Cross-post: a question of expertise

This recent post by Professor Cocks relates to something I wrote recently at Throne and Altar.

Contemporary society is unofficially organized by two principles.

  1. Authority, competence, and trustworthiness is established solely through the possession of credentials testifying to a relevant education and training.
  2. Ultimate authority over the entire social order belongs to the media, which adjudicates social status of both individuals and groups and tells people what their opinions on all matters of the day should be.

These two principles are not obviously in harmony.  What training do opinion journalists have to justify their vast power?  What credentialing process qualifies one to be a philosopher king?

The question will probably strike readers, as it would have struck Plato, as grotesque.  Surely the qualification to be a philosopher king, or more generally to have one’s opinions on all subjects taken seriously, is wisdom, something more likely to come from hard experience than from any university degree.  That’s not the point though.  The point is, if you were on board with the program of the modern world, you would respect only credentialed expertise.  You would also read the New York Times religiously and believe whatever you read there.  However, it is quite doubtful that the writers at the Times can boast any expertise that would justify such credulity.

We could easily look up the degrees and academic publication history of the writers at the major journals.  Some would be impressive, although I expect most wouldn’t be.  However, as soon as one poses the question, one realizes that no list of degrees would justify the obeisance these journals receive.

The Times and other big newspapers could claim expertise as journalists.  It’s what some of their employees were trained in, and they have interviewed their subjects and thus have the “expertise of direct witness” to report what they’ve seen and heard.  If they were humble newsmen just reporting what they’ve seen and heard, this would be enough.  But they also endorse political movements and candidates, propose an authoritative interpretation of American history, declare scientific hypotheses off limits, and in many other ways behave as if possessed of a universal competence of judgment.

Amusingly, one of the things they do with this universal competence is ridicule people who defy expert opinion.  Only experts are qualified to have opinions according to the most influential people, who have no relevant expertise on most of the subjects they write on.

7 thoughts on “Cross-post: a question of expertise

  1. “We could easily look up the degrees and academic publication history of the writers at the major journals. Some would be impressive, although I expect most wouldn’t be.”

    Most would have degrees in journalism.

    One of the pronouncements that we should disbelieve is that there is a species of journalism now in abeyance, but at one time in existence, that qualified as respectable. Journalists are scandal mongers — that’s all — and journalism itself is completely, and always has been, “yellow journalism.” There is no other kind.

  2. An analogy with designer clothing give us one way to think about this. And I mean here the kind of “designer” clothing that is sold to who have some but not too much extra money. These people are presented with a bewildering array of choices when they enter a clothing store, and are therefore desperate for someone or something to tell them what is tasteful. The key is that they doubt their own judgment, but are at the same time desirous that other people think they have good taste. Since the clerks in the store obviously have worst taste than the shoppers, they need to follow the cue of brands and designer labels.

    Democracy produces vast numbers of people with a narrow, vocational, education, and then expects them to hold knowledgable opinions about things like politics and science. These people lack the time or knowledge to judge the experts on their own, and are actually bewildered by the array of choices when they enter the intellectual marketplace. Like the customer in the clothing store, they are therefore desperate for someone or something to tell them what is intelligent. Here again, the key is that they doubt their own judgment, but are at the same time desirous that other people think that they are smart. This is why they are so eager to know “what the smart people think,” and why they are such slaves to manufactured intellectual fashions.

    Everyone can see that middle-class professionals are the greatest slaves to manufactures intellectual fashions. Proles know that people already think they are stupid, and in any case base their identity in something other than their intelligence. But the identity of middle-class professionals is very largely based in their self-image of intelligence. And they are in most cases quite intelligent–but only within the scope of their profession. They are very knowledgable and smart as dentists, accountants, podiatrists, etc. But democracy demands that a podiatrists talk about something other than feet, and this is why a podiatrist turns to journalists to tell him which experts to believe.

  3. I think one must distinguish between being well-trained and being intelligent. I am quite successful in my profession because I have been well-trained, but I don’t think that qualifies me for being in any way intelligent. I think that, on the whole, mankind is quite stupid and that men get through many challenging situations only by the Grace of God. After all, unlike with all His other creatures, God had to spell things out for us through Revelation.

    That is why tradition is so important. It provides knowledge from countless generations derived from trial-and-error. Now, we have people who consider themselves so intelligent that they are able to contemptuously discard all that hard-earned information and improve on it with nothing more than their own imaginations.

    • I’d guess we are none of us half so clever as we think we are. But intelligence becomes the primary virtue in a postindustrial and post-religious society. It’s been a long time since big biceps were high status, but a capacity for physical work had real value not all that long ago. We have no shortage of virtue-signallers who try to gain status by claiming extraordinary goodness, but this is far more ostentatiously intellectual than the simple piety of the past. A great deal of modern status-seeking is of the I’m-smarter-than-you variety.

      • I don’t think the denizens of our post-industrial, post-religious society are particularly intelligent, at all. We have all become very specialised. In other words, we each possess a considerable amount of knowledge about quite a little. Paleontology is replete with fossils of extinct over-specialised creatures. In the event of absolute catastrophe, for example a proper pandemic such as a more contagious strain of Ebola, a major asteroid strike or a nuclear cataclysm, how many of us would know how to grow a spud? The pre-medieval serf is nowadays regarded with derision, but he knew all that was required to grow food, none of this knowledge being available in any book or university department. His local lord might have had contempt for the little serf, but he would have starved without him. I think our species, at least in the West, is closer to extinction, or at least a disastrous demographic decline, than at any time in our history. This is mostly due to excess, too accessible information. As my mother, The Lord have Mercy on her, used to say, and she was of relatively limited ‘education’, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. Ironically, a lot of it might be even more so.

  4. “One of the pronouncements that we should disbelieve is that there is a species of journalism now in abeyance, but at one time in existence, that qualified as respectable.”
    Case in point: Murrow. as in ‘the GREAT Edward R Murrow’. Just a fraud, he was.

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