Every lawyer is, by definition, an expert. If you wanted to call a lawyer to the witness stand to ask her legal opinion, the only qualification required would be bar admission. But, of course, every lawyer is not an expert in the non-legal definition. More significantly, put ten lawyers on the stand and you’ll get ten different opinions, a few of which may be totally batshit crazy.
The point isn’t that the ten lawyers who disagree are wrong, but that “expertise” does not assure a “correct” opinion. Indeed, there often isn’t a correct opinion, but there are incorrect opinions. And this is just as to law. There are an infinite number of issues upon which opinions can be formed. Some require no expertise (which tastes better, chocolate or vanilla?) and every opinion is just as valid as every other (yes, there will be that person without taste buds. Just stop). Other areas of inquiry require a foundation of base knowledge before a person can have a legitimate opinion at all, after which valid opinions can be formed and debated.
I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.
I never thought those were particularly controversial statements. As it turns out, they’re plenty controversial. Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy.
An ominous start, not because his point isn’t valid, but because the word “expert” is loaded. The dictionary definition of “expert” is someone with comprehensive and authoritative knowledge or skill in a particular area, which is fine as far as it goes. This, obviously, compels the next question, which is who decides whether someone has the requisite knowledge or skill?
Lawprofs regularly describe themselves as “experts” in a field. And journalists, commonly, accept their self-characterizations without question, giving rise to a bit of a circle jerk that ultimately creates an impression of expertise. After all, if credible media calls you an “expert” enough, then you are one, right? Who can be bothered tracking every claim of expertise back to its ignominious source of facile self-description?**
At the same time, questions as to the validity of comprehensive knowledge give rise to the opposite claim, that expertise is a sham designed to silence the opinions of others.
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.
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 silly.
The popular mantra, that every person has a right to an opinion is, as Nichols asserts, “silly.” It’s not that every person doesn’t have the right to express an opinion, but that they are not entitled to have their opinion given any credit if they lack the foundation to hold it. When it comes to preferred ice cream flavor, we’re all equal. When it comes to aerodynamics, we’re not.
Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself. Yes, I said “Western civilization”: that paternalistic, racist, ethnocentric approach to knowledge that created the nuclear bomb, the Edsel, and New Coke, but which also keeps diabetics alive, lands mammoth airliners in the dark, and writes documents like the Charter of the United Nations.
In too many minds, all issues are decided by a binary, in this instance expertise either exists or doesn’t, experts are either good or bad. There is no recognition of the spectrum between the end points. If only there was a spectrum expert to explain this to us?
The questions that should be asked start with the ones a judge should (but too often doesn’t) ponder when admitting expert testimony. Is the substantive question one that requires comprehensive and authoritative knowledge? if a jury can figure it out without the aid of an expert, then a party has no business introducing expert testimony, putting a witness on the stand to usurp the jury’s function by telling them what an expert thinks.
Even so, there are often “dueling experts,” where both sides put on their own expert, each of whom will recite the litany of their education, experience, publications and awards, for the purpose of earning their ridiculously high fees and persuading the jury they know what they’re talking about. Sometimes these experts “offset.”
Other times, the jury is left to its own devices to figure out which witness’ testimony to favor. It’s a rather insane system, since the jury is no more qualified to believe one over the other than it would be to find facts without possessing the comprehensive and authoritative knowledge necessary in the first place.
Yet, none of this “solves” the problem. Ask an engineer what will happen if you push a bumblebee off the roof, and he may explain, complete with calculations, why it will end poorly for the bee. Yet, bumblebees fly quite nicely, thank you. Sure, there’s a hammer/nail issue here, but would you prefer the airliner in which you’re flying to have been designed with a mechanical pencil or a crayon?***
The logical fallacy of “appeal to expertise” is often conflated with expertise. The former occurs when someone claims “experts [of some specific ilk] say this is so,” as opposed to a substantive reference to a particular person, an offering of their competence to opine and an explanation of the basis for their opinion. The latter can be assessed for its validity. The former cannot. The latter opens discussion. The former closes it.
Don’t hate experts. Without them, airplanes would fall from the sky. And no matter how you feel about an issue, or even how right you turn out to be, that doesn’t make you an expert or mean that your opinion matters. Nichols makes some points that help to enable us non-experts in serve as gatekeepers of our personal understanding and appreciation of what to believe:
- We can all stipulate: the expert isn’t always right.
- But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, it shouldn’t engender insecurity or anxiety to think that an expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. (Because, likely, it is.)
- Experts come in many flavors. Education enables it, but practitioners in a field acquire expertise through experience; usually the combination of the two is the mark of a true expert in a field. But if you have neither education nor experience, you might want to consider exactly what it is you’re bringing to the argument.
- In any discussion, you have a positive obligation to learn at least enough to make the conversation possible. The University of Google doesn’t count. Remember: having a strong opinion about something isn’t the same as knowing something.
- And yes, your political opinions have value. Of course they do: you’re a member of a democracy and what you want is as important as what any other voter wants. As a layman, however, your political analysis, has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.
And how do I know all this? Just who do I think I am?
Well, of course: I’m an expert.
Oh, come on. That was funny. While Nichols’ claim to expertise is in public policy, an exceptionally contentious area where, knowledgeable people might argue, the very nature of expertise doesn’t exist in the first place, what makes you feel your Ph.D. from Dunning-Kruger University gives you the authority to disagree?
*Mention of Nichols evokes outrage from Trump supporters. This is not a referendum on Nichols nor a mechanism to vent anger toward him. If you don’t think Tom Nichols, despite your fury, has anything worthwhile to say, consider this a blind squirrel opportunity and save your angst for another time and place. I’m not interested and it won’t be allowed.
**There’s a secondary, and far more disturbing trend, of scholars who, on paper at least, have a legitimate claim to expertise, but abuse their “authoritative” opinion to promote their advocacy. Intellectual dishonesty has become a weapon to serve their political agenda, and scholars who do so are nothing more than disgraceful liars.
***Just don’t go there. It’s too easy.