The attack on expertise was given its most visceral form by British politician Michael Gove during the Brexit campaign last year when he famously claimed, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” The same kinds of issues, however, are also at stake here in the U.S. in our discussions about “alternative facts,” “fake news” and “denial” of various kinds. That issue can be put as a simple question: When does one opinion count more than another?
By definition, an expert is someone whose learning and experience lets them understand a subject deeper than you or I do (assuming we’re not an expert in that subject, too). The weird thing about having to write this essay at all is this: Who would have a problem with that? Doesn’t everyone want their brain surgery done by an expert surgeon rather than the guy who fixes their brakes? On the other hand, doesn’t everyone want their brakes fixed by an expert auto mechanic rather than a brain surgeon who has never fixed a flat?
Every day, all of us entrust our lives to experts from airline pilots to pharmacists. Yet, somehow, we’ve come to a point where people can put their ignorance on a subject of national importance on display for all to see — and then call it a virtue.
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