In Defense of Expertise

A Critique of Argumentative Equality, Intellectual Relativism, and Uncle Cooter

Confession time: I know how to change a tire, but beyond that, I am not remotely capable of fixing anything else that might go wrong with my car.

I know nothing about starters, carburetors, fuel lines or transmissions, such that would allow me to work on any of them should they malfunction. Likewise, I would be utterly bereft of competence, were my home air conditioning units to go out tomorrow.

I also don’t know the proper way to landscape my yard, tile a roof or hang drywall. Nor am I possessed of the proficiency necessary to fill a cavity, perform open-heart surgery or make the trains run on time.

My point in cataloging this brief (and to be sure, incomplete) list of my inadequacies is not to be self-effacing for the sake of performative modesty alone. Rather, it is to note that when one lacks certain knowledge or skills, one has two choices: either take the steps needed to acquire them (which, depending on the task, might take longer than you can afford to wait), or find someone else who already possesses them and have them explain or do those things for you.

And presuming you choose the latter, one thing you would not then likely do, is proceed to stand over them, critique their work, or offer your own utterly uninformed layperson’s opinion on whatever it was they were doing.

After all, if you knew how to do that shit yourself, you’d have done it.

In situations like that, we know that expertise matters. So much so that we defer to it and are willing to pay for it.

Oh sure, we might be discerning enough to get multiple opinions (like car repair estimates or advice about the proper direction of treatment for illness), but even then we will solicit those opinions from among various experts. We will not decide whether or not that triple-bypass is necessary by consulting, on the one hand, the esteemed cardiologist at our local hospital, and on the other, KaleMomma1450, who moderates a message board on holistic health and wellness, graduated from high school and works as a CrossFit instructor.

I say all of this because however obvious the value of expertise may be in these previous examples, it is apparently not at all clear to some when it comes to the idea of expertise in matters of social and political importance.

In those cases, not only does everyone seemingly have an opinion and feel entitled to it but even more, there is an increasingly common perception that all opinions are equally worthy of consideration. Even worse, there is an undercurrent of belief that to claim otherwise — to suggest that expertise and facts might be more valuable than someone’s opinion, informed by a few hours spent online, or perhaps by what their pastor told them — is to engage in intellectual snobbery or to look down on the wisdom of ordinary folk.

It is as if people believe that studying a subject for decades confers no more wisdom upon those who have done it than reading a few articles, watching television, or simply living.

But this is bullshit of the highest order, and there are both right- and left-wing versions of it.

For people on the right, appeals to expertise — such as scientific expertise about climate change, the age of the earth, or evolution — are often seen as assaults on their faith. To this, conservatives respond with a form of theological supremacy they believe trumps (no pun intended) science.

God is in charge, in this rendering, and will protect us from ecological collapse. The Bible, they say, suggests the Earth is only between 6000 and 10,000 years old, and that God created each creature in six literal days; thus, evolution is a lie, and to believe otherwise is to align with Godless atheism, thereby rendering one unworthy of being trusted.

Others on the right respond to objectively true facts by engaging a kind of anti-intellectual arrogance: a pose that says the evidence to which their adversaries are pointing is just the useless stuff you learn in college, with no “real-world” meaning or applicability.

So, for instance, if you’ve “never had to meet a payroll” your evidence about the value of certain regulations or your factual information about the most effective tax policies can be discarded. If you’ve never been a cop, your facts about police misconduct, brutality or corruption are immaterial.

From the left, critiques of expertise sound different, to be sure, but are no less problematic. To some on the left, deferring to experts is to perpetuate exclusionary and elitist social structures, especially because those deemed experts are so often drawn from among the very establishment that we ideologically mistrust. Real experts, we sometimes suggest, are shut out and ignored because they pose a threat to the system.

So, for instance, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a fellow leftist suggest that the reason we know linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky is a brilliant and genuinely radical thinker is not merely because his research and analysis bears this out, but precisely because he doesn’t get interviewed in mainstream media. His lack of exposure is the evidence of his legitimacy. Relative obscurity is the mark of authenticity. Anyone “they” let reach a mass audience can’t really be about anything. It’s like that annoying friend you have — and we all have one like this — who liked a particular musical artist until they had a hit song, and then suddenly the friend began calling them a commercial sell-out.

And finally, although progressives will generally accept that things can be proved, like global warming, evolution and the fatuousness of trickle-down economics, we can also be quick to downgrade expertise as an anti-democratic mechanism that disregards the wisdom of the poor, or others with less power and access to get their truths heard.

While I agree expertise is often used this way — and that we must develop a more capacious understanding of what constitutes valuable knowledge, in such a way as to not silence those with less power — this does not mean that expertise itself is a lie, or of no value.

Yes, “average, everyday folks” are often very wise. Indeed, some of the most intelligent people I ever met when it came to providing an understanding of the racialized class system in the U.S., were the people with whom I worked as an organizer in New Orleans’ public housing in the mid-’90s. Their insights into those matters, as well as crime, policing, and social welfare policy, were profound because they lived with the consequences of those things every day.

But acknowledging the fact that expertise can be found in non-traditional places is not tantamount to saying we ought to dismiss the importance of the concept itself. Likewise, the fact that expertise of a sort has been used to start most wars and poison the planet is not an argument for turning the management of foreign affairs and environmental quality over to earnest but inexperienced amateurs with no requisite background in the subject matters involved.

In the case of the folks with whom I worked in public housing, their expertise was derived from their daily interactions with caseworkers, cops, low-income employers, social workers, and small-time hustlers. Their direct experience with specific systems conferred upon them a kind of genuine insight.

That doesn’t mean they should have the exclusive and final say on various public policies — for those things we also need research as to what works and why — but it certainly means their wisdom can supplement and complement more traditional expert narratives and analysis.

And making space to hear those voices is still entirely different than saying that your uncle Cooter, who thinks Obama is a Muslim or Sandy Hook was a hoax, deserves to be taken seriously. Or your neighbor, Quinoa, who insists vaccines cause autism and the only reason everyone doesn’t already know this is because Big Pharma has paid off all the doctors, who only care about money and are therefore keeping quiet about this assault on children’s health.

All opinions are not remotely equal or worthy of consideration. Expertise — whether the result of direct and repeated lived experience, intense study, or both — is more valuable than hunches and gut instincts. And those who would deny this, or seek to level the value placed on expert opinion and that of average folks — whether in the service of right-wing populism, Christian fundamentalism or left/progressive attacks on neo-liberal capitalism— help lay the groundwork for the utter collapse of anything remotely resembling democratic norms.

Democracy (even in its admittedly truncated present form) requires not only opportunity for all to participate in the political process and economic and civic life, but also mechanisms for discerning fact from fiction. Otherwise, the masses empowered to participate in a democracy are operating from structured ignorance, essentially turning that participation into a weapon against the very system that bestows the right to practice it.

It is difficult, of course, to put the genie back in the bottle on these matters. Whereas thirty years ago the concern was the concentration of information in the hands of a few corporate behemoths, today we must grapple with the diffusion of information across the web in such a way as to place conspiratorial nonsense, pithy but vague memes, and chain e-mails on par with investigative journalism. And since, as the old saying goes, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its boots,” that diffusion can prove incredibly hard to corral or steer to salutary purposes.

But try we must. The rise of fake news — real fake news, not the accurate stuff the president calls fake — poses existential dangers to democratic discourse and institutions. Any so-called education reformer should be pushing for media literacy as a required subject in schools, every bit as valuable as science, math, history, and literature. Ensuring that young people have the skills for separating truth from falsehood, analyzing competing claims, and researching things on their own, will be critical in an age where digital manipulation technologies pose a real risk of forever blurring the lines between what is known and what is not.

But whatever direction we take, one thing we can’t afford is to allow the denigration of expertise itself to continue. Facts matter. Truth is a thing, and although there may be multiple ways to find it, finding it on any number of subjects may prove to be the difference between democracy and repression, between war and peace, and between ecological sustainability and collapse.

The stakes could not be higher.

I’m an antiracism educator/author. My latest book is Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020). I post audio at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise

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