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OPINION: On the death of expertise and the decline of knowledge

‘Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything’
A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is given to a recipient at a vaccination site in Vancouver on March 11, 2021. As scientific and medical discourse plays out in real time online and in the media during the COVID-19 pandemic, observers specializing in science and risk communication say Canadians must be even more discerning in choosing which expert voices they listen to and amplify. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A remarkable aspect of human development over the last few decades is that the more we know, well, the less we seem to know.

The internet often gets blamed for being a cesspool of misinformation. And maybe we shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

On the other hand, if, as Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the message, it’s hard not to blame the internet for bringing so much confusion into our lives.

“These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything.”

That quote is from Tom Nichols’ 2017 book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.

I have not read Nichols’ book. But recent loud voices questioning accepted health science had me pondering this notion: “What happened to a public reliance on experts?”

A quick search found his book. One year after the election to the White House of a reality show host who often decried facts and science (think “alternative facts”), The Death of Expertise was published.

Now, four years later, I think the situation might be getting worse.

Joe Rogan is a UFC colour commentator and comedian with a podcast. Why would anyone rely on him for information about COVID-19? I don’t know. Ask the hundreds of thousands of people sharing his nonsense on social media.

An acquaintance of mine recently decrying proof of vaccinations for discretionary visits wrapped up her argument by pointing to an Instagram post by Vancouver radio DJ Kid Carson who frequently opines on current events on Z95.3.

These are the experts people are turning to?

A 2015 Pew Research Center poll of U.S. adults found that 87 per cent of scientists agreed with the statement, “Climate change is mostly due to human activity,” compared with only 50 per cent of U.S. adults.

How did we come to this? In his book, Nichols blames three main factors: changes in higher education, Sturgeon’s Law, and journalism, particularly broadcast.

On higher education, the commodification of schools has led some institutions to handhold young people so completely and give them safe spaces where students are made to feel so comfortable and free from criticism, that egos can become inflated.

“If I’m never told that what I say is wrong, maybe I’m never wrong?”

Then there is Sturgeon’s Law, attributed to mid-20th century science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon who was tired of being asked why he wrote science fiction when most of science fiction was bad.

“Ninety per cent of everything is crud,” he replied.

Then there is journalism. The explosion of news sources starting mostly in the 1980s and 1990s did not lead to a more-is-better scenario, as Stuart Vyse put it writing about the need for experts in an article in Skeptical Inquirer, an article where he referred to Nichols’ book.

“Once again, Sturgeon’s Law applies,” Vyse writes. “In particular, the development of a huge market for news-as-entertainment has created a decades-long attack on established knowledge.”

Think Fox News.

What underlies much of this, I think, is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias that states people with low cognitive ability tend to think they are smarter than they are.

A lesser-known aspect of the effect states, also, that people with high cognitive ability tend to downplay their expertise.

On the former, think of your friend on Facebook who failed high school biology but posts memes proudly espousing his criticism of pandemic public policy. Or Joe Rogan. Or Kid Carson.

And for the latter, think of doctors and health scientists who understand that COVID-19 is new, the science is changing, and all they can provide is the best available information day by day.

We’ve received some criticism from some readers via email, some phone calls, and some trolling on social media, that mainstream media outlets are not providing the “other side” of the vaccination argument.

But this would be false balance, like asking a tobacco lobbyist to debate the causes of lung cancer with a doctor.

The nature of knowledge is that it is often nuanced, hard to explain fully, completely. Many experts who understand the limitation of knowledge thereby downplay their expertise, pointing to discoveries that shift our collective insights into certain phenomena.

Meanwhile, the chattering classes who already know everything, or decide their expert is, not to pick on him again but, Joe Rogan, have no time for nuance. No time for complications. No time for expertise.

This is all my opinion. I’m not an expert, but I like to think I know what I don’t know. And I prefer to defer to experts in their fields whenever possible.

With true knowledge comes humility. With ignorance comes arrogance.

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