The Death of Expertise, Part I: Skirt the Gatekeepers

In the introduction, I shared Tom Nichols’s assessment of where we are in (post-)post-modern America. Besides being an astute observation of how our attitudes have changed over the last decades, I also thought it was a complex issue to unpack, that of the “death of expertise.” Why complex? Well, I can’t (and maybe you also can’t) paint this development as only positive or only negative. It seems to be both.

To begin with, how is the death of expertise a positive (and natural) development? I can see four ways.

1. We are all tastemakers now.

Did you watch the 2021 Grammys? Statistically, you probably didn’t. The Washington Post wondered if the abysmal ratings for the Grammys and other recent award shows were due to COVID-related fatigue or part of their annually diminishing viewership pattern. Drastic drop aside, why are we growing less interested in these award shows? Maybe it’s the fact that few Oscar winners reflect the movies the public is actually seeing and enjoying. Maybe we’re tired of the same winners over and over, or we’re tired of the rich and beautiful telling us what to like (and the invisible corollary, telling us what we like isn’t worth attention). Maybe we no longer buy the spectacle; we know it’s politicking and orchestrated candor. 

We have direct access to every album ever recorded, every movie and TV show ever made, and every book ever written, thanks to the Internet. We listen/watch/read/try for ourselves, and we give and get recommendations among trusted friends who know our taste. Do we need a big, institutional entertainment vehicle to tell us what to watch this Saturday night?

2. We do our own research.

When you decide to buy a new pair of earbuds, a nonstick skillet, or a pair of yoga pants, what sways your choice the most? Is it the artsy photography or the brand name? For many of us, it’s the user reviews. We’ll generally choose the no-name earbuds with 4,000 5-star reviews over the well-known brand with 3 stars and complaints about battery life. Does a celebrity spokesperson or an 80-year company history change that?

The Internet affords us the opportunity to research in literal seconds. We are more informed consumers of goods, services, narratives, and ideologies. We can read ratings of local plumbers and find the dirt on our city’s veteran mayor at reelection time. Rather than agree with our parents’, spouse’s, or friends’ opinion on cancelling student debt or voting yes or no on offshore drilling in South Florida, we are free to read up on the pros and cons and make our own decisions. Which brings me to my next point.

3. We are more educated critical thinkers.

I was a teacher for six years, with English being my most taught subject. Writing was a huge part of the curriculum. The students had to learn to write essays that made a claim and then supported it with evidence. The more advanced students also had to address concessions and counterclaims. This kind of exercise is happening in English, Science, and other classes at most grade levels all across the US and the developed world. At what point in history have this many people been this well-educated and had their critical thinking skills this sharply honed?

This rends a population of adults who have had it drilled into their heads that they must prove whatever they claim. And so must others. We don’t often accept statements at face value; the stronger the statement, the more our skepticism demands satisfaction. 

4. We’re wary of corruption.

I’m not necessarily talking about dramatic government corruption, though that’s certainly included. We are just aware that many of our institutions and media outlets are biased thanks to their funding sources. We know our authorities and institutions play with conflicts of interest. We’re also fatigued by pastor/politician/actor scandals, whitewashing, greenwashing, virtue signaling, systemic racism, exploitative corporations with friendly advertisements, and other nonsense that thrives on our supposed compliant ignorance. 

NORC, Gallup, and Pew Research have been tracking the American public’s deteriorating trust in institutions for decades. (Caveat: check the dates on those links, because while they may be recent comprehensive reports, a lot of social change and upheaval have happened in the last few years.) Why are most of their listed institutions losing our trust? The public has access to information. We know too much. For any institution to act as if their bad behavior bears no consequences is foolishness. Technology and education have afforded the public more power than it’s ever had.

Now, these positive aspects of the death of expertise have shadow sides. You can probably already sense where I’m going with some of them. Comment below to start the conversation, and we’ll cover some of the negative aspects of our cultural shift next time in Part II.

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