March 20, 2017

MY USA TODAY COLUMN: The Suicide of Expertise.

Well, it’s certainly true that the “experts” don’t have the kind of authority that they possessed in the decade or two following World War II. Back then, the experts had given us vaccines, antibiotics, jet airplanes, nuclear power and space flight. The idea that they might really know best seemed pretty plausible.

But it also seems pretty plausible that Americans might look back on the last 50 years and say, “What have experts done for us lately?” Not only have the experts failed to deliver on the moon bases and flying cars they promised back in the day, but their track record in general is looking a lot spottier than it was in, say, 1965.

It was the experts — characterized in terms of their self-image by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest — who brought us the twin debacles of the Vietnam War, which we lost, and the War On Poverty, where we spent trillions and certainly didn’t win. In both cases, confident assertions by highly credentialed authorities foundered upon reality, at a dramatic cost in blood and treasure. Mostly other people’s blood and treasure.

And these are not isolated failures.

Read the whole thing. But you knew to do that, right?

UPDATE: From the comments (here, not at USA Today, where the first one calls me a science-denier and, for some reason, a young-earth creationist):

I think the generation of experts of the 60s looked around and realized that the accomplishments of their elders had bought them enough status as a class that people would just… believe them. And so they did what most people would do if they suddenly discovered the magic power to make people believe anything they said. They abused it.

And this magic power became an attraction for people to join the class. And so people who joined this class of “experts” who are now being told, “no, we don’t believe you” feel like they’ve been aggrieved. This wasn’t the deal they were promised. And, naturally, the reason isn’t because they don’t deserve it; it’s because we’re all inferior.

It’s the corruption of a priesthood, and nothing more. The assumption of moral supremacy, the hunts for heretics and their consequent public destruction, the appeals to authority, the diminishing virtue… it’s all happened before.

True, and well-stated.