The Rebirth of Expertise?

“Ideas that spread, win.” — Seth Godin

“On the X-axis is the amount of time that’s passed, and on the Y-axis how much you think you know about something. When you go to university, the curve rises fast: ‘I really know something about this!’ And at a certain point you think, ‘Oh, I know nothing about it,’ and you enter the valley of despair. Then, slowly, the curve rises again, but it will never be as high as it was here, on Mount Bullshit. Who are the people who rule our countr[ies], the people most often invited on talk shows? The people on Mount Bullshit. I think it’s healthy to walk around constantly fearing: am I on it?” — Rutger Bregman [qtd. by Simon Kuper in Lunch with the FT, 29 May 2020]

An ironic thing happened in 2016: a wide swath of American society called BS on Mount Bullshit. But, in exchange, they gave us Peak Bullshit.

People want to believe in expertise, but they also want that expertise to mean something. Medicine keeps our trust by getting incrementally better; the dieting-industrial complex toys with our attention by lurching from fad to fad.

(Yes, medicine gets things wrong. Yes, there are people who can’t or won’t believe in medicine, no matter what. And yes, there are people who pop handfuls of paleo popcorn or whatever without any twinge of irony. But we’re talking mass-market here, not the always-frothy edges.)

Hopefully we can all see by now that the “debate” (or “conversation”) wasn’t nearly big enough or inclusive enough. And yes, hopefully we can admit that a lot of establishment nostrums and social-science expertise weren’t as sound as we thought or wished.

We can’t throw it all out: the answer to squishy science isn’t bad science or anti-factualism.

But we are going to have to get a lot smarter about which ideas spread, how, and why — and how we can widen genuine participation without simply giving every no-goodnik or know-nothing a megaphone we can’t shut off.

And that’s going to require a couple of uncomfortable moves: better marketing from academics and experts of all stripes, and better tolerance for living at the lower peak after Mount Bullshit.

Do you think we could learn to live with somewhat less certainty in exchange for less bullshit?

Don’t you think it would be worth it?