the death of the expert?

People often call me an "expert," and sometimes I have to welcome that.  But Maria Bustillos's Daily Beast article, "Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert," captures my uneasiness with the word.

So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person's views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case. For us to have this magic thinking about "individualism" then is pernicious politically, intellectually, in every way. That is not to say that we don't value those who can lead the conversation. We'll need them more and more, those "who are able to marshal the wisdom of the network," to use Bob Stein's words. But they might be more like DJs, assembling new ways of looking at things from a huge variety of elements, than like than judges whose processes are secret, and whose opinions are sacred.

I would love to live in a world of fellow-investigators rather than experts. 

To put it another way, I would love to live in a world where experts are responsible for how, but not for why.  There's nothing wrong with expertise that devotes itself to the question: "What are the best ways to deliver the outcomes that you (your country, your city, your neighborhood) want?"  Expertise becomes scary only when it starts telling people what they should want.  I try, not always successfully, to police that boundary in my own work. 

Experts do have a role in telling people what things cost, including costs that are now invisible to the individual such as the environmental and foreign policy costs of oil dependence.  That can sound like telling people what they should want, but it's not.  It's helping adults accept the consequences of their choices — which is pretty much what adulthood means.

4 Responses to the death of the expert?

  1. Zoltán May 27, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    Actions have consequences that one should accept? How un-libertarian of you to suggest such a thing.

  2. Rob May 27, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    “So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person’s views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case.” Isn’t that a funny thing to say?
    It’s funny because, you’d think that outcomes and evidence would play a role in determining who is an expert and who is not. But clearly that’s not the case these days. We have tons of experts who are always wrong, and that’s OK as long as their messages resonate with believers and partisans. It’s easier to see in economics, where one’s track history can be quantified, than in transportation where outcomes are subjective – but overall today it often seems that science and knowledge are devalued in comparison with belief.
    So it’s not the word that’s a problem. It’s still good to be an expert. A fellow-investigator is good too, though it doesn’t suggest a track record of being right. If a track record isn’t needed to be considered an expert, then I have to agree that it’s no longer a meaningful term and fellow-investigator might be better. But wouldn’t it be worthwhile to start recognizing again who has a track record and who does not?

  3. Morgan Wick May 28, 2011 at 2:40 am #

    Yeah, “screw experts” thinking leads to people calling for the teaching of intelligent design, saying we haven’t definitively proven climate change so we shouldn’t do anything about it, and charging blind into certain quagmires because you have an ideology about how to use the military that must be upheld at all costs. There’s a meme going around, especially on the American right, of accusing experts of having ulterior motives whenever you disagree with them. I’m not sure it’s possible anymore to convince people that positions they disagree with is even valid, let alone right, when they’re convinced everyone holding them is either evil or duped.

  4. tomtakt June 10, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    Jared, I would like to say that I have very much admired your judicious attempts at always trying to maintain a more “investigative” approach in your writing. It has definitely come across to me that you never insist that you or anyone else has all the answers, and it is something that I have tried to emulate in my own professional dialogs. Pointing out or raising attention of certain features that individuals less experienced/knowledgeable on the subject matter may not notice can be more effective than telling them the conclusions that you have come to.
    Ultimately, “experts” rarely get to make the big decisions in our society, so we’re much better off trying to inform and get everyone educated on the costs and trade-offs of various decisions, as you mentioned.