When I was a young man freshly out of college, I relied on public transportation to get to work. At the time that transportation seemed a precarious thing. Portland was just starting its decades long swelling of population, and traffic was beginning to become an issue in a city that had always assumed it would eternally boast of its five minute commutes.
Everyone had opinions about how to handle traffic, of course. Some thought more highways would solve our issues while others argued that simply widening the existing ones was more than sufficient, and both of these camps wished to fund their desired construction by scrapping existing public transportation. In other corners, there were NYC transplants who swore that heavy rail was how a real city dealt with commuters, and their Bay Area counterparts who had similar feelings about light rail. Many were convinced that simply subsidizing bus fares was the ticket. And quite a lot felt that the core issue was the transplants themselves, and insisted that what the City of Roses really needed was residential zoning laws so restrictive that moving into the area was all but impossible. Portlanders didn’t just become divided, they became downright splintered in a way I had not seen them before or since.
Despite our myriad of proposed solutions, however, there was one thing all of us` Portlanders did have in common regarding our strongly held traffic-fix opinions: Each of us was pulling that opinion directly out of our ass.
Fortunately for all of us, Portland’s city managers eventually did what most city managers with a brain do when confronted with such problems: They hired experts who actually knew what the Hell they were talking about to tell them what their best options were. Which is not to say that there haven’t been issues that came with those recommendations — there absolutely have. Many projects have gone way over-budget, needed road construction has often moved like molasses when finally approved, and cronyism has inevitably played a part on the awarding of lucrative contracts. Still, the overall results have been surprisingly successful over the years; looking back to those divisive years I think had we simply voted on the best solution we’d have Seattle-esque Traffic From Hell right now.
And I’m bringing up all of this now because it ties in to something I’ve been pondering this past week:
I am beginning to wonder if the Internet is making us collectively stupid.
Over in the threads of my two previous posts on (sort of) economics, there has been a bit of a spat over what qualifies one to speak with authority on the topic of economic issues. The particulars of those disagreements aren’t germane here. For our purposes, the issue at hand is this:
To what degree does having credentials and/or expertise in a given topic give one authority to dismiss the argument of someone who lacks those same things?
For that matter, to what degree does not having credential and/or expertise give one the obligation to defer to someone who does?
Our considered answer to each of these questions is probably somewhat nebulous. Most of us, I would guess, wish to be able to query, reference, and give weight to what experts have to say while still allowing for the reality that even experts can err. Further, even if we acknowledge someone’s expertise we probably want them to be willing to show their work. Given a topic sufficiently arcane we will go out of our way to consult the correct academic; have that same academic refuse to explain him or herself because it’s “beneath them” to do so and we’ll likely dismiss whatever they have to say without any consideration at all.
In the Internet age, however, I am starting to wonder if the very question of how we should weight expert opinion isn’t being phased out altogether.
As long as I have been aware that the Internet even existed (and trust me when I say it was long, long after everyone else did) I have heard its champions praise its democratization of knowledge — and make no mistake, the Internet democratizes knowledge in a way nothing before has. In countless way, this democratization has been a blessing. I no longer have to wonder what exactly is in a bill being debated on the Senate floor. I can review the actual voting records of someone asking for my vote on election day rather than rely on the always-dubious claims they printed on the flyer their volunteers left on my front door knob. If an insurance salesman assures me that his auto policy covers something mine doesn’t, I can actually check his claim for myself. As a consumer, I can avoid wasting money on lemons in a way my parents never could. All of that shows up on my radar as a positive development.
Intertwined with all of that readily available knowledge, however, is the seductive illusion that possessing a library card is somehow the equivalent of having achieved scholarship. After all, if you can look something up on the Internet, why do we need to listen to experts at all?
For example, when I was young we had public policy debates over environmental issues, just like we do today. But when we had debates about whether or not the government should allow companies to dump toxic waste into our rivers and lakes the pro-dumping crowd would argue that transporting waste was too expensive and insist that you couldn’t actually enforce non-dumping regulations anyway. They never argued that they knew better than the scientists who studied the effects of pollution or what the science itself showed — they wouldn’t have dared. They’d have been laughed off whatever stage they were on at the moment. Compare that to our discussions of man-made global warming today, where roughly half of America rolls its collective eyes at these guys.
In this era of Internet search engines, what an expert has to say is gradually meaning less and less. When I first began blogging here, for example, I remember that what I and others who worked in either the insurance or healthcare industry had to say regarding healthcare reform was largely ignored or derided by most, on the basis that non-experts offered points of view (often laughably naive) that more closely aligned with what people wanted to hear. And if that sounds like I’m attempting to place myself above the fray, know that I’m not. My assumption is that in the vast myriad of areas where I am not an expert I have done my own share of ignoring experts in these very threads. To paraphrase a line jr used earlier this week, on the internet no one knows who’s a dog, so we’re largely left to declare canine whoever we wish on the smallest of whims, and then use that declaration as “proof” that that person does or doesn’t know what they are talking about.
The classic Internet acronym IANAL, for example, was once used fairly exclusively as a warning that you should take that person’s opinion with a grain of salt the size of the Hope Diamond. (e.g.: “IANAL, so I’m might very well be wrong about this. Is there a lawyer who can speak to whether or not I’m right?”) Nowadays when I read things online, IANAL has largely morphed into declarative meant to bolster an argument. (e..g.: “IANAL, but what the President did is so illegal as to be the direst threat to Democracy in our lifetime, and if you disagree with me you are clearly a statist stooge.”) If an actual lawyer shows up to disagree with someone who states IANAL, I have noticed that their legal expertise means something to people to the exact degree to which that lawyer’s expert opinion agrees with those same people.
One of the consequences of our growing dismissal of expert authority is that what we collectively declare an expert is largely becoming a joke. A rundown of “experts” tagged for any of our cable news networks looks like a SLN bit. Seriously, is there anyone here that actually believes that Frank Gakfney, Steven Crowder, David Barton, or Jim Cramer are experts in anything aside from knowing how to become semi-famous? Indeed, isn’t the single common denominator of all of these men — aside from being constantly identified by the media as experts in their chosen fields — that they are considered ignorant buffoons by their industries’ actual experts? For f**ks sake, the two biggest experts on TV discussing healthcare and healthcare policy issues these days are this guy and this guy.
Look, I get that one of the traditional flaws in logic that people like to point out is the Argument by Authority, and I get that sometimes experts are sometimes proven wrong, and I get that experts can be just as self-servingly manipulative as everyone else, and I get “but what about Condoleezza Rice!” Really, I stipulate to all of that. Still, it seems inherently dangerous to me to continue moving as a society in a direction where in-depth, non-cursory knowledge of any topic is considered either useless or, worse, a hindrance to wisdom.
The one thing I feel like I truly know about in this world is insurance and risk management, and I am too aware that any insurance or risk management scheme run by non-experts will soon be a smoking financial crater.
I have a hard time believing that other ignoring experts in areas of discipline don’t have similar consequences.
 Yes, kids, that was actually a thing we all disagreed about once upon a time.
[Picture: Self Operating Napkin, wiki commons]
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