Monday, February 9, 2015

The Death of Expertise

I don't know when or why we all voted to board the "everyone's opinion matters" wagon.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, our adopted doctrine that "all men are created equal" ceased to apply solely to man's inherent value, and become more broadly applied to include opinions and thought processes.

To our detriment.

Because, while your little individual snowflake may be in all ways separate but equal to my little individual snowflake, the thoughts and actions of each are what differentiate you, I and us from the flurry.

In short, you and I? May have been born equal. But everything that happened after that - every circumstance you faced and choice you made? Is likely anything but.

Friends, the more I'm subjected to social media, the more I realize that we have a very pervasive problem. Tom Nichols outlined it nicely in his piece for The Federalist. To sum - we are suffering from a Death of Expertise.

It's not that folks are no longer studying to be experts in respective fields - no, that's still definitely happening. What's shifted is that we, as a society, are no longer listening to those experts.

Such is the nature of our "me, me, me" culture that, rather than hear and attempt to understand expert findings that might challenge our own opinions and biases, we instead latch on to "sources" that agree with those predetermined prejudices, and completely ignore or discount the testimonies of those folks who - it has to be said - actually know that they're talking about.

An easy example is climate change. Statistically, more than 9 out of 10 climate scientists will tell you climate change is 1. not only occurring but 2. is being exacerbated by human activity.

These people are the experts - the folks we should turn to on matters of this nature, because it's their job, their career, their area of expertise.

Not so, according to climate change deniers across the blogosphere.

Yes, somehow, in donning their collared shirts and nametags and trudging off to bag groceries at Publix, these climate change deniers picked up the same wealth of knowledge as scientists who've studied the earth's patterns for decades. Surely this is the case, for, if our social media is to be believed, the opinions of these friendly, neighborhood baggers should be given equal weight and forum to the scientists. And should be considered viable arguments against, well, science.

Y'all - that ain't how science works.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson so eloquently phrased it, "The good thing about science is it's true whether or not you believe in it."

Hallelujah, my good sir! Preach! But even if you do, do so knowing it'd only be to an I-already-agree-with-you choir.

Why? Because, with the proliferation of the internet, you can find just about any "source" for your (in some cases, painfully wrong) opinion. You can find sites on the internet that deny the Holocaust. Or "prove" that eating raspberry seeds prevents cancer. Or show, irrefutably, that Brittany Spears is the most talented singer to have ever sung.

This phenomenon is not necessarily a new one. Media in some form or other has been used to convince people of untruths or half truths for...ever. But gone are the days when people look at these reports and question what they are - propaganda. And worse? Propaganda to make you buy things.

Today's propaganda certainly still takes the form of advertising, but nowadays what's being advertised is ideas - and, consequently, ways of living and belief. Today, rather than refute incorrect claims, the internet and the proliferation of biased media provide the uneducated with a litany of sites and "examples" that will support incorrect findings and biases.

Call it naivite, but I tend to believe there was once a time that, if someone said something categorically false, an expert could be called in to refute, and all people present - including the initial someone - would concede to the truth of the educated argument.

Not so. Or no longer so.

Fox News is a fish-in-a-barrel example, but this particular clip from Media Matters Minute illustrates what I am talking about nicely. The experts weighed in - the economy is doing well. But this IS Fox News, so the pundit at the end disregards everything said by economic analysts to restate his own - blatantly incorrect - agenda.

It'd be comical, if it weren't so detrimental.


Despite its status as perhaps the most blatant offender, Fox News is but an easy example of a detrimental phenomenon that doesn't show any signs of ceasing - the disregard of fact in favor of more palatable opinion. The choice - and the ability to choose - what's comfortable over what's correct. The ability to supplant fact with opinion and use each term interchangeably.

Folks, let's take a trip back to third grade English, shall we, and acknowledge that there is a marked difference between fact and opinion. Further, and for extra credit, let's recognize that one is meant to be dependent on the other: opinion is supposed to dependent on - and derived from - considering all the facts.

Somehow we have it the other way around.

Facts are not tools to validate opinions. They're meant to be the basis of forming them.

You, me, we - we all knew this in third grade.

Perhaps its time we revisit the lesson. And turn to teachers qualified to give it.

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