Has the Internet resulted in the death of expertise?


Tom Nichols, professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, has written one of my favorite pieces in recent memory on the subject of expertise in society. In “The Death of Expertise” he examines the dynamic he has seen in intellectual exchanges of late, particularly since the public turned its attention to matters of national security around the NSA/PRISM story.

expertiseI wonder if we are witnessing the “death of expertise:” a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between students and teachers, knowers and wonderers, or even 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. A fair number of Americans now seem to reject the notion that one person is more likely to be right about something, due to education, experience, or other attributes of achievement, than any other.

Indeed, to a certain segment of the American public, the idea that one person knows more than another person is an appalling thought, and perhaps even a not-too-subtle attempt to put down one’s fellow citizen. It’s certainly thought to be rude: to judge from social media and op-eds, the claim of expertise — and especially any claim that expertise should guide the outcome of a disagreement — is now considered by many people to be worse than a direct personal insult.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is just plain silly.

Some of his inspiration for this essay is the ongoing fisticuffs between Dr. John Schindler, a fellow professor  at the Naval War College and the various and sundry denizens of Twitter on the issue of signals intelligence and the recent revelations of a certain information technology consultant who is now a permanent guest of Vladimir Putin. Schindler has been particularly vociferous about pointing out factual errors around how intelligence agencies and statecraft actually works.

Schindler has a particular problem, in that he’s taken a strong stand on the Snowden/Greenwald treason fiasco, a cause near and dear to the hearts of the young. This is a problem because young people are the most ruthlessly opposed to any notion of expertise, largely because they are the segment of the population least likely to have any. These young free-thinkers have made clear to Dr. Schindler that his references to his advanced education and to his many years of experience actually working inside the NSA are just arrogant diversions, because he just doesn’t get it. 

Some of John’s debate partners, of course, are intelligent and well-intentioned people. But some of them are just insecure — and sometimes paranoid — scolds who feel the need to lecture Schindler on how the NSA and the intelligence community really works — that world “really” pops up a lot — and to point him to things he needs to read. (I always love it when people give scholars and experts homework assignments.) If he’d just read that one really cool thing they saw on some website, they’re sure he’d finally really, really get how they figured out stuff in the few years they’ve lived since high school that he missed over the past few decades of actually serving his country.

I love this article because it traffics in the true complexity of the matter. Expertise should result in authority, but we need be constantly vigilant about the tendency toward authoritarianism. The government’s lack of transparency about how intelligence has changed our democratic institutions should result in significant skepticism. But if we disrespect all forms of expert knowledge, even in shadowy disciplines such as intelligence, we are throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Where do you think expertise will go from here?

  • Scott McWilliams

    I’m not sure this is anything new. People have always been opposed to the smart kid in the class, or bullied the “nerd”. The internet is just making it more visible.

    • http://www.ericgarland.co/ Eric Garland

      I think that maybe 90% of my audience might be formerly bullied nerds. I’m on the list, that’s for sure.

  • TCWriter

    Expertise should result in authority” — except how could it possibly do so when the Internet has offered everyone the opportunity to be an expert.

    Hasn’t expertise been devalued (dare I say “disrupted”) to the point it’s worth about the same as the North Korean Won?

    Since I’m approaching “You kids get off my lawn” age, I’m going to hop in the WABAC Machine and point out that prior to the rise of the Internet, you had few media channels, and the “experts” that appeared in them had (hopefully) been vetted.

    Three broadcast networks, a mess of major newspapers and a few other media channels beckoned. You didn’t need too many experts to fill those channels.

    By contrast, today’s media landscape is essentially awash in experts seeking “Thought Leadership.”

    In the marketing world alone, people with literally months of experience (and the “expertise” to match) unashamedly label themselves gurus, and Google — which is happier evaluating posting frequency and bullet points rather than insight or prior results — provides an eager partner.

    In simple terms, if everyone’s an expert, how valuable can be expertise really be?