"In Defense of Expertise"

Jul 1, 2016

In this summer of politics going to heck in a hand basket, I want to offer a defense — of expertise.  Who knew we’d need to say it … and yet, here we are, with sincere folks on both sides of the Atlantic spurning the experts, spurning facts, even.  One critic of the Brexit vote Tweeted: “We now live in a “post-factual democracy; when the facts met the myths, they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in an H.G. Wells novel.” 

Those facts, alas, came from experts, and in the words of British author Frederick Forsythe: Plain folks are “sick and tired of being talked down to all the time.”  Of course, Forsythe also described Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump as “a peasant’s revolt” — a description the revolters themselves might find, well, revolting. 

Experts, it must be said, have not always been kind to folks with less power, since money and status were for centuries the pathway to education and expertise. And yet, now, in a world so complex and changing, surely we all need the help of experts, knowing that we all have plenty to teach, and plenty to learn.  After all, who wants to be the rube who, after voting to leave the EU, frantically Googles “What is the EU?” as so many did the morning after Brexit?

I am a professor by training, but, like any teacher, I spend most of my days (and long teapot-fueled nights) learning, by asking questions of experts — some of whom, I admit, wield knowledge like a hammer, with the rest of us as spindly nails. Just this week, I attended a conference with a keynote speaker who kept reminding us he had a Ph.D. His large audience was campus employees, but he assumed his professorial expertise was beyond our reach.  “Trust me — I’ve done the research,” he kept saying. “Yes, I’ve written many, many long, boring articles — but all you need to know is that I’ve done the research, and you can trust my numbers.”  Guess how well that went over?  

Here’s a better story:  My family recently spent some worrying weeks in a hospital — a true testing ground for communication between experts and the bewildered rest of us. Even an educated person can feel like a dope when surrounded by tentacled hospital equipment, mystifying terminology, and doctors’ disregard for privacy.  So, my sister and I — reared on Nancy Drew — asked a lot of questions.  The first nurse — the essence of kindness — began her answer with: “That’s a good question.”  We felt so affirmed, so clever.  But then the next nurse started his answer the same way — “That’s a good question!” — as did most of the doctors. We wondered: Was it just protocol? Were they talking down to us?  But now, I think they were right on:  Those WERE good questions … because we were asking questions.  We admitted we didn’t understand.  But we wanted to. 

The job of non-experts is to keep questioning.  And the job of experts is to keep explaining until you make sense to the rest of us. Elizabeth Warren, describes in her book, A Fighting Chance, how, with her professorial hat on, she flunked her first appearance on the Jon Stewart show, trying to explain the 2008 financial crash. Rather than giving up on her jargon, Stewart pressed her with more questions, until she used plain language and helpful metaphors to explain how “we can get this bus — the economy — pulled out of the ditch.” Now, Warren the egghead has almost a million followers on Twitter.

The movie about the housing market collapse, The Big Short, shows what a blast it can be — for everyone — when expertise is made accessible through examples.  Here, Chef Anthony Bourdain explains how a Collateralized Debt Obligation — a CDO — works, with a restaurant analogy:

That’s a film to watch more than once. 

This “to heck with experts” summer coincides with my 50th birthday — a clarifying season of life about which a friend of a friend — wearing an outrageous flower in her crown of white curls — announced, “Ah, age 50.  No more BS, darling, right?”   Of course, that’s a worthy mantra for any age.  Perhaps especially ours.

For Michiana Chronicles, this is April Lidinsky