Why the Crisis of Expertise Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

These days, sitting at McDonalds, it is possible to consume virtually every possible point of view on just about anything before you’re halfway through your burger.

Economist Tyler Cowen estimates that the single biggest recent change in Western life has been the dramatic decline in the cost and inconvenience of getting information.

Yet, as ellen rhymes points out, just the very high amount of information implies there’s gotta be useful stuff in there too. Even though the percentage is very small. There’s plenty of noise. The ratio is unfavorable.

When the volume of information increases, our ability to comprehend the relevant from the irrelevant becomes compromised. The chasm between information and knowledge seems wider than ever.

Indeed, we also live in a world in which the knowledge landscape has become more and more fragmented. Individuals specialize and specialize and end up in subcultures that are impenetrable to outsiders.

At the same time, we’re suffering a so-called ‘crisis of expertise’. This is a fashionable term, but what does it actually mean? Here’s my interpretation:

The crisis of expertise is the rejection of the mainstream institutions traditionally concerned with gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy). The institutions society had appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute are losing their authority to fulfill this role.

Therefore, knowing (i) what signal looks like and then (ii) detecting it are damn hard and time-consuming tasks that most of us don’t feel a burning desire to go and undertake.

This situation creates a need for an intermediary of interested, smart, eloquent minds bridging the gap and explaining all this knowledge to others. Tribe leaders play a similar role.

And so leading polymaths— philosophers? — such as Farnam Street (Shane Parrish)Zat Rana and David Siegel present themselves as “cutting through the noise” or “a signal in a world full of noise” or some such tagline.

Call this layered structure the ‘epistemic division of labor’. (If you want fries with that, there’s probably a matching mental model.)

The truth is that, these days more than ever, everyone relies on perceived authorities to find (scientific) facts. This is not new. But it is, in our world full of noise, more salient than ever.

There is something disquieting about this trend of asymmetry that should concern all of us — but it’s not the standard ‘crisis of expertise’.

The basic worry

When you are an expert you have good and often decisive reasons for believing certain statements to be true. But the more such reasons are grounded in your expertise, the less you may be capable of explaining them fully to laypeople.

Think of your car mechanic who listens to that alarming noise in your engine and tells you that you’d better buy another car.

Perhaps he can explain why this is so to his colleague, but when I’m standing there hopelessly powerless, struggling to hide my philosophers I-don’t-know-anything-about-anything-practical-like-cars-clumsiness, I’m at the mercy of this good man’s diagnosis. I don’t have access to the relevant facts.

The layperson might have his own reasons for trusting this or that expert, but those reasons are in principle not accessibly informed by the expert’s expertise.

This asymmetry raises a question: how can we, in a time where even if you could isolate the top 0.001% of content on the Web, you’d never be able to consume it all, defend ourselves against the opportunity for those in power to disguise a lack of factual support for some “truth” as a matter of expertise?

How not to solve the crisis of expertise

In Don’t be Fooled: A Philosophy of Common Sense, philosopher Jan Bransen persuasively makes the case that this asymmetry is an undeniable feature of life which requires humans to accept their mutual dependence, their basic need for trust and the accompanying inescapable vulnerability.

We will have to take responsibility for our own vulnerability. We will not be able to eliminate it. Life is an adventure.

By contrast, we now live our lives embedded in a web of social and governmental institutions meant to ensure that professionals are in fact who they say they are, and can in fact do what they say they do. Whole swaths off accreditation organizations, licensing boards, certification authorities, state inspectors and other institutions exist to minimize vulnerability and trust. Employing quasi-scientific questionnaires, they provide the Fata Morganas we desperately crave for because we are afraid to make decisions and trust people in the absence of quantified metrics.

Distrust. Fear of uncertainty.

That’s not what we want.

Harboring a pervasive more-than-healthy distrust of expertise, an attitude perceived as justified by many, is not going to help us making progress in the crisis of expertise. The epistemic division of labor and resulting asymmetry seem unavoidable facts of life in our information age.

Eliminating dependence and vulnerability and replacing trust with insurance, then, are non-starters.

The investigative stance vs. the asking stance

Even worse: not only is that approach ineffective as a solution, it only reinforces the threat of the abuse of expertise.

In his book, Bransen shows that because of the way we’ve related to experts, we are losing our ability to wonder what would be the best question in a situation in which we face a problem.

In our society of noise and hyperspecialization, this investigative attitude is replaced by an asking attitude.

When we encounter a difficulty, we assume there is some lacking information that I don’t have and that some expert somewhere has. While I may of course go into the investigative attitude, it is more easy and convenient to just take an asking attitude and look around whether there’s some expert (with the right certifications, of course) who can settle my issues.

Information by experts promises a much greater certainty than you could ever get using your limited personal experience. But in the meantime it robs you of your personal involvement in much of what you are supposed to believe as true.

This is because expertise suggests that you as a layperson yourself no longer have to do the work. The expert has already sorted it out for you. The solution of the car mechanic or mortgage expert only asks for your consent. You are simply asked to respect the expertise of the expert.

The investigation has apparently already been undertaken. And it was so complex that you couldn’t have done it yourself.

How expertise limits autonomy and self-confidence

Now, as a layperson you are no longer able to investigate the reasons that the expert has to claim what he claims. The facts about mortgages and cars are beyond you.

That is why the growth of expertise often hinders and limits us, even though the growth of scientific knowledge traditionally holds the promise of progress for humanity.

It gives the impression that the only justified beliefs are the ones that have been verified by a hyper-specialized expert with the correct accreditations who uses his experts-only flashlight to direct a beam of light to the slice of signal in the sea of noise.

More and more, we live in a time where we’re losing both the possibility and the confidence to taste opinions and judge claims by ourselves:

If laypeople refuse to take their duties as citizens seriously, and do not educate themselves about issues important to them, democracy will mutate into technocracy. The rule of experts, so feared by laypeople, will grow by default. — Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise

Perhaps the breaking down of trust in others has gone hand in hand with the breaking down of our self-confidence.

Towards a solution

Let’s pull it all together.

It’s unhelpful to see experts as either derided or hold them up as all-seeing gurus.

The blinder we take ourselves to be, the weightier the asymmetry will become and the more we’ll be tempted to replace trust by insurance.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To move towards a solution, we need to avoid two things.

On the one hand, we want to steer clear of this passivity — driving this wedge between you and your access to (i) what you’re supposed to believe and (ii) why. On the other hand, eliminating the trust, dependence and vulernability that are inherent in an epistemic division of labor is also a bad idea.

To prevent the abuse of expertise, we thus need to find a way to cope together — expert and layperson alike — with our asymmetric predicament.