The Death of Expertise, Part II: Everyone’s a Critic

(Need to catch up? See the introduction and Part I.)

In Part I, I outlined what I think are some positives to the so-called “death of expertise.” However, there are certainly negatives.

Following or ignoring expertise is sometimes a matter of life and death, and our pandemic experience should make that abundantly clear. While other parts of the world (notably, India) are experiencing a brutal wave of COVID-19 infection that includes mass contagion, shortage of resources, and tragic death, the United States is in transition to the other side of this history-making event thanks to the wide availability of free-to-the-public, miraculous vaccines developed by some of the world’s leading medical experts. On both sides of the political aisle, we have individuals ignoring experts: there are those who won’t transition out of lockdown, and there are those who won’t trust the science that allows for collective safety.

Here is how the rejection of expertise is a negative development for our society and even our civilization.

1. We are degrading the quality of our institutions.

In the last few decades, the American culture war has very effectively created an Us and Them. In the expertise discussion, Us is a group of populists who don’t need Those Elitists (Them). For much of the country, a politician with an Ivy League law degree and a decade of public service under their belt is suspect and an undesirable alternative to the plainspoken, untainted outsider (the non-expert). The result is often that the outsider—surprise—can’t do the job very well. They are subject to corruption, manipulation, or simply inefficacy. They are no less subject to the temptations of ego or a fatter wallet. The quality of our governance falls, only confirming voters’ fears (and sometimes cynicism) that government is broken. The connection is not made that “garbage in, garbage out.” If we remove expertise from governing bodies, education, healthcare leadership, the justice system, and business, we should not be surprised that those institutions crumble from the inside, leaving a gaping hole and even destruction. For Christians, this is true for the institutional church, as well.

2. We are muddying or erasing objective standards.

In a world where every opinion is equally valid, the informed opinion is buried, and its value lost. As a society, we become less like a grand library and more like a junk drawer, in terms of knowledge. The good, noble, helpful, and true loses its platform to whatever is loudest, most profitable, or most popular for the moment. This affects our economic policies, our morals, our social stability, our art, our technology, and our religion.

3. We threaten life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Our very survival relies on basics such as clean water, clean air, and safe food, for which we rely on experts to regulate, to make safe, to advise on environmental policy, to design systems… We have medicine—including inoculation technology—that ensures children grow up healthy into adulthood, that we survive viral and bacterial infections, that we regain use of our limbs and organs after traumatic accidents… As for our liberty, it depends on sound policy created by educated policy- and decision-makers in all branches and agencies of government. It’s protected by nonprofit watchdogs, a free press, and an informed, engaged voter. Our pursuit of happiness cannot be separated from life and liberty.

Arguments can be made that the death of expertise gives rise to anxiety in a culture. We become nihilists and absurdists, to a degree. While it’s dangerous and dubious to instate authority for the sake of having authority, anarchy is not a stable state for us to live in. What should we do? Where should we land? We’ll cover that in the conclusion. For now, join the conversation—do you disagree with these drawbacks? Was an important one missed?

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