An article that's gone a bit viral this week by Tom Nichols speaks very well to how the Internet and information have de-valued expertise and what used to be known as wisdom. Now, all anyone needs is access to Google or any kind of information technology and a baseless opinion can be validated. Everyone is an expert, which of course means no one is an expert - we're all equal.
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.
Of course, in our practical day-to-day life we know that this mindset is silly. Some people really are experts in their field and have acquired a great deal of wisdom. We visit doctors, pharmacists, accountants and other professionals. We eat at restaurants because we know they can make better food than we can at home. None of us assumes we can fly a plane better than a trained pilot.
Nichols' piece does make one wonder about what's next for the Internets. It's been my belief for some time that the backlash against the open-ended nature of opinions and commentary is about to hit full stride. More and more news sites are using commenting systems that attempt to limit anonymity. Blogs are removing commentary completely or becoming more curatorial (edited) in nature. The reality that social media opinions can be bought and sold is coming to light. Like Nichols, I don't want to return to a world where gatekeepers had all the control and the information, BUT I also have no patience for the idea that everyone's opinion is equal. If you just read a book about urban planning and took a trip to another city that's great, and I'm glad you're interested in the field. But you simply don't know as much as I do - it's a fact. By the same token, I'm not as much of an expert on medicine as my doctor nor as much of an expert on taxes as my accountant. That's not just reality, it's a good thing. Nichols again:
Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.
Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself. Yes, I said “Western civilization”: that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations.