When everyone’s an expert

Incestuous, homogeneous fiefdoms of self-proclaimed expertise are always rank-closing and mutually self-defending, above all else.
― Glenn Greenwald

I feel the need to remind myself – and anyone who might be reading – of the origin of this blog’s name: unabsolutedotcom. The founding premise was that even the seemingly simplest of issues is far more complex than it might first appear. In and of itself, I wouldn’t blame anyone for saying “so what?” What is to be gained by acknowledging complexity? Shouldn’t we leave the details (of whatever) to those who have the knowledge and expertise? As Hamlet would say, though “there’s the rub”. What constitutes expertise these days? Do we know? Have we given it much thought?

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In fact, my recent observations lead me to conclude that our current view of the very notion of expertise is tinged with a persistent cynicism. If someone presents him or herself as an expert in subject X, should such an expert’s view of an issue differ from our own, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that view dismissed. As a general rule, would-be experts are valued only inasmuch as they validate our established positions on issues. In fact, the nature of information these days is such that an “expert” can be found to support just about anything.

Accounting for this phenomenon isn’t that hard. I’m old enough to remember a time when information of the more esoteric variety could be found only in books. Even then, if you were looking for something especially obscure, the public library wasn’t enough. If you were lucky enough to have a university in your community, you might visit its library but even then, depending on just HOW obscure your topic was, that could be a dead-end. When I was working on my thesis for my M.A., I had to physically visit archives as far away as Boston in order to find materials relevant to my topic.

expert 4
Compare that to today. I don’t think I’m so much different from anyone else: if a question about something occurs to me, I immediately head to the nearest internet connection (phone, tablet, desktop, laptop, etc) and “google it”. For the most part, that poses few problems since I’m usually looking for simple information. When that same internet becomes the chief source of our understanding of complex issues, I become concerned. I’m not the first one to say it but it bears repeating: finding it on the internet does not make it true.

The same warning used to apply to newspapers, as in, “just because you read it in the newspaper doesn’t mean it’s true”. This warning becomes all the more compelling when applied to the online world. At least newspapers then and now answer to editorial staffs and to a general code of conduct that helps them to avoid the worst inaccuracies. Internet sources, as far as I can tell, answer to no one. That isn’t to say that all things internet are unreliable; rather, it is the unfiltered quality that makes the entirety problematic. If something is found on a website whose pedigree is clear, we can take comfort. Determining that pedigree, however, can be difficult in its own right.

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As more and more people, organizations and interest groups come to understand the freedom the internet offers to present a particular point-of-view, it should come as no surprise that objective information on any subject is hard to come by. At the same time, those offering information online commonly make arguments that are intended to prove just how objective they are, even if their partiality is especially evident. Perhaps the clearest example of this would be Fox News whose tagline, “fair and balanced”, is laughable to all but the most indoctrinated. At the same time, the continuing insistence by such a prominent and mainstream source that it is fair and balanced feeds the very cynicism that I find so regrettable.

I would argue (and it’s an old argument) that where news reporting is concerned no such thing as absolute objectivity exists. By virtue of the fact that a certain thing becomes news while something else doesn’t, we know that someone, somewhere, has made a judgement call. In the end, the most surprising reality, to me, is that we seem to have lost sight of that fact. Perhaps we choose to ignore such an understanding as long as the source of our news confirms our point-of-view?

I suppose that simply makes us all human. What one of us doesn’t like to have our point-of-view confirmed as appropriate and right? All the same, what happens when easy access to “expert” information makes anyone who takes the time to read a few articles imagine that he/she is now well-informed?

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Our oversimplification of notions of equality has fed this delusion. In our continuing preoccupation with ensuring that no one is offended, we imagine that anyone’s opinion on anything is equal to the opinion held by anyone else. Maybe we should call it the democratization of opinion, a phenomenon where no single thing can ever be considered simply correct; rather, all opinions – no matter how outlandish – have weight because someone has them. And if you doubt the validity of a certain position, be prepared to counter the online experts who can be summoned in defense of just about anything.

True expertise in anything is a product of time (study being a large component) and experience. These days, loudness and aggression can often substitute. While such behaviours make for good copy on news feeds, they seldom lead to good decisions. Passion by itself is no substitute for understanding. The former is often easy to summon while the latter takes effort, far more effort than entering a subject line and pressing “search”.

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One thought on “When everyone’s an expert”

  1. Expertise is usually the domain of subject-matter experts. The question is: what do you do with all this knowledge? Are you able to process it in order to make decisions or render an objective opinion? This is where critical thinking comes in, I believe: the ability to distill subject-matter expertise to gain an objective opinion within a particular context. That is what consultants are supposed to do…

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