The Devaluation of Expertise

Like it or not, we rely heavily on experts to function as a society. Expertise—high levels of knowledge and skill in particular realms—fuels human progress and continues to maintain it. For this reason, it is frightening to observe the ways in which expertise has been devalued in the modern world, nowhere more so than in America.

My most vivid and direct observations of this problem involve the ways that my own area of expertise—data visualization—has been diluted by the ease with which anyone with a modicum of experience can claim to be a data visualization expert today. Learn how to use a product such as Tableau or Power BI today, or Xcelsius a few years ago, and you’re suddenly a data visualization expert. Write a blog about data visualization and you certainly must be an expert. With the relative ease of publication today, you can even write a book about data visualization without ever developing more than a superficial understanding. This is nonsense, it is frustrating to those of us who have actually developed expertise, and it is downright harmful to people who accept advice from faux-experts.

My other direct observation of this phenomenon is the way in which the Internet has inclined people to believe that they are instant experts in anything that they can read about on the Web. Not only do some of the people with scant data visualization knowledge who write comments in response to this blog believe that they know more about it than I do, but many of us are inclined to instruct our medical doctors or our attorneys after an hour or two of Web browsing. We even have the temerity to call simple Web searches “research,” disrespecting those whose work involves actual research. The phrases, “I’m doing research on…” and “I’m an expert in…” used to mean more than they do today.

I’m not alone in my concern about this. I just finished reading a book by Tom Nichols entitled The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, which clearly describes this problem in great breadth and depth.

Death of Expertise

The book’s title is a bit of a misnomer, no doubt chosen to get our attention, for Nichols isn’t arguing that expertise is going away, but that its value is being devalued and ignored. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s jacket:

Thanks to technological advances and increasing levels of education, we have access to more information than ever before. Yet rather than ushering in a new era of enlightenment, the information age has helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

As I mentioned earlier, this problem is perhaps most extreme in America. We have always prided ourselves on being self-made and resistant to intellectual elitism. It’s a deeply ingrained strain of the American myth. Nichols writes:

Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: no longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other…The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of “uninformed,” passed “misinformed” on the way down, and is now plummeting to “aggressively wrong.” People don’t just believe dumb things; they actively resist further learning rather than let go of those beliefs.

This isn’t all due to the Internet. Other factors are contributing to the devaluation of expertise as well, including our institutions of higher learning.

Higher education is supposed to cure us of the false belief that everyone is as smart as everyone else. Unfortunately, in the twenty-first century the effect of widespread college attendance is just the opposite: the great number of people who have been in or near a college think of themselves as the educated peers of even the most accomplished scholars and experts. College is no longer a time devoted to learning and personal maturation; instead, the stampede of young Americans into college and the consequent competition for their tuition dollars have produced a consumer-oriented experience in which students learn, above all else, that the customer is always right.

I observed during my own time of teaching at U.C. Berkeley that institutions of higher learning have become businesses that do what they must to compete for customers. Professors must please their students (customers) by providing them with an enjoyable experience if they wish to keep their jobs. Learning, however, is hard work.

Journalism also contributes to this problem when it focuses on giving readers what they want, making the news entertaining, rather than seeking to truthfully and thoroughly inform the public. The customer is not always right. The public can be easily entertained into a state of ignorance.

Experts sometimes get it wrong, but true experts still know a lot more about their fields of knowledge than the rest of us and they get it right a lot more often than we do. Occasional errors by experts are no excuse for turning our backs on knowledge.

Democracy cannot function when every citizen is an expert. Yes, it is unbridled ego for experts to believe they can run a democracy while ignoring its voters; it is also, however, ignorant narcissism for laypeople to believe that they can maintain a large and advanced nation without listening to the voices of those more educated and experienced than themselves.

Look where the devaluation of expertise has taken us in America. We now have a president who is the poster child of narcissistic ignorance whose only expertise is in being a media celebrity. This is a slap in the face of the expertise that built this nation and made it strong. America did not become a city on a hill for the world to see and emulate by celebrating ignorance. History has revealed more than once what happens when you place extraordinary power into the hands of a narcissistic bully. This has perhaps never been done, however, with someone who exhibits Trump’s degree of prideful ignorance.

What do we do? Nichols reminds us that “Most causes of ignorance can be overcome, if people are willing to learn.” Are we willing to learn? That doesn’t seem to be the case.

The creation of a vibrant intellectual and scientific culture in the West and in the United States required democracy and secular tolerance. Without such virtues, knowledge and progress fall prey to ideological, religious, and populist attacks. Nations that have given in to such temptations have suffered any number of terrible fates, including mass repression, cultural and material poverty, and defeat in war.

How can we get back on track? It might take a disaster of spectacular scale to turn the tide. I hope this isn’t the case, but no divine power will bail us out if we continue on our current course. We must do what humans have always done to thrive and advance. We must use our brains.

Take care,

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9 Comments on “The Devaluation of Expertise”


By Klaus. July 11th, 2017 at 2:58 pm

It seems like anyone could be an expert these days, especially concerning data visualization. Too many people have published books on the subject, which just repeat themselves over and over again. Yes, it might be good to attract some attention to data visualization, cause people usually take it for granted, but many of the books that have come out in the past few years look like a money grab. I have personally bought most of them cause I can’t resist the temptation but they are mostly useless.

By Stephen Few. July 11th, 2017 at 3:23 pm

Klaus,

I don’t suspect money as the direct motivation behind most recent books about data visualization that add little or no value and contain errors and bad advice. Instead, I suspect an effort by authors to enhance their brand (perceived credibility and notoriety) and, in most cases, a sincere belief that they are indeed experts. One of the problems resulting from the devaluation of expertise is the genuine belief that one is an expert based on superficial knowledge and skill. In many cases, much of the limited knowledge that people have accumulated is erroneous, but they don’t know this because they lack the expertise that is required to distinguish truth from error.

By Stephen Few. July 12th, 2017 at 8:36 am

I just received a comment from a reader that underscores the points that I made above. To counter an argument that I made in another blog post, he copied many paragraphs of content from Wikipedia, as if that settled the discussion. He then wrote, “If you have an issue with this then I urge you to make your arguments in Wikipedia in front of thousands of experts, unlike your own blog where you are free to make your “opinions” known.” Wikipedia is the voice of thousands of people, but usually not thousands of actual experts. This fellow evidently believes that everyone’s opinion on a matter is of equal value. This is a misunderstanding of democracy. In a true democracy, ever vote is equal in value, but every opinion is not. Democracies only work when voters rely on experts to help them shape their positions.

By Vincent Williams. July 12th, 2017 at 10:02 am

Hey Stephan,

This is a very interesting topic, coming from a millennial and someone who has had access to the internet for almost all my life, it sad to say this is very true. The main reason I believe this to be true because of a combination 2 things, the human desire to feel important or special. Second anyone can find hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, web sites, books etc. to support their ideas without taking the time to get other points of views. It is just so much information.

By Ken Kilty. July 12th, 2017 at 12:25 pm

Stephen, thank you for this post. Commoditization of skill in work is a contributing factor to the devaluing of expertise. The belief that anyone can learn anything and quickly where people (often referred to as resources) are interchangeable in a role. Skill and expertise are not commodities. Developing expertise takes time. Knowledge from experts may be passed along through human interaction such as formal teaching, mentoring, and apprenticeship. Experience, thought, and focus along with knowledge from experts may lead to expertise over time. There isn’t a formula or defined process to expertise and as such it cannot be a commodity.

By Dimitar Dimitrov. July 12th, 2017 at 3:34 pm

“If I work really hard, how long would it take me to get to the ’10 years’ level of experience?”

“10 years. Unless you do the same year 10 times.”

By Nate. July 13th, 2017 at 7:00 am

I do think you’re understating just how often experts who pontificate in public to the media are wrong, or shade the truth to match their specific agendas or politics. These experts are far less reliable than we assume, because they have more information that they can use to confirm their biases. The fundamental problem is that their expertise is not practical in nature – they have experienced virtually no personal or professional consequences (skin in the game) for being wrong before. This so-called vibrant intellectual and scientific culture is collapsing around itself – the Enlightenment has failed.

– The experts in the intelligence community were convinced that the Soviet Union was strong, yet it collapsed incredibly quickly.
– The experts at population growth were convinced that we were headed to massive famine, instead we got the green revolution.
– The experts in finance told us in January 2008 that there was no crisis and everything would be fine.
– The experts in climatology told us the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains would probably never return to ‘normal’ levels (it’s back, and ‘higher’ than normal).
– The experts in public opinion told us that Hillary Clinton would win the election.
– The experts in nutrition have told us for years that eating fat makes you fat –
diabetes via obesity was a nearly unknown disease before the food scientist experts replaced fat with sugar in the western diet.

There was a joke on the 1980’s British show “Yes, Minister” about the the top civil servant at the Treasury – “Sir Frank is at an even greater disadvantage at understanding economics – he’s an economist.”

Engineering – expertise that requires intelligence and skin-in-the-game, on the other hand, is still doing quite well. You don’t see new bridges or skyscrapers falling down. Professional engineers are held both professionally and personally liable for the safety of the bridge.

Almost nobody would hire random Joe Sixpack to fly a 747 across the ocean, design a rocket to go to orbit, or manage a modern manufacturing plant. But even with skin in the game, experts can be spectacularly wrong when the system they claim to have expertise on is complex and interconnected, with lots of hidden, unknown variables, or simply massive (the 2008 mortgage meltdown comes to mind).

I think in the area of data visualization, the problems we face are numerous, and dilution of the expertise pool is certainly among them. The bigger problem, however, is that often in many organizations, there is a complete lack of recognition that data sense-making is a skill at all. Poorly trained and poorly paid H-1Bs (or offshore teams) simply use a tool set to generate exactly what the ‘requirements’ document says, with no review of the design by anyone!

There’s an excellent satire about our anti-expert view here (starting around 1:10 into the clip): http://southpark.cc.com/clips/360430/captain-hindsight

Also, Michael Crichton gave a fantastic talk about the problem of expert speculation:
http://larvatus.com/michael-crichton-why-speculate/

“Expertise is no shield against failure to see ahead.”

So, let’s be sure to separate expertise that is useful from expertise that is not.

By Stephen Few. July 13th, 2017 at 8:16 am

Nate,

I have not only understated the fact that experts sometimes get things wrong; I have understated everything regarding this topic in my short book review. To adequately cover the topic, I would need to write a book. Fortunately, Tom Nichols has done that for me. His book does not understate any of this. Experts can be notoriously wrong, especially when they attempt to make predictions about complex events, which is not their area of expertise. I recommend that you read the book. The fact that experts sometimes get things wrong is not a valid argument that expertise isn’t needed.

As you probably know, I wholeheartedly agree with you that a fundamental problem with data visualization today is the fact that people and organizations don’t recognize it as requiring expertise. This is a vivid case of devaluing expertise.

By Joel. July 14th, 2017 at 8:19 am

I’m going to force a new word into the lexicon. “Fauxpertise”
I read all about how to do it on Google, so remember you heard it here first.

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