An Expert Offers an Opinion on Expert Opinion

And, as you might guess, he’s in favor of the experts:

…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. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live…

The author, Tom Nichols, presents himself as, “…an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy.”  The first question that leaps to my mind is, “how do you attain ‘achievement’ in public policy?”.  I know that when I go to a doctor that I’m going to get some doctoring done – a blood pressure test, a cut stitched up, or some brain surgeried upon.  How do I know I’ve got some “public policy” when I go to an expert in public policy?  Now, don’t get me wrong, Mr. Nichols is clearly an intelligent and well-informed man and his article well repays reading – but the one thing certain about Mr. Nichols is that he’s no democrat.  He’s an elitist – someone who has gathered a certain amount of knowledge attached to a credential and thus thinks his views should carry more weight than people without the certain knowledge and, especially, the credential.  Here’s the worst thing I read:

...There was once a time when presidents would win elections and then scour universities and think-tanks for a brain trust; that’s how Henry Kissinger, Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski and others ended up in government service while moving between places like Harvard and Columbia…

While Mr. Nichols is clearly well-informed, I doubt that he’s really thought the matter through.  The lauding of Kissinger, alone, reveals that.  What are Kissinger’s greatest achievements?  Detente with the USSR, opening relations with the People’s Republic of China and negotiating the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Somewhere on a trip between Harvard and Columbia, I guess, Kissinger decided that the USSR was eternal and had to be kowtowed to, that Mao’s China could be a partner for us and that scuttling the Republic of Vietnam were in our best interests.  Fortunately, shortly after Kissinger stopped being our national expert, we managed to get that bone-headed, non-expert Ronald Reagan who at least managed to dismantle the USSR, even if he couldn’t undo our defeat in Vietnam, nor turn our policy towards China in a rational manner (which would be to have nothing to do with that beastly, anti-human government).

Experts brought us the United States Federal Reserve.  Experts decided that we should enter full-blown, provide-them-everything-we-can-even-if-we-stinted-our-own-forces alliance with the USSR against Germany, without a reciprocal requirement of the USSR to immediately enter in to the war against Japan.  Experts shoved us in to the Korean War and then settled for a stalemate with enemies who disposed less than a 10th of the power of the United States. Experts got us in to Vietnam (and experts lost us Vietnam). Experts brought us Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, affirmative action, the EPA and $17 trillion in debt.  Had the experts consulted the average American on any of these things, none of them would have come out as they did.  Think about it – ok, American people, I want you to decide: 33,000 dead over three years for a stalemate in Korea, or 10,000 dead in a year for complete victory?  You pick.  The experts picked the former.

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.  That was from Chesterton, explaining that in the very important things in life – whether to marry, to bear children, to fight a war – it is of no use going to an expert.  The expert won’t know the right answer because he lacks sufficient knowledge to decide.  No matter how much time he spends in Harvard and Columbia, no matter how many credentials he acquires, he simply will not know enough.  The most brilliant economist ever produced in a university won’t know the answer to even the simple question of how much spaghetti should be produced next month.  And yet he’ll propose to tell us how to organize our whole economy.

This does not mean the average bumpkin will get it right, either, of course.  But if the average bumpkin is making his own decisions, then he’s likely only to affect – for good or ill – himself and those around him.  The expert proposes to decide for society and thus it is all of society which pays the price if the expert gets it wrong, as he almost invariably does for lack of sufficient knowledge.  But, also, I think the bumpkins will more often get it right than wrong.  A bumpkin, for instance, instinctively knows that if you’re going to fight a war, you fight it all the way with everything you’ve got.  It is true that a bumpkin might be demagogued in to a war – but he won’t be demagogued in to a war where he’s forbidden to use all of his power to fight it…or that he’s got to be more careful about offending opinions than the lives of his comrades.

I do understand the distaste Mr. Nichols has for the opinions of the ignorant and the way they can be shouted so loud because of the internet.  They irritate me, as well.  Nothing quite gets on the nerves so much as to listen to people who clearly know nothing making absurd statements about an issue.  But some of the most absurd statements these days come from people with the credentials from the prestige universities.  I understand the desire that the terms of the debate be set by just a few and that we all argue only within those parameters.  This is called adhering to the party line.  But patient people, people with a bit of love for the people; leaders who are any good, at all, learn how to humor people and get their views across even in the face of the most mind-boggling idiocy.  No great king, President or Prime Minister of the past worked with a collection of geniuses.  He worked with people, which means a certain percentage were fools and some of them quite destructive fools, at that.  There is an appeal in exiling the fools but we face two insuperable obstacles: we can’t define “fool” with sufficient precision and without the fools the truly great cannot achieve their highest potential.  Paradox of human life – it is only by the frictions of dealing with a wide variety of people, some of whom seem to go out of their way to deliberately hamper action, that we can find the leaders who will be able to thread their way through crisis to victory.

Is there, then, no place for an expert?  Depends.  When I’m heading in for brain surgery then I very much want an expert.  Same thing when I want the leaking faucet fixed.  But in the grand scheme of things and in the largest issues of life, then the experts must just join the argument and do their best with everyone else.  If an expert feels he isn’t getting his way, then it might not be so much a flaw among the morons, but a flaw in the expert’s argument.

In the end, I trust to democracy – the rule of the people.  This is not an arrogant assumption that I know better than the man with more education, but that I know what’s best for me – and even if I’m wrong, it is still vastly better for me to decide for myself than to supinely accept some allegedly expert opinion in contravention of my own sense of the matter.  Experts, after all, vigorously assured me that we had to bail out the banks in 2008-2009 in order to save the economy – my common sense rebelled against it back then and my common sense has been proven correct in the event.  The banks were bailed out, but the economy didn’t get better.  I felt instinctively that if someone made a bone-headed investment decision and faced bankruptcy, then he’d better just deal with his bankruptcy and work for the best.  I’ll bet that if the question were put that way in 2008, the vast majority of the non-experts would have agreed that the failures must endure the results of their actions.  Experts disagreed and they won the argument.  How is that working out for us?

Here we are in 2014 and our nation is a wasteland, brought to this state of affairs by experts bamboozling us in to accepting a load of nonsense about how things work.  To be sure, we average dimwits played our despicable role in this – too many of us, too many times, were eager to accept an expert opinion if it was couched in terms of “no pain, lots of gain”.  But the con artist is not let off because his mark is a sucker.  As we move forward and try to find the ways and means of fixing the problems and restoring America, I think our best course of action is to just go with plain, old common sense – the sense of the average person, even if he’s at a TEA Party demonstration with a misspelled sign.  He might not be educated, might not know all the nuances of the issue, but if his basic thrust is “leave me alone to take care of me and mine”, then I think he’s on to something…and his desire should take precedence over even the very best written policy paper from a credentialed expert.

One thought on “An Expert Offers an Opinion on Expert Opinion

  1. Amazona January 17, 2014 / 7:48 pm

    I think many “experts” are really just intellectuals. That is, they produce ideas.

    The problem is, it doesn’t really matter if the ideas are correct. Once you have met the criterion of producing some ideas, you are credentialed, as an “expert” or as an “intellectual”,
    no matter how ridiculously, awfully, painfully, or even tragically wrong you may be.

    It’s really all just about the word.

    Expertise, on the other hand, is quantifiable.

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