Dear Mr. Expert: You say that the people most critical of any job or pursuit are most often those who don’t have to actually do it. This is to a large extent true, and, at times, as you say, annoying. But I’m worried about how this argument is customarily used: namely, as a convenient way to silence critics and avoid answering difficult questions. “Trust me,” says the spook at the dinner party, “if you saw the scary intelligence reports I see every day, you’d know why we’ve gotta suspend civil liberties for a little while and wiretap grandma.”
Paternalism of this stamp works in healthy societies with a high degree of social trust, societies with well-functioning elites. It breaks down when that trust is betrayed and the people lose faith in their elites. For instance, if the power elite running the show in my society seems, for the most part, to know what they’re doing, if they seem to be doing a fairly good job, I might be inclined to accept the spook’s explanation on faith. But, as it happens, I don’t trust my government. Not now. Not recently. Because they’ve betrayed my trust on numerous occasions in the last decade. So, if it’s not too much trouble, I think I’d like to take a look at those intelligence reports you mentioned. If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d like to see them files, with my own two eyes. Okay? That cool with you?
Didn’t think so. But seriously, I’m willing to accept that there are some things that I simply cannot see (e.g., for reasons of national security). And I’m equally willing to accept that there’s a short list of things which are simply beyond my ken, things which are so complicated that I simply won’t be able to grasp them regardless of how hard you try to enlighten me. I have limitations. I get that. And I’m okay with that. But, still, Mr. Expert, don’t be too hasty! Don’t be so quick to conclude that you’ve smacked into the plexiglass of my intellectual limitations just because I don’t “get it” the first time around. If I don’t seem to be getting it, it could be because I’m just not that smart; but it’s probably because you’re just not very good at explaining yourself.
If fifteen years of teaching has taught me anything, it’s this: if the student isn’t getting it, it’s almost always the teacher’s fault. If I can’t seem to grasp what you’re saying, it’s probably because you’re using weird language that’s unfamiliar to me (e.g., professional jargon). If I’m not getting it, it’s probably because you’re leaving out vital parts of the explanation. So, then, the idea you’re trying to convey isn’t the problem; you, sir, are the problem. After all, let’s face it: the experts working on the really difficult stuff—the Nobel Prize winning stuff, the stuff that many of us are simply incapable of understanding—are now, as they have always been, a small subset of those known as experts. That’s the dirty little secret the high priests of expert worship don’t want us to know: namely, that most of what so-called experts do isn’t rocket science.
The list of things that I cannot see, or am incapable of seeing, is a short list. And it ought to be a short list. But it’s not a short list in 2018. All to the contrary: it’s a long list, and it’s getting longer and longer with each passing year. Why? In part, this is because our governments are moving in scary directions: towards a kind of Orwellian surveillance state that ought to give us all pause. But in many ways our governments are just mirroring a larger social trend. We are moving, with shocking rapidity, away from the open society our grandparents fought for, and towards a closed society ruled by experts. Winning an election, toppling a shitty government, bankrupting a corrupt corporation: these are all good things, and they’ll help, but they don’t go far enough, not nearly far enough. We need to reclaim and reassert the right of the citizen to doubt, question, and expect answers from experts.
That being said, what I’m saying doesn’t apply to all experts. Because clearly some of them are benign. For instance, if you’re studying ancient Egyptian scrolls (or something equally arcane), you can do whatever you wish. I don’t care. Knock yourself out. Have your little private parties, with your secret handshakes: it’s all good. But if you’re an expert whose work has a direct bearing upon the health and well-being of people I love, if you’re entrusted with the care of my children, my aging parents, my environment, my food, my water, my economy, well, then, you’re going to have to get over yourself, reach outside of your comfort zone, and tell me, in plain speech, what the f*ck you’re doing. And why you’re doing it. Telling me to sit down and shut up. Telling me to calm down and go home. Telling me that you’ve “got this” . . . well, that’s just not gonna fly anymore. Why? Because if the history of the last half century teaches us anything, it’s that you guys don’t always know what you’re doing. Nor do you always have my best interests in mind.
Still, fear not! I’m not about to go off on some wacky anti-vaccination rant. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you (or at least most of you) have worked long and hard to gain the expertise you have. Indeed, I’ll happily go much farther than that: most experts know, really know, a great deal more about their area of expertise than I ever will. And I respect that. But you need to respect my right to ask questions and expect answers. Does this mean that you’re going to have repeat yourself often? Yep. Does this mean you’re going to have to field some really stupid questions? Yep. But so what? Seriously, suck it up: because the alternative isn’t pretty. Open societies have always been societies filled with dilettantes and generalists: societies filled with soldiers who can write half-decent poetry, shopkeepers who moonlight as amateur entomologists, and stay-at-moms who can talk intelligently about foreign policy.
Embarking upon the study of something is like getting in a little rowboat in the middle of a small, narrow river. You can see the bottom and the shore’s right there. If you drop anchor, you’ll soon think you know everything there is to know about your little river. The feeling of mastery is intoxicating. But also illusory. You don’t know everything about that subject, you just think you do. You’re a sophomore (a wise fool). If you let the current take you farther downstream, you’ll notice that the river deepens and widens, and, sooner or later, spills into the sea.
People who really know about something know how much they don’t know. They’re in deep water and they know it. The same cannot be said of the veritable army of sophomores who’ve flooded Social Media Land recently, people who think they’ve mastered a topic because they’ve seen a few TED Talks, watched a few YouTube videos, and read a few Wikipedia articles. What these sophomores fail to grasp is that knowing enough about a field to follow the conversation is one thing, knowing enough to lead it is another thing altogether.
Experts in every field need to make themselves indispensable. If you’re an expert in, say, particle physics, this isn’t particularly hard. But if you’re an expert in something like fitness or literature, this can be challenging because everybody feels like these things ought to be more or less available to everyone. So the first job of, say, a literature prof, is to demonstrate that everything you think you know about Dostoevsky or Baldwin is bullshit, and you can’t possibly crack open another book without their expert guidance.
Likewise, the first job of a fitness expert is to demonstrate that everything you think you know about fitness is bullshit, and you can’t possibly commence a fitness program without their expert guidance. Hence stupid statements such as: bananas make your head explode at age 53, burpees were created by commies to pollute our precious bodily fluids, and carbs are the drone bombs sent down from the top of the food pyramid by the Illuminati to kill our families in the middle of the night.
The greater the hyperbole, the greater the insecurity. The thicker the jargon, the thinner the thought. The deeper the bullshit, the shallower the thinker. As Nietzsche rightly observed in The Joyful Wisdom: “Those who know they are deep strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem deep to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd takes everything whose ground it cannot see to be deep: it is so timid and so reluctant to go in water.”
A friend of mine grew up in gritty Gary, Indiana, a working-class suburb of Chicago. The nicest restaurant in town was a French bistro that was as famous for its food as its attitude. The tempestuous French expat who owned the place and ruled its kitchen with an iron fist was something of a local celebrity. His exacting standards and temper tantrums were the stuff of legend. Dude was known to lose it with some regularity: hurling abuse at employees and patrons alike in heavily-accented English.
At seventeen, my friend left Gary for college in Bloomington, where she fell in love with French literature. This newfound passion soon led to a year abroad in Strasbourg, where she perfected her French and participated in des Événements de mai 1968. When she got back to Gary a year later, her overjoyed parents insisted on taking her out to “the nice place” to celebrate her return. She tried to engage the moody chef in his mother tongue soon after they got to the restaurant. But to no avail. He refused to respond. In fact, he looked strangely frightened. Alas, it soon became clear that he wasn’t really French. Indeed, he didn’t even speak French!
This is the problem of knowledge, is it not? How do you know if the French chef is really French if you don’t speak French? How do you know who’s right about climate change if you don’t speak climatology? Who’s right about GMOs if you don’t speak botany? Who’s right about police brutality if you don’t speak black? As Aaron Haspel rightly observes in Everything (2015): “To determine who is expert requires an expert.”
I’m not a computer guy. So whenever I want to do computer stuff, I have to rely upon people who know about computer stuff. For instance, if I need to buy a new laptop, I’ll ask the ten computer people I know which one’s best. If nine out of ten say buy laptop X, and one says buy laptop Y, there are three ways I can deal with this information:
1. I can conclude that they’re all wrong. This may in fact be true. It’s definitely happened before. Sometimes entire fields, like phrenology, are proven wrong. But since I really don’t know shit about computers, I have no reasonable grounds for concluding this.
2. I can conclude that the one guy who said go for laptop Y is right. He might be right. Once again, this has definitely happened before. Minority voices within fields are sometimes vindicated and proven right. But since I really don’t know shit about computers, once again, I have no reasonable grounds for concluding this. Buying into the proclamations of a lone wolf is no better than a leap of faith when you don’t know jack about the subject matter.
3. I can conclude that laptop X is the one I should buy. Does this guarantee that it’s actually the best? Of course not. Majorities are wrong with some regularity. But when you’re dealing with something as complicated as climatology, which is far more complicated than laptop computers, let’s face it, most of us don’t know shit. As such, the most reasonable thing to do, though by no means a foolproof solution, is to go with what the majority of people who (seem to) know what they’re talking about believe to be true.
I happen to know a few climatologists. From the conversations I’ve had with them, it’s become abundantly clear to me that 99% of the people who weigh in on the subject in Social Media Land, myself included, don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. As Aaron Haspel puts it in Everything (2015): “Most people, on most matters, are not, in fact, entitled to an opinion.” Climate science is most definitely one of those matters.
When you’re not entitled to an opinion, you have a choice: you can buckle down and learn the subject or you can defer to the judgment of the majority of those who (seem to) know what they’re talking about. I’ve chosen to go with the latter in the full knowledge that I may one day be proven wrong. I know enough about climate science to know that it would take me years and years of study to really get a handle on the subject. Trusting those who’ve studied the subject in depth for decades seems like a pretty good bet to me. I like the odds.
To reject all conspiracy theories out of hand, you have to believe that all of the received wisdom of the present is true. History teaches us that such a faith is unwise. But to embrace a conspiracy theory that involves the rejection of an entire field you know very little about, you have to believe that you know better than all, or almost all, of the experts. Such a faith is, to my mind, far more unwise.
Saying that you have a right to your own opinion is like saying that you have a right to your own belly-button. Of course you do. But so what? The real question is whether or not you have a right to be taken seriously. If you lack the requisite training, knowledge, and experience, then the answer is NO. We’d be wise to ignore your opinion. The right to free speech doesn’t come with a concomitant right to be taken seriously. You can exercise your right to free speech and we’ll exercise our right to ignore you. When people say they’re entitled to their own opinion, what they really mean is that we have an obligation to listen to them and take them seriously. We have no such obligation.
I’m a fairly smart, well educated guy, and yet on thousands and thousands of subjects, I’m not even qualified to step into the ring. I don’t even know enough to competently articulate a position on these issues; and as our knowledge of the world expands, this list gets longer and longer. If we’re going to navigate this brave new world of ours intelligently, we’re going to have to cultivate a whole lot of epistemic humility. Alas, I see no humility among those who automatically assume, based on a few weeks of internet research, that they know better than experts who’ve immersed themselves in subjects for decades. The arrogance of these people is astounding.
The fact that experts in a particular field are sometimes wrong doesn’t mean they’re always wrong. Nor does it mean that they’re no better than non-experts. A shitty archer will hit the bull’s eye more often than a blind one. What’s more, shitty archers can learn from their mistakes, correct for them in the future, and get better with time. By contrast, the blind archer never ceases to suck.
There once was a prosperous village at the foot of a mighty mountain. The climate was mild, the soil was strong, and the land was green, but the villagers rarely saw the sun. Today, like every day he could remember, the sky above Mountainville was obscured by a great big blanket of cloud. Shafts of sunlight were lost in its thick fluffy folds; only the mountain got through. He longed to see its peak, just as he longed to see a clear blue sky. Had he ever seen its peak? Had he ever seen a blue sky? He couldn’t remember.
He decided to climb the mountain. And so it was that the man became Novice. When he reached the clouds he turned and looked down upon the ant-sized villagers below, feeling triumphant: “How high I am! How far I’ve come! I’ll soon see the peak!” Alas, the cloud cover was far thicker than he’d thought it was. But he pressed on regardless. And so it was that Novice became Beginner.
The beauty of the big blue sky took his breath away. The vastness of the vista was astounding, exhilarating, dizzying. It was like seeing the world with glasses for the first time. He’d never seen so far in his life. Still, he was dismayed to discover that he was nowhere near the top. The peak wasn’t just above the clouds, as he’d always imagined; it was far, far above the clouds. But he pressed on regardless. And so it was that Beginner became Intermediate.
He was considerably older when he reached the peak and became Expert. The view from the mountaintop was indeed sublime. The world was bigger, and stranger, than he’d ever imagined. What’s more, on the other side of the mountain, he discovered an elevated plateau filled with a rich, volcanic soil: black and fertile. It was a lovely land to behold: lush and orderly, like a well-tended garden. The people of the plateau lived well.
Still, he was dismayed to discover that the peak he’d just scaled was in fact a false peak. On the other end of the idyllic plateau, a mightier mountain, at least twice as tall as the one behind him, stretched up towards the heavens like a Titan. And, lo and behold, ant-sized human figures were moving about its peak! Expert smiled at a passerby and said: “Who lives up there?”
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2018)