On The Murder (And Resurrection?) Of Expertise

It would seem we have entered an age where we care less about facts, or are exhorted to discard them in favor of feelings and a more pleasurable, agreeable narrative. That’s what we hear, right? IT’S THE POST-FACT AGE. FACTS ARE DUMB. TRUTH IS IRRELEVANT. FUCK INFORMATION UNLESS IT SAYS SOMETHING I WANT IT TO SAY.

But that’s not really it.

Facts are neutral entities. They’re little data-strings of information, arguably correct in the context that they are given, but it’s not them that have been disdained and discarded. At an individual level, sure, but in an overall sense, we’ve chosen to disdain and discard not the facts, but the givers of facts. Or, even worse, those who have obtained the facts for us.

It’s not a post-fact age.

It’s the post-expert age.

And I’m hoping it’s a very short one, because already we’re starting to see what happens when give a chainsaw to someone whose never used one before. At the national level, America has become one of those dreadful shows on deep cable, where a pair of ding-dongs has chosen to renovate and flip a house without ever having replaced so much as a couple batteries in a fucking remote control. They’re full of bluster and confidence and the money they’re going to make, then they stagger into whatever feral cat colony they bought and promptly proceed to break windows and electrocute themselves and accidentally nail-gun their privates to a strip of Pergo laminate. Then they’re eaten by cats as the credits roll and we watch a new set of morons pick up a reciprocating saw. On and on, ab absurdum.

But before we kill and bury our experts — and hopefully see them rise from the grave once more, like an experienced, practiced, ever-adept InfoJesus — we need to figure out how we got here.

1. The media encouraged all narratives as being valid.

The 24-hour news cycle, embodied by CNN but picked up by every news channel, isn’t there for your informational needs. They exist for your entertainment needs. They are there, like a reality show, to edit “reality” into something that has drama and narrative, that is full of juicy conflict. Thus, you turn your eyes to it. Thus, advertising sells its media feces. It trickles down too to non-TV news sources, though to a lesser extent.

Part of the way they achieve this OMG DRAMA component is by, well, creating drama. And drama doesn’t work if you have a bunch of people who sit around, nodding, agreeing on basic facts. It’s like how in a movie, you have to have characters with multiple points-of-view and who bring drama to the table. Even if they’re friends, family, or loved ones, they are written as having the push-and-pull of drama/melodrama. Only problem here is, OUR REALITY IS NOT AN EPISODE OF FRIENDS. It’s not a wacky rom-com. It’s fucking reality. It’s visceral and serious. But the news media disgorges whatever shit-heel pundits it can find from within its turbid bowels, and traps them in the arena of our TV screen so that they can scrum and scrap and disagree. Which means every informational tidbit is spun into a literal point of contention. Given half a chance, pundits will argue about whether racism is real (it is), water is wet (it is), and whether dogs are better than cats (they are and you know it, don’t @ me). Worse, you end up with clickbaity bullshit about how eggs are good no wait they’re bad wait they’re good wait coffee is good it’s bad it causes cancer it cures cancer it is liquid cancer click me click me OH GOD CLICK ME NNNNGH. Data gets cherry-picked, facts get ignored, all to create a narrative based on specious information.

Translation:

When a “news” (cough cough) outlet presents “opinions” as “facts” what happens is we all end up “fucked,” because we can’t tell “right” from “wrong” anymore.

(And it’s in that gap that the fake news dragon rears its papier-mâché head.)

2. The fucking Tea Party.

It’s not just the Tea Party, but their core ethos is that the government is bad.

Well, okay, no, their core ethos is one of racism and sexism and bigotry, but the layers of gristle swaddling that core ethos is about how government sucks and is bad for you.

That’s it. That’s the breadth and depth of their entire belief system.

GOVERNMENT BAD.

And it kinda stops there, except for whispers of “capitalism good” and “bigotry great.”

Here’s the problem, and it’s obvious to anyone with a handful of brain cells juggling around inside their mindcave, I hope: the Tea Party did not run on the platform of, “the government is bad, we will fix it.” No, no, that’s what most other politicians say — “Things need to improve, and I will improve them.” But the Tea Party, ha ha, they ran on a platform of, “the government is bad, and you’ll see, because we’ll show you.” It’s like hiring a serial killer as your healthcare provider. It’s like asking that one Muppet with the bombs to fix your dishwasher. It’s like electing a pathological Narcissist to the highest office in the land. (Ahem.)

We elected inexpert politicians to political office in the hopes that, actually, I have no idea what we were hoping for. I think people were just mad. Mad at government, mad at their circumstances, mad at being a white person who has lost approximately 1% of their privilege so let’s hire this crackerjack asshole to represent me in Congress, sure, why not, he seems dumb — DUMB LIKE A FOX. (Wait.)

We put inept politicians in place.

And they’re still there.

And they’re bringing on more of their own to prove the point. And they’re bringing in cabinet members who are designed to detonate their own agencies — again, there’s that bomb-throwing Muppet again, except now there’s dozens of them, all throwing bombs at the pillars of government and using that to prove that the pillars of government are terrible, just terrible, look how easily they can be bombed.

They promptly revealed that, as it turns out, yes, government is bad when you let these jerks run it, just as you could prove “planes” are bad when you let “Dave from accounting” fly one.

3. The entire Internet.

For individuals, the Internet is great.

For society as a whole, I’m iffy on it.

Look, echo chambers are a natural part of life. We don’t generally gather a group of friends from wildly divergent political spheres — we tend to hang with our own, for the most part, within some margin. And that’s true online, too, so honestly, I’m not sold that echo chambers are the problem directly.

The problem is that our echo chambers have grown to include not just people, but information. What I mean is, anything you believe, you can find a narrative to support it online. And not just one, not just some fringe source — you believe in Kenyan Obama or PizzaGate or Flat-Earth, hey, knock yourself out. It’s true on the Left, too. This house has many mansions, and you can find one for yourself that’s covered in crazy conspiracy walls with the photos and the papers all connected by wild slashes of red yarn. And it’s not just really marginal stuff. You look at something like GamerGate, and how it was obviously founded on the most spurious assertions ever — “It’s about ethics in games journalism” is a punchline, just not a funny one. And it’s one uttered by cellar-dwelling misogynist amphibians as they type out hate crimes against women.

On the Internet, you can find any “fact” to support anything you want. You can find an “expert” to tell you what you want to hear, which of course does no service to actual experts, and as such, reduces our overall trust for them. Here, you can call yourself an expert with nothing more than the ease of typing out six letters in the proper order. Hell, there are still people calling themselves social media gurus, even though that’s not a thing, and shut up. It’s easy to hide on the Internet. Which means it’s easy to hide that you’re not an expert, even as you claim to be one.

4. Capitalism Gone Awry!

Capitalism by itself is not a bad thing.

I mean, maybe in our inevitable Star Trek future we’ll all come to agree that it’s largely harmful to our species, okay, but in the short term, in the reality that exists right now, capitalism can encourage innovation through competition. I would like a Superior Widget, not this Inferior Dongle, and so companies big and small can compete to engage with new technologies to give me my Superior Widget, and I pay for it, and they make money, and I’m happy, and the world keeps on spinning. Yay Widgets, Boo Dongles, hooray and huzzah.

Two problems with that, though.

First, a purely profit-driven world is bad when profits can be gleaned from things that are arguably for the social good. The moment you introduce profit into, say, healthcare, it gets staggeringly more complex. It runs the risk of becoming a very large, very scary version of That Guy In His Magical Medicine Cart Trying To Sell Us Snake Oil. If we’re all just marks and rubes — just wibbly-wobbly piggy-banks to be broken open by the right combination of marketing and advertising — then we’re fucked. We’re all just bacon and pennies. Okay, but but but, this isn’t a problem as long as capitalism is bound. Meaning, we are protected from its excesses by regulations — but oh wait —

Second, yeah, no, we’ve deregulated a whole lot of shit. For instance, did you know that the USDA and the FDA do not generally have the power to compel recalls? They can ask for or demand recalls, but have little legal or political recourse to force one. (The FDA has some power when it comes to things like baby formula.) And some of those regulations improved under Obama — the FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) was the first piece of real food safety regulation legislation since the 1930s. But now, we’ve got a president who wants to deregulate the FDA — he called it the “food police” and further wants to speed-up pharmaceutical approvals by reducing safeguards. (One might argue his entire presidency is the Snake Oil Presidency. I hope one day we all enjoy our deregulated cups of SALMONELLA SLURRY.)

You might say, well, what the fuck does this have to do with experts and expertise? Easy. The people we want to be in charge of certain spheres of industry are experts — but without regulations, they become experts not in the things they’re producing, but rather only in the selling. They’re good at making money, not at demonstrating expertise. (In a perfect world, these things dovetail, wherein the experts demonstrate expertise and are paid for that. But deregulation leads to what could best be described as a very, very imperfect world.) We trust them to do right, and we pay them accordingly, but they lie to us and do wrong. We were promised a panacea, we got snake oil, so now we once again find our trust in supposed experts watered down — largely because the very role of the expert has itself been watered down.

5. Education Inequity Leads To Educational Distrust

Academic access is not evenly distributed.

In poor parts of the cities and in the country, you either get a reduction of resources and teachers, or you get horseshit textbooks that are happy to teach you that Texas is the center of the moral universe and that God once rode a dinosaur and the Devil invented PornHub — or whatever nonsense that some self-righteous info-crusader felt was “right” despite the facts. And by the way, you don’t get any more expert than teachers and textbooks. If you want to hack at the root of expertise, fuck up the textbooks and screw over the teachers.

(I’ll also note a personal opinion here, that even in the wealthiest parts of the country, our educational sphere often focuses on things we don’t need to know — turns out, it’s less important to know the succession of monarchs in England than it is to know how to do your taxes. And that gap — the gap of essential information! — leaves us open to the exploits of more Snake Oil salesman.)

A personal story of note here: I remember learning biology in 10th grade — which, as it turns out, included evolution because evolution is a real thing. Then, junior year, it was time for chemistry, and the first day of chemistry, the teacher was fucking pissed. Pissed because we learned evolution the year prior, and so he spent the whole first day of chemistry (!) frothing at us about how we need to have access to alternative facts — cough-cough, THE BIBLE. My thought that day was not, “Wow, teachers are bullshit,” but rather, “Wow, this particular teacher is bullshit.” And I was dubious of his entire existence as a teacher, not because he was bad at the things he taught, but because he broke an essential contract with the students. He told us upfront he would gladly discard scientific information if it fed into his belief system, which made everything that came out of his mouth utterly and suddenly suspect. Now, imagine that’s every teacher or textbook in your school. How would you feel? Either brainwashed, or like everybody was an idiot and nothing was true. And both of those outcomes favor an eradication of expertise.

And when expertise is weakened or eradicated, you are easier to manipulate.

6. Experts Can, Y’know, Actually Be Wrong.

Experts get it wrong.

That’s how it works.

Nobody in this life bats a thousand.

But we create false standards for expertise — any failure of any expert is suddenly grounds to distrust them. We say, that scientist was wrong. But of course that scientist was wrong — that’s how science works. Science isn’t a bulletproof Popemobile. That’s religion you’re thinking about. Science is an ever-shifting series of goalposts, which is a feature and not a bug, but we treat it like — uh-oh, it was bullshit once, so it’ll be bullshit ever and always. That poll was wrong, never trust polls. That fact-spewing expert was wrong, never trust fact-spewing experts.

And here someone is saying:

BUT MISTER WENDIG, YOU JUST TOLD US THAT WHEN YOUR CHEMISTRY TEACHER SPOUTED ONE WRONG THING, YOU WERE DUBIOUS OF HIM FOREVER.

Well, yeah.

First, because what he did was not challenge fact with fact. He challenged science with a belief system — he chose to ignore the subject he was teaching in favor of an entirely different subject. He was willing to discard science in favor of… y’know, basically magic. You might get one history teacher who lionizes Christopher Columbus, another who shows Columbus in a more realistic, more troubling context — sure, okay, fine. But instead imagine that your history teacher said, “I believe that America was discovered by leprechauns,” and you’d be all *record scratch* whoa fucking what? What did he say? Did he just say leprechauns? So when a chemistry teacher says, “I think you should also be taught that the Magic Hand of Jesus is how you get camouflage moths and human beings,” I think we’ve gone beyond “an expert got it wrong once.”

Second, I still trusted his basic grasp of chemistry. I didn’t flip a table and storm out of the class — I mean, I did my damn homework and still learned some chemistry. Even from a guy who believed that Sky Man somehow superceded The Scientific Method. I did not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I instead recognized that the bathwater was actually Kool-Aid. I still kept the baby. In part because now the baby tasted like Kool-Aid.

(mmm, fruit punch babies)

More to the point, we demonize failure in this country. In schools, in the public and private sphere. A politician gets a point wrong and corrects their stance — that’s viewed as a flip-flop, not as a course-correction. But course-corrections are everything. Failure is okay when we acknowledge it as a failure. Being wrong is fine, as long as we admit that it’s wrong and not right.

7. Finally, The Narcotic Power Of American Exceptionalism

Man, we love being Americans.

We love being individuals with our individual liberty and choice and yeah ha ha fuck the community, who needs roads and shit. Oh, wait, we all need roads? Uh-oh.

More seriously, there’s this thing with being an American and it comes with this very strong sense of ego. We are taught that we as individuals are afforded luxuries that go beyond the community — I get mine, you get yours, I’ll take care of my lawn, you take care of your lawn, we’re good. That’s the contract. Me, me, me, you, you, you. We’re all exceptional individuals.

Problem with that is, as individuals who believe the individual is above all others — well, that worldview doesn’t leave a lot of room for experts, does it?

Or, rather, it leaves room for only one expert:

ME, motherfuckers. Me, me, me. The alpha and omega, yours truly.

Except to you, it’s you.

And to that guy, it’s him.

We’re all our own experts.

And that’s a fucking problem.

And again we come around to those first-time flippers, those ego-fed fuckwits who think they can renovate a whole house because shit, it looks easy on the TV. I SEE THEM SAWING BOARDS AND CUTTING BATHROOM TILE, AND I SOMETIMES USE SCISSORS ON PAPER, SO IT’S BASICALLY THE SAME THING. Or you get a bunch of dickholes who refuse to believe Shazaam wasn’t a movie or that the bears are Berenstain instead of Berenstein because it’s easier to accept that reality has changed than it is to admit oh I might actually be incorrect about something. It’s not a Glitch in the Matrix. You’re just wrong about stuff and that’s okay. “What’s that you say? I’m not an expert on every piece of information that comes out of my head? PIFFLE AND POPPYCOCK. HORSEDUNG AND SHENANIGANS. I am the boss of this reality! If you disagree with me, then clearly our realities have diverged.”

Expertise dies in the choking hands of American exceptionalism.

So Wait What The Fuck Do We Do?

We need to start holding experts in higher regard. We need to trust them on climate change, on food safety, on basic science, on governing policy. We need to hire people who are smart, we need to elect people who are good at being politicians because as it turns out, the government isn’t a business and business isn’t government. If you want someone to fly a plane, you find the best pilot around. If you want someone to fix the wiring in your house, oh, I dunno, maybe hire a goddamn electrician instead of trying to build Frankenstein’s Monster behind your walls.

(Or was it Frankstain‘s Monster?)

(Sorry.)

We need experts.

We need to trust them.

And we need the systems to hold them accountable to their expertise.

How we get there, well, shit, I dunno.

You should probably ask an expert.