The "Instant Expert" Culture


I am one of the most useless human beings I know. Sad but true. I have three degrees in English literature, I did not get my first job until I was 30 years old, and I have never worked for more than three months except at a college or university. I have never changed a tire or balanced a checkbook.  I do not even understand sports metaphors. There is almost nothing that I can claim to be an expert about.

Well, there is one thing. Since 1995, I have spent most of my professional life studying the language of 18th century political and religious debate. This was the topic of my 1997 doctoral dissertation, of most of my academic articles, and of the virtually unread academic book that I published last year with the University of Delaware Press. It is a humble specialty, even as academic specialties go, but it’s what I’ve got. It rarely comes in handy when I talk about contemporary affairs.

But it did once. About two years ago, I read a “new translation” of the Federalist Papers by radio and TV personality Glenn Beck. As a genuine admirer of the Federalist Papers, I was eager to see how a modern political commentator might treat them. I was not impressed, and, when I was done, I posted a critical review of the book on Amazon that simply pointed out several words that were mistranslated from 18h century English into a modern vernacular. Within two hours, I found a message in my inbox about the review. It said simply: “those who can, do; those who can’t teach.”

I’m not complaining. I am well over whatever pain this might have caused. But this experience has remained with me as I have flirted more and more with political commentary over the past few years. I am consistently shocked by the number of people who are willing to utterly dismiss the opinions of actual experts when those opinions do not conform to whatever ideology happens to be directing their lives.

People have always done this, of course, but I think it’s getting worse. The marvels of the Information Age have removed many of the barriers that have historically guarded expert-level knowledge. This is an exciting and wonderful development with the potential to transform political discourse for the better.  Anybody with a little bit of initiative and a smart phone can now access enough information on almost any topic to qualify as a Person who Knows what’s Going On.

But here is the down side:  those with smart phones and almost no initiative can find enough information in five minutes to corroborate all of their biases and convince themselves that they are experts. I can just barely imagine what it must feel like to be a climate scientist, or an economist, or an evolutionary biologist trying to have serious policy discussions with people who claim an equal level of expertise after reading a single blog post or watching a video on YouTube. The distance between an advanced degree and a Google search is getting smaller every day.

And this becomes a potential problem as We the People increase our participation in political discussions—which we should do and which we must do if our Republic is to continue functioning. But the sheer complexity of the world, our nation, and our political system places some non-trivial burden on us to go beyond the culture of instant expertise when we enter the fray.

In practical terms, this might mean understanding what the 501(c)4 tax-exempt status means before attacking or defending the way that the IRS enforces it. It could also mean having working definitions of “telephony metadata” and “data mining” before deciding whether or not the latter should ever be applied to the former. And there is just no down side to being able to find Benghazi on a map. The same search boxes that take us to the opinions of outraged pundits also have the ability to take us to actual facts.

And then there are actual experts who should not be disqualified from talking about something just because they have spent their lives studying it. I know that I am going to be vilified as an undemocratic elitist snob for saying this, but there actually are people who know a whole lot about things like the Constitution, the tax code, counterterrorism, economic development, and Middle Eastern culture. They deserve to be listened to, and their opinions about their areas of expertise really are likely to be more valuable than those of the average radio host or partisan blogger.

I am not an expert in any of these things, though, so I will not pretend to give you any advice. However, on the off chance that you ever have a serious question about the political implications of closed heroic couplets, I do hope you will drop me a line.