The Limits of Expertise

Americans don’t trust their institutions. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in fourteen key institutions. Americans doubt whether their basic institutions––from organized religion and the news media to Congress and the medical system––are providing them with the knowledge and expertise that sustain a democratic society. And levels of confidence are clearly on the decline: In 1993, when Gallup first conducted its survey, 38 percent of Americans expressed faith in their institutions.

But what does it mean to trust not just a particular person––a parent, a friend, a lover–– but an institution? When Gallup’s survey respondents claim to have confidence (or not) in science, medicine, politics, or media, what are they trusting these institutions provide? I’d say knowledge. In a world that has long been both burdened and liberated by more and more complex information, we rely on others to make sense of it all and help us navigate it. Enlightenment gurus such as Immanuel Kant may have exhorted modern man “to dare” to think for himself, but a key feature of that enlightened thinking has been the recognition that each of us needs help. We need doctors to help heal us; we need scientists to help us understand the universe and better harness its power and beauty; we need politicians who lead us and tend to our common life together; and we need engineers who maintain our infrastructure and imagine new ways of being in the world. We need people who know specific things and share that knowledge with the rest of us out of a commitment to a common good. We need experts.

In The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, Tom Nichols, a professor in the department of national security at the Naval War College, describes expertise as the social division of intellectual labor. In a complex world, admitting the “limits of our knowledge and trusting in the expertise of others” serves not just our selves (I need a doctor to check out this mole) but also, and more importantly, our common life. Our democratic republic, he argues in this punchy and provocative book, relies on the fate of expertise.

In addition to describing the social function of expertise in a democratic republic, Nichols highlights the mutual relationship between a public and its experts. Publics do not simply rely on experts to fix problems. They trust experts to provide technical solutions that will bene t the larger public good. We expect our engineers to design roads that will serve entire communities, not just certain enclaved interests. We expect our public universities to create knowledge that will benefit cities, states, and nations, not just the individual student. Our experts are, after all, part of these publics. If, as Gallup’s survey suggests, the relationship of trust between experts and their publics erodes, then the democratic promise of expertise will erode with it. Experts will no longer serve a common good but a constrained good, denied by partisan, financial, or other particularistic interests.

If modern, democratic publics owe their experts trust, experts owe their publics humility. The social division of intellectual labor restrains the claims and authority of experts and non-experts alike. Experts operate within specialized domains of knowledge that are policed, through practices such as professional standards or licensing requirements, by fellow experts working within those prescribed domains. To be an exemplary expert is, in part, to recognize the limitations of one’s knowledge and capacities. Doctors, scientists, and engineers are citizens as well as experts, and as citizens they owe their fellow citizens a respectful epistemic modesty, an acknowledgment that other kinds and sources of knowledge have merit and deserve a hearing.

A lack of such modesty among experts may partly explain why many Americans no longer trust their institutions. Last year, physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, a vocal and well-intentioned defender of scientific authority, sent out a provocative tweet: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” Tyson’s tweet and those that followed suggested that science ought to advise us not only on scientific matters but also on life more broadly. Rationalia would be a world governed by scientists in which science dictates how to live. Even if we put aside the tangled question of a monolithic science (it isn’t), the history of scientific practice is not on Tyson’s side. The history of science is full of glorious insights and useful advances, but it is also full of egregious boundary crossings and morally corrupt practices. Consider the very history of modern eugenics, not simply in the case of Nazi Germany but in that of twentieth-century Virginia, where more than 7,300 citizens deemed “mentally ill” were sterilized in the name of racial purity and science. Scientific expertise, while invaluable in so many areas and ways, cannot arrogate all knowledge, all claims to truth, to itself, particularly as such claims bear upon decisions about our lives together and the pursuit of a common good.

In 1917, the German sociologist Max Weber warned a lecture hall full of students in Munich not to demand more from science (Wissenschaft) than it could offer. Science, by which he meant any form of specialized knowledge, could not determine what is worth knowing and what is not. It couldn’t provide meaning. Since the 1920s, critics have lambasted Weber’s lecture as a statement of moral resignation and indifference to values. But it was nothing of the sort. Weber’s lecture was a clarion call for epistemic humility in a postwar, anxious age that wanted absolute Expert, specialized knowledge, he told the students, could not tell them how to live. It could only help them think through, with care and commitment, the problems of the day. For questions of ultimate meaning and value, they would have to turn to their churches, their families, and their communities outside the university.

We would do well to return, on the centennial anniversary of that lecture, to Weber’s wise counsel and adapt it to our fragile democratic age. Democracy needs experts but it also needs its experts to be citizens, respectful not only of the common good but also of the varieties of knowledge that contribute, in a democratic society, to the debate over how that good is to be created and sustained.

[This review appeared in The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2017. Read The Limits of Expertise (PDF).]

chad wellmon

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