The Death of Expertise

The Death of Expertise January 21, 2014

I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

Tom Nichols, “The Death of Expertise,” The Federalist

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Preston Garrison

    If you have any doubt about this, watch the parade of snake-oil salesmen that PBS puts on during their pledge drives. They wouldn’t be on there if those educated, upper middle class PBS watchers knew how to tell the difference between hucksters and actual experts.

  • Jack Collins

    There have always been pretenders to expertise and suspicion of intellectuals. While the internet may make that pretense easier, it also can make it easier to recognize, if the public is armed with the right critical tools. Heck, there are many famous “quotes” and well-known “truths” that _I_ would still believe if I weren’t able to google them. Technology is always two-edged. It used to be that I just had to take somebody’s word that they were an expert. Now I can pull up somebody’s CV and publications without putting on pants.

    • Will

      The Snoops over at Snopes are very helpful, in terms of double-checking information which may come from fake experts. Snopes bears mentioning, and I just kind of had to add it to your comment after reading.

  • Gary

    Just have to know how to reject bad data sources. Bart Erhman’s video gave an example of a bad (I think) data source from 2000 years ago. Panarion list of heresies by Epiphanius. If it wasn’t for the internet, I would not have known a good data source (Ehrman), from a bad data source (Epiphanius). So there were bad data sources a long time ago, too.

    • Gary

      After taking a look at Panarion, I just have to add something I find amusing. So, this is from a equivalent valid source in around 400 AD, a Bishop, well educated. If I was an uneducated peasant, having Panarion read to me, I would assume it is good data… 😉

      About the Gnostics,

      “5:5 They extract the foetus at the stage which is appropriate for their enterprise, take this aborted infant, and cut it up in a trough with a pestle. And they mix honey, pepper, and certain other perfumes and spices with it to keep from getting sick, and then all the revellers in this herd of swine and dogs assemble, and each eats a piece of the child with his fingers.

      5:6 And now, after this cannibalism, they pray to God and say, ‘We were not mocked by the archon of lust, but have gathered the brother’s blunder up!’ And this, if you please, is their idea of the ‘perfect Passover.'”

      Might have to list Epiphanius as a Fundamentalist, Per Bart Erhman, “Fundamentalist = No Fun, Too Much Damn, and Not Enough Mental”.
      Man, I like Bart Erhman’s videos.

  • The phenomenon is nothing new. Nixon made resentment of intellectual elites his calling card more than half a century ago. I’m not sure whether the internet makes things worse or just more obvious.

  • Will

    Death of the perception of expertise in some circles, yes, death of actual expertise, no, that will never ever happen.

    Wikipedia, and all the blogs you can find via Google, are not nearly as reliable as a peer-reviewed paper. Even with as little as a Bachelor’s degree (applying to grad school), I already understand how to tell the difference between a peer-reviewed paper and even the best news article, let alone some random guy’s blog page. The problem lies in people with only a High School degree, and they take it for granted that the first non-Wikipedia hit on Google will be something 100% reliable.

    If we do see a death of at least perceived expertise, it will mostly be true of people who never went to college.

  • Those who control power (“expertise”) hate when it is torn from them. I have taught in the Universities for 13 years and done medicine for >25 years. I have seen “experts” in these field spasm in self-righteous contempt as the internet and more has taken away their fake, deceptive power. Good riddens — the shake up is good. Power hates shake up.
    Don’t trust authority — just use them when convenient.

    • Isn’t there a distinction to be made between authority for its own sake and expertise? If studying a subject in detail is not likely to result in one understanding the subject matter better, then what is the point? Why not let anyone try their hand at surgery rather than limiting it to experts?

      • “Power corrupts” and it does so subtly. I have seen it happen time and again, in academia and medicine. Power blinds. Power tries to protect, preserve and defend itself well beyond reasonable means.

        If you find an “expert” outside of an institution, they are thus probably a bit more trustworthy as vested interests are not as highly in play. Experts must make their fellow “experts” happy — there in lies the problem: in academia, medicine and certainly in theology.

        Hand surgeons have measurable results, theologians don’t. Internal medicine uses drugs with huge vested interests and the measurable outcomes are pathetic — shhhh, it is a secret — medicine does not work like we’d hope it would.

        I NEVER said, “studying in detail is not likely to result in one understanding the subject matter better” — did I, James.
        But you institutionalize that person and the institutional process with the power it protects, with status, with self-congratualatory echo-chamber activity and parasites who feed the system, then that “understanding” can be (and often is) corrupted and misused under the heading of “Expert”, “Professional” and all that.

        I hope you can see how strongly I feel about this. I could give story after story of the same in all the fields I mentioned.

        People in authority who boast of their authority, their expertise and such are actually the most suspect for me.

        Are there experts — of course.
        Is expertise important — of course.
        Do people use the label of expertise, as an excuse for all sorts of power abuse — hell, yes!

        Don’t trust authority — especially when they yell it from the rooftops.

  • Alexandra Erin

    Shorter: “I worry that the democratization of technology will lessen my ability to pass myself off as some kind of wizard-priest by knowing stuff.”

  • Susan Burns

    The demise of net neutrality means that unless you are connected to a university or have disposable income your internet surfing will be slow. The divide between professionals and laymen will be measured in bandwidth.