How We Killed Expertise

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Average Americans have never much liked eggheads. That’s not a bad thing in itself: Americans are a skeptical but level-headed people—or were until recently—whose common sense and ingenuity allowed their nation to achieve great heights in science, diplomacy and the arts, while never displacing the ordinary voter as the deciding voice in affairs of state. But recently skepticism has curdled into something more toxic, even dangerous. Donald Trump explicitly campaigned against experts, calling them “terrible” and saying he didn’t need them. As president, he seems determined to prove that experts are unnecessary to the running of a superpower—winging important conversations with foreign leaders, issuing an executive order without advice from      His own Cabinet and picking a radio talk-show host with no background in science or agriculture for the top science position in the Department of Agriculture. In the far less grand homes of ordinary American families, knowledge of every kind is also under attack. Parents argue with their child’s doctor over the safety of vaccines. Famous athletes speculate that the world might actually be flat. College administrators ponder dropping algebra from the curriculum because students keep failing it. This is all immensely dangerous, not only to the well-being of individual citizens, but to the survival of the United States as a republic. How all this happened, and why it threatens our democracy, is a complicated story. Even Alexis de Tocqueville took note of the American distrust of intellectuals in the 19th century, and it only deepened with the social and political traumas of the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, globalization and technological advances have created a gulf between people with enough knowledge and education to cope with these changes, and people who feel threatened and left behind in the new world of the 21st century. As a result, the implicit social contract between educated elites and laypeople—in which professionals were rewarded for their expertise and, in turn, were expected to spread the benefits of their knowledge—is fraying. Americans live increasingly separate lives based on education and wealth, part of a decades-long “big sort.” What is qualitatively different today is that ordinary citizens seem increasingly confident in their views, but no more competent than they were 30 or 40 years ago. A significant number of laypeople now believe, for no reason but self-affirmation, that they know better than experts in almost every field. They have come to this conclusion after being coddled in classrooms from kindergarten through college, continually assured by infotainment personalities in increasingly segmented media that popular views, no matter how nutty, are virtuous and right, and mesmerized by an internet that tells them exactly what they want to hear, no matter how ridiculous the question. It is easy to dismiss hostility toward experts as a function of a poor education, but that’s inaccurate. The affluent, educated parents of Marin County in California, after all, led the way on the anti-vaccine madness. “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams, who holds an MBA, has a large audience for his attacks on experts, including his astonishing claim that there’s nothing a president can’t master in a conversation with a specialist in an hour.