by Judith Curry
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. – Tom Nicholls
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. [W]hat I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.
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.
In politics, too, the problem has reached ridiculous proportions. People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.
Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case, even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented.
This subverts any real hope of a conversation, because it is simply exhausting to have to start from the very beginning of every argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument. Most people are already huffy and offended before ever encountering the substance of the issue at hand.
Once upon a time — way back in the Dark Ages before the 2000s — people seemed to understand, in a general way, the difference between experts and laymen. There was a clear demarcation in political food fights, as objections and dissent among experts came from their peers — that is, from people equipped with similar knowledge. The public, largely, were spectators.
This was both good and bad. While it strained out the kook factor in discussions , it also meant that sometimes public policy debate was too esoteric, conducted less for public enlightenment and more as just so much dueling jargon between experts. If experts go back to only talking to each other, that’s bad for democracy.
I like the 21st century, and I like the democratization of knowledge and the wider circle of public participation. That greater participation, however, is endangered by the utterly illogical insistence that every opinion should have equal weight, because people like me, sooner or later, are forced to tune out people who insist that we’re all starting from intellectual scratch. (Spoiler: We’re not.) And if that happens, experts will go back to only talking to each other. And that’s bad for democracy.
How did this peevishness about expertise come about, and how can it have gotten so immensely foolish?
Some of it is purely due to the globalization of communication. There are no longer any gatekeepers: the journals and op-ed pages that were once strictly edited have been drowned under the weight of self-publishable blogs.
Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.
Another reason for the collapse of expertise lies not with the global commons but with the increasingly partisan nature of U.S. political campaigns. [T]he primary requisite of seniority in the policy world is too often an answer to the question: “What did you do during the campaign?” This is the code of the samurai, not the intellectual, and it privileges the campaign loyalist over the expert.
Expertise is necessary, and it’s not going away. Unless we return it to a healthy role in public policy, we’re going to have stupider and less productive arguments every day. So here, presented without modesty or political sensitivity, are some things to think about when engaging with experts in their area of specialization.
- We can all stipulate: the expert isn’t always right.
- But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are.
- 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.
- And yes, your political opinions have value. 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.
JC comments: Nicholls comes to this argument from the perspective of an academic policy analyst. On matters of public policy and political analysis, the defense of expertise is perhaps on shakier ground than expertise in the scientific or engineering domains. Let’s apply his concerns and ideas to the debate on climate science and policy.
For some context on this issue, see these previous posts at Climate Etc.:
- Politics of climate expertise. Part II
- Expertise: breadth vs depth
- On confusing expertise and objectivity
Considering the difference between weather and climate expertise provides an interesting example of the many dimensions of expertise that are needed to address a complex science/policy problem. It is well known that there are many professional meteorologists that are not convinced by AGW arguments. It has been argued that meteorologists are not climate experts, and hence their opinions should be discounted relative to climate experts. Well, many climate experts know nothing about climate dynamics; rather their expertise is in the area of climate impact assessment. Meteorologists generally have a very good understanding of climate variability and the natural causes of climate variability. Discounting the expertise of meteorologists in the climate debate in part has led to the current conundrum for climate science whereby natural internal climate variability has been discounted.
The broader and more significant issue of relevance to climate science expertise is the new phenomena of independent climate scientists, who have no formal training in climate science or its subfields. The emergence of Steve McIntyre as an expertise on paleoclimate proxy data and the statistical analysis of climate data was viewed by university/IPCC paleoclimate experts as an absolute affront, as evidenced by the Climategate emails. The influence of Steve McIntyre on the course of paleoclimate research and the public debate on climate science has been profound.
Nic Lewis is the most recent example of an independent climate scientist that has come to prominence in both the scientific and public debate on climate change. Nic has been investigating climate sensitivity for the past 5 years. His analysis of climate sensitivity (stay tuned for a new report to published in February) will probably stand the test of time better than will the AR5 assessment of equilibrium and transient climate sensitivity.
In the context of the public debate on climate change, a most interesting development has occurred. The UK Parliamentary Committee on Energy and Climate Change is holding a hear on 28 January entitled IPCC 5th Assessment Review (see this previous CE post for background). The list of witnesses was posted last week:
- Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, Grantham Institute
- Professor Myles Allen, Oxford University
- Dr. Peter Stott, Met Office
- Professor Richard Lindzen, MIT
- Nicholas Lewis, Independent Climate Scientist
- Donna Laframboise, journalist.
Note the presence of Nic Lewis and Donna LaFramboise on the witness list! Their expertise on this particular topic does not derive from traditional paths, but nevertheless their expertise is acknowledged by many, and now by the UK Parliamentary Committee!
The debate on climate change (both science and policy) would be much less rich without independent scientists, experts from outside traditional venues, and climate blogs. Yes, there is plenty of noise out there, but the broadening of climate expertise and extended peer communities beyond academics and the IPCC is in my opinion extremely valuable to both the science and the policy process.
Tom Nicholls disdains the ‘University of Google’ as a basis for developing expertise, but in my opinion the web is invaluable for both traditional experts and the 21st century non-traditional experts. Particularly for wicked problems, traditional notions of expertise are being challenged and the democratization of expertise is opening up new ideas and solutions.
Here’s to the 21st century democratization of expertise!