Expertise Means Nothing When Everyone’s an Expert

Expertise Means Nothing When Everyone’s an Expert

Expertise Means Nothing When Everyone’s an Expert


/ September 18, 2016 /

Ever since Al Gore invented the internet, people have been complaining, “Now everybody thinks they’re an expert.”

People are their own travel agents..

People diagnose their own illnesses with online checklists of their symptoms.

Parents weigh in on other people’s parenting choices, citing their credentials with phrases like, “I’m a mom, so I know.”

That’s been going on for decades.

A developing angle on this phenomenon, though, is the devaluation of actual expertise. When everybody is an expert, nobody is an expert. Or more pointedly, real experts aren’t appreciated for their years of study, dedication to the field and specialized knowledge.

Man-on-the-street quips are given equal weight to statements from actual experts who are actually involved in something affecting the community.

Scientists are brushed aside as having an “agenda” or not having a real-life understanding while those with compelling anecdotes and “gut feelings” know better.

Politicians pop off like they know everything about everything, as though being able to give a speech is all the proof needed that one understands what one is saying.

Now that it’s so easy to get a message out, we have to go back to assessing the quality of that message.

With the “everyone’s an expert” movement comes the “let’s knit our own cars” movement — the thought that if we only got rid of industrial-scale production of things like food, energy, clothing and education we would somehow save money and learn to once again love our neighbors through bartering and sharing.

People want to make their own schools rather than rely on formalized educational institutions. Large-scale farming is viewed with skepticism or outright fear in favor of “yardens” and boutique farms, which are often run by newbie farmers. Would-be writers avoid the culling and gatekeeping of the professional publishing industry and instead upload their manuscripts to self-publishing sites. People watch more homemade videos on their phones than professionally produced programming on TV. Music? Anyone can cut their own album in the back bedroom with a laptop and an app. Why hire a professional photographer for your wedding when your cousin has an iPhone 7?

Words like “artisanal” have been co-opted as a marketing tool for stuff that’s just basically “homemade.” (Or not. How exactly is bread made in an industrial kitchen artisanal?) Artisanal means made by an artisan using traditional, nonmechanical methods. Making stuff by traditional, nonmechanical method is hard, and real artisans have studied and practiced and probably apprenticed for a time under expert artisans.

This empowerment of the individual to master all things is sweet elementary-school thinking, like somehow clumsy hands are more earnest and loving than the professional touch. What is conveniently forgotten is that experts in any field operate with a kind of structure and rigor that keeps buildings from falling, keeps lies from getting on the front page and provides a process for correction if a mistake is made. What is also forgotten is the element of human genius that comes with expert knowledge — the personal aesthetic and intuition that arises only through mastery and the dedication of one’s life to a subject.

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