Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The War on Expertise

In the last decade or so there has been a carefully orchestrated attack on expertise. Little by little those who knew what they were talking about were marginalized. If a graduate degree holder gives his opinion on an issue well within the scope of his training he is called an elitist. In school board hearings we are told that “Somebody has to stand up to these experts”
Rather than cast our vote for the candidate we think is the most qualified we’ve been encouraged to vote for the candidate we’d most like to sit down and have a beer with. As if being down home and an “Ordinary Joe” is a qualification for higher office. Scientists who know what they are talking about are marginalized simple because they are experts. Doctors are accused of being tools of “big pharma” and patients are turning to modern day witch doctors and celebrities for their advice. Never before in our history has being an expert been viewed as a liability. It’s as if the jocks of the world gained power and decided that the geeks and the nerds didn’t deserve to participate because they knew too much. We used to be a meritocracy. People who worked to be expert in their fields gained higher positions and more respect. Now we label them elitist and marginalize their advice as if their expertise itself disqualifies them.
I just started reading Charlie Pierce’s Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. When we check books out form the library they give us a little receipt that is roughly 3”x5” that tell us when the book is due. I typically use the same receipt as a bookmark as I read. Victoria has taken to tearing little pieces of the receipt off and using these scraps to mark the interesting parts of the book. Up until know I’ve avoided this technique. But I’m already had to mark several passages of this book and I’m only a few chapters in. I may need to get more scraps of paper because my bookmark is getting really small already.
Pierce is really funny. But you can tell that his humor is his coping mechanism. He’s upset. He’s seriously bothered at the tremendous steps our country has been taking backwards in the last few decades. He makes you laugh with the way he describes the situation before us but the laughter is followed shortly by shame for having taken it so lightly. Because, sadly, he’s right.
In our world where everybody has a blog and everybody is an expert, nobody is. The views of Stephen Hawking are put on an equal footing with any crank on the internet who claims that the world is flat. The view of a hysterical mother are promoted on Oprah as if her discoveries have completely overturned science and the doctors who really understand the disease are only allowed to ask questions from the crowd. We treat everybody’s equal right to have an opinion as if it means that all opinions stand on equal footing. Not true at all. Some opinions deserve to die so that those based on fact and evidence can live on.
Pierce describes our awakening from this state as if describing the first glimpse of lucidity after a hangover wears off:
"This is that moment in the hangover in which you discover that your keys are in your hat, the cat is in the sink, and you attempted late the previous night to make stew out of a pot holder. Things are in the wrong place. Religion is in the box where science used to be. Politics is on the shelf where you thought you left science the previous afternoon. Entertainment seems to have been knocked over and spilled on everything. " (p.30)
Pardon my pessimism, but I think his description is a bit premature. I feel like most of America is still hung-over and quite a few are still enjoying the party and not even thinking about the consequences yet. I’ll give a complete review when I’ve read the whole book. So far Idiot America has been a hilarious yet humbling read.

1 comment:

  1. James F. Trumm7:56 PM

    Hi Michael,

    I see we have a mutual friend in Pat Urschel, who remarked on Facebook that we both posted reviews of Idiot America on the same day. Mine was not nearly as erudite as yours, but at the risk of revealing myself as the rube I am, here is my take:

    Most of the time when a book's quality is uneven, it starts off well and then deteriorates. This is the rare exception where the trajectory moves in the opposite direction. Pierce seems to fumble around with this and that for the first third or more of this book. He draws a blurry distinction between cranks and idiots. He discusses one deservedly obscure member of the former class at length. He zips into James Madison and out of The Creation Museum. I almost stopped reading because of Pierce's crazy zig-zagging. But just when I was about to give up, the book pulls itself together nicely with some fine set pieces about the run-up to the war in Iraq, about the Terry Schaivo case, about global warming, and about the Dover creationism decision. I was familiar with these matters, but Pierce has a good eye for the telling detail and writes with wit and warmth. My suggestion: buy this book and skip the first four chapters. You won't miss a thing.