As We’ve Seen by Our Reaction to the Covid-19 Virus, Many Experts…Aren’t

As we near the end of  the COVID-19 pandemic, and the mid-term elections, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect upon the great reliance our society appears to have on individuals and groups who have been deemed “experts” in a particular field of work or domain of knowledge.  These various experts offer advice, and often service, on just about everything:  fixing a leaky faucet, building a new home or adding to an existing one, how many calories to consume per day, what the weather for the next 10 days will be, how many and which pills to take, how many shots to get, how long to wash your hands, just to name a few.

We are exposed to these so-called masters of their crafts every single day of our lives, either pushed to us by the media, or through our internet research or face-to-face or phone conversations with others.  There is no shortage of people purveying their wares and/or acquired knowledge about particular subjects, nor of outlets for them to do so. 

So how does one become an “expert” in 21st-Century America?  Virtually everyone undergoes education during childhood in the home and at school to build general rudimentary skills (though not even the quality of this as a firm foundation can be guaranteed), during, and after which, for many, a vocation, profession, and/or “career path” is chosen, and either additional formal education is sought or on-the-job training is acquired.  So, depending on the direction chosen, practical knowledge may be more readily gained, or significant additional academic understanding may be in the offing.

So, when is the rank of “expert” conferred or bestowed?  For those who pursue an early hands-on route, this is typically an informal, word-of-mouth association-by-reputation; i.e., one practices, gets better over time, produces satisfied customers, and becomes known as among the best at his or her talents.  There may be some additional formal education along the way, signified by awarded credentials by a reputable organization to build the identity of excellence more quickly, but with greater reliance on quality-of-service assessments.

For careers requiring higher education, formal credentials are the primary impetus, at least for initial placement and advancement toward that trust from others in one’s ability and competence to perform:  typically, the higher the academic conferral, the shorter the path to “expert” status.  The reputation of the institution issuing the credentials also matters greatly; i.e., an Ivy League Ph.D. tends to carry much more weight, especially in governmental and “think tank” circles.  To legally practice medicine, the M.D. diploma is a must-have.  In a nutshell, much of what is imputed in one’s expertise in these professions, and the length of the career path toward perceived practical mastery and excellence is largely based on the academic pedigree which one brings to the position, even after being “out of school” for years.

While this is not necessarily an either-or proposition, I think it’s safe to say generally that those who choose careers which do not require formal education beyond high school achieve their status of being expertly knowledgeable through anecdotal practical experience and trust-building, and over longer horizons of time.  Meanwhile, those who pursue academic instruction beyond Grade 12 are more explicitly recognized and identified for having matriculated to levels required by one or more historically trusted education providers to be considered “degreed,” and are granted boosts of implicit trust in their capabilities by those outside of those institutions by virtue of these academic accomplishments.  In other words, achieving expert status in so-called lower education careers is more dependent on real-world results, while such elevation compared to peers in more highly-educated disciplines is largely dependent on performance within the confines of the institutions responsible for conferring degrees and issuing diplomas.

There are some obvious assumptions baked into how expertise is recognized and evaluated in this paradigm:

  • the institutions conferring degrees can still be trusted to produce graduates capable of producing real-world results for the betterment of the whole of human society
  • the knowledge being gained from the degree programs offered by “institutions of higher learning” is consistent with, and respectful of, real world phenomena and constraints
  • the academic experiences of those which have been deemed experts by human society serves as an adequate, or superior, substitute for any real-world experience that may have otherwise been gained
  • those who have been conferred with advanced academic degrees know more about how the world actually works, and/or can work, than those who have not, and/or have more real-world practical experience
  • those who are elevated to positions of authority and power, within both the public and private sectors, by virtue of their academic accomplishments, are truly the best and brightest among the populace
  • the progressive decay and decline in the quality of education, especially in America, over the past century has not affected post-high-school institutions, nor the knowledge quality of the degreed graduates of said institutions

I will cut to the chase here and claim that most, if not all, of these assumptions do not universally hold under our current educational system, if they ever truly did.  Many who have been deemed “experts” in their particular field or discipline have been artificially elevated to exceptional status, especially within the public sector, and especially along political lines.  We’ve been bemoaning the degradation of the American education system for decades, yet somehow seem more than willing to accede power and control to the likes of proclaimed experts who are products of both a deteriorating knowledge-conferring framework and organizations seemingly more interested in elevating relative mediocrity to their highest echelons—for the sake of scoring political points in the private sector, or to get rid of them in the public, where this is the only way to do so without running afoul of the unions who have made it virtually impossible to fire anyone.

While I think the motivations for the ridiculous response to COVID-19 (that we’re still enduring) transcend mere ineptitude of health “experts,” it is not hard to see how those with more nefarious intentions can claim that the “science is settled” on this, climate change, when life begins, etc., and can so easily get away with selling their snake oil to a populace with a portfolio of degrees and presumed accomplishments which excel only in the echo chambers of those claiming to be the best and brightest among us. 

It is long past time to stop trusting experts we have never personally met.  Most are anything but.

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