who’s labeled an expert, with no thought or checking? Of course not. A TV news channel put teenage eco-activist Greta Thunberg on to advocate for one side or the other in a lockdown debate. She’s not an expert on anything.
So whom should we believe? One clue is to look for those telltale letters after the name—PhD, MD, that sort of thing. Another is understanding that experts may disagree—it’s part of the reality of science.
So stop looking for “aha” moments when experts change their advice. It doesn’t mean they are wrong. It means, like responsible professionals, they are updating their recommendations based on new statistics or analysis. Do you know any non-expert who is intellectually honest enough to change a belief because of updated information? Not too likely these days.
The last word goes to the person who wrote the original post:
“Genuinely smart people look for answers from people who are smarter than themselves. Only ignorant people believe their guess is as good as anyone else’s.”