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The Dangerous Demise Of Expertise – OpEd

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Way back in 2000 when Google was two years old and four years before Mr. Zuckerberg created The Facebook, during a time when unconnected and pre-mobile humans roamed the earth, the New York Times wrote an article titled, Suddenly, Everybody’s an Expert. It presciently proclaimed that “an expert, it seems, is now an ordinary person sitting at home, beaming advice over the Internet to anyone who wants help.”

The article, after speaking with some real experts, went on to warn that “we are seeing a lot of questions being asked very inappropriately to the wrong kinds of people, and the wrong information is transmitted”.

In the years that followed, the traditional and sound basis of what we once all agreed was the prerequisite for being an expert — depth of knowledge based on years of study and observation in a specific field — has completely fallen by the wayside.

It feels like an entire generation embraced the type of non-expertise the internet affords, while completely ignoring the dangers of claiming expertise without deep knowledge or specialisation in subject matters. Every second professional on LinkedIn is a self-proclaimed expert in some subject matter; the word has lost its meaning.

I have great admiration for Barack Obama, but I would never rely on him for legal advice. Nor would I let Elon Musk, arguably a genius, perform an appendectomy. Being an expert has nothing to do with intelligence, achievement or celebrity — expertise comes from knowledge that is acquired over a lifetime of study, research, observation, participation and specialisation in a subject.

We have now reached a point where we believe that success in one field translates to other fields. In part, this fallacy is based on the much-touted image of the successful entrepreneur, an image that Silicon Valley has been mythologizing for years. The myth goes like this. A tech mogul who is smart enough to accumulate massive wealth by creating a single life-changing product like a touchscreen smartphone, a search engine, a web-based retail store, an electronic payment platform or an operating system is also equipped to solve all of humankind’s most pressing problems.

Granted, tycoons and inventors tend to have massive egos, but this takes arrogance to new and dangerously ignorant heights. Even the robber barons of the past, like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller (still considered the wealthiest American of all time), were not arrogant enough to believe that their wealth and power made them better positioned to solve the serious social issues of their time.

They assuaged the guilt of accumulating fortunes through unscrupulous means both by donating generously to public institutions and by founding universities, libraries and hospitals that could benefit society. They merely wrote the cheques and never got personally involved in directing these philanthropic ventures, which they rightly left to the domain experts in each field.

Today, it is a different story with people like Bill Gates shaping policy for US public schools and Jeff Bezos announcing that his foundation will launch and operate Montessori- based pre-schools. No matter how well-intentioned and intelligent these men are, the fact remains that they know nothing about improving pedagogy compared to experts who have dedicated their lives to education, both inside and outside of the classroom. According to the AP, since 2001, the Gates foundation has “contributed more than $6 billion toward reshaping American schools” and has had an outsize influence in shaping everything from classroom curriculum to teacher evaluation and student performance.

The results of this well-intentioned intervention speak for themselves. During the last decade and a half, US school rankings have continued to decline among its peers; PISA results from 2015 placed the U.S. 38th out of 71 countries in math, 24th in science. Among OECD countries we ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

At the other end of the spectrum we are muddying the waters by mistaking celebrity for expertise. Jenny McCarthy, an actress and mother of an autistic child, expounds on the dangers of vaccines and spreading scientifically debunked links between vaccination and autism.

Cynthia Nixon believes she would make a competent Governor of the third largest state in the country without any people management, P&L or public policy experience. We seem to have reached a nadir of accepting wealth and celebrity as sole qualifications for expertise versus experience based on deep knowledge.

Every second actor now appends the word ‘activist’ to their credentials, yet not one of them has spent a day in prison or risked his or her life on the frontlines. I love Emma Stone and believe she is a powerhouse on screen, but why was she invited to speak at the UN? Are we suggesting that a Hollywood actress making millions of dollars is a better spokesperson for women’s rights than women like Hajiya Laila Dogonyaro and Loujain al-Hathloul who risked life and limb standing up to oppressive regimes?

Or are we saying that we are so fickle that “window dressing afforded by celebrity proponents is somehow crucial for advocacy on human rights and feminist issues”? This is a dangerous trend and one that portends to mask the ugliness of serious issues while stealing the spotlight from true experts and rightful heroes.

There is no question that people in positions of authority have let us down and the world is facing a crisis of leadership. The Bush administration started a war under false premises with the US media sitting by idly. The Obama administration blatantly and repeatedly lied to the public about the extent of domestic spying by the NSA. The global financial crisis was a direct result of lax regulatory oversight across the globe. Even the Catholic Church and NGO’s have not been immune with the Red Cross’s financial impropriety in Haiti exposed and news of UN peacekeepers raping young girls in Africa over decades.

From corporations to governments, there are ample examples why people all over the world have lost faith in experts and authority and are desperately searching for alternatives.

The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures public trust in institutions, found for the first time in its 17 year history a decline in trust across all institutions — business, media, government, and NGOs. In a majority of countries surveyed, the general population no longer trusts institutions to “do what is right”. The Edelman report summed up the findings by saying that, “with the fall of trust, the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them.”

I agree with the Edelman report that in every democracy the systems and institutions meant to protect the people have failed. In every country people have consistently been let down by elected officials, corporate CEO’s and public stewards. Yet the answer is not to completely abandon these institutions, disregard experts, turn to unaccountable celebrities and trust billionaires with often-conflicting motives for the answers.

Instead we need to focus efforts on rebuilding trust in these public and private institutions, create greater transparency and demand accountability from elected and unelected officials who hold positions of authority. And we need to use the law to prosecute those who have abused power, from abusive cardinals to errant CEO’s.

If we do not start to reverse this trend by respecting knowledge-based expertise once again, one day we will end up with a billionaire reality TV star in the White House; one who believes he is an expert on everything.

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Nikhil Vaish

Nikhil is an independent columnist and strategy consultant. Follow @nikhil_vaish

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