–“The Death of Expertise”,Tom Nichols, 2017
Sometimes the smartest people are smart because they know what they don’t know. In part, that’s what makes them wise and intelligent. Sometimes the smartest people are smart because they are experts. They have worked and studied hard to school themselves in one area of science, craft, art or human endeavor.
But what happens when experts are no longer trusted or turned to for wisdom? What happens when opinions trump facts? When the person who wins the argument is not the smartest but instead just the loudest or most insistent?
This is what can happen: chaos, confusion and communal breakdown.
Take childhood vaccinations against diseases like the measles. Two generations ago there was widespread public acceptance of the common and individual good created by vaccines. It never would have occurred to parents then to question the need for this medical care for their kids. Medical experts like their family doctor recommended it. Government experts in the Centers for Disease Control backed it. Pharmaceutical experts perfected the safe creation of the medicine. Vaccines worked and work, in large part, because every one agrees to both their efficacy and to opt in.
Until they don’t.
Until increasing numbers of folks instead trusted just one medical “expert” who declared a link between autism and vaccinations, in a 1998 article in the British Medical Journal The Lancet. The study was written by a British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. Now 19 years later, this “scientific” study by an “expert” was long ago deemed false and based on shoddy research, and was rescinded by the medical journal that published it. Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine too.
Argument over? Nope.
Google “autism and vaccines” and you get 235,000 results. The first link is to an autism advocacy group that clearly refutes any causal link. But scroll down just eight stories and you can find a link declaring vaccines do cause autism. Go even deeper in your search and you can find the two leading “experts” in the United States on this debunked theory: stand up comic Jim Carrey and former Playboy Bunny Jenny McCarthy. I can’t make this stuff up.
And so today even though good science clearly, overwhelmingly, declares vaccines safe, large numbers of folks are still convinced otherwise. Out of fear. Out of ignorance. From mis-information, from false “expert” information. And potentially all of us could pay the price for this public health nightmare.
Or how about climate change? Can we really trust the overwhelming majority of climate change scientists worldwide who say that climate change is actually real? Maybe not. I can find a study, an article, a blog piece, or an “expert” to tell me otherwise. Thank goodness we pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, right? What do all those other nations and all their scientists and all their citizens know anyhow?! Maybe climate change is a hoax. I read that somewhere.
Here’s the irony. In 2017, we have immediate access to more information and knowledge and facts and expertise than ever before in human history. Our smartphone potentially makes us “smarter”, or at least more well informed, than all the generations that ever lived before us. Or it can also make us imagine ourselves experts, when we really are not. In this age of information overload, pseudo-experts now abound in government, in culture, on Main Street, in the pulpit, even in academia.
Thus we are tempted to first form an opinion and then find an “expert” to support our worldview, even when that “expert” is really no expert, and not all that smart either. When that “expert” is really just “expert” at being the rudest and most pontificating guy or girl in the room, able to shout down any one who disagrees. Want some proof? Watch cable TV news for five minutes.
The hope is this: God gave us all a brain and not just to have an opinion on everything, but also to know both what we know and, what we don’t know. So I thank God for the experts, the women and men I trust to go deep in their search for knowledge, not just to be right, but also to make this world both true and good. I thank God for the smart folk who know so much more than I ever will. I thank God both for the ability to question and the humility to sometimes accept truth as truth, even if it contradicts how I feel.
When it comes to figuring out what is true and what is false, I say we follow the sage advice of Detective Joe Friday, a 1960’s fictional gumshoe cop, who always began his investigation with the most important request of all.
“Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.”