Why Expertise Has Lost Its Luster in an Age of Populism and Chaos ‹ Literary Hub


In a cartoon by Will McPhail in the New Yorker in early 2017, a man in an aeroplane is standing up in his seat facing the other passengers, his hand raised. “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” he asks his fellow travelers. A dozen or so passengers have their hands raised enthusiastically in the air.

That image was circulated and debated extensively. It depicts and somewhat conflates two different things. The first is the rise of the populist political movement expressed most dramatically by the election of Donald Trump in the US, but evident around the world.

Populism targets the so-called left-behind, those who once had stable jobs in areas such as manufacturing who now feel marginalized by social and political change and are struggling economically. It feeds on anti-elitism, the idea that those in power are out of touch with “regular folk,” and rejects the liberal way of thinking and behaving that generally predominated in the post-war years of prosperity.

But blended into this message is a second, anti-expert voice, one that is helpful to big business and politicians alike. This is the voice of those who are irritated by the opinions of experts because those opinions can get in the way of their pursuit of personal—or corporate—power, fame, and wealth.

Experts are governed by other experts. Through study and practice over many years they have acquired numerous qualifications and gone through extensive certification, while observing regulations that are designed to protect both the public and the experts themselves.

But, as we saw with Boeing’s engineers, finance directors and managers are not bound by the same standards and regulations and may be reluctant to listen to the recommendations of technical experts if they involve extra time and costs. Denigrating and ignoring experts often produces fatal consequences.

The managerial class has grown substantially since the 1960s. With it, hand in hand, has emerged a decline in deference to expertise–a lack of respect for those who are experts. Tom Nichols, a former professor at the US Naval War College, believes there is a “campaign against established knowledge” that partly comes from society’s drive for equality, which “has had the unintended consequence of fostering the idea that all opinions should be attributed equal merit.”

Facebook and other social media platforms present both laypersons’ and experts’ opinions together. That makes it difficult for a casual reader to assess their relative value.

This, he argues, goes against the underlying assumptions of modern society that presume “scientific principles and rationality will yield the best answers to a question,” and this equalization of the value attributed to opinions is what has, he believes, led to “the death of expertise”—the title of his stimulating book.

This democratization of information has been fostered by social media. Greatest weight is assigned to the opinions of those who shout the loudest; real knowledge seems to have become almost irrelevant. Facebook and other social media platforms present both laypersons’ and experts’ opinions together. That makes it difficult for a casual reader to assess their relative value. Throw into the mix those who deliberately seek to misinform and the absence of accountability, and you have a form of truth chaos.

Tom Nichols is blunt:

To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans (people) to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they are wrong about anything. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.

And this phenomenon is not unique to the US: the British politician Michael Gove famously proclaimed, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts… saying they know what is best.” Alongside this growing disrespect for expertise has been a move towards status equalization as seen in the rise of job title inflation.

Where once there were only two vice presidents there are now dozens inside every organization, which has led to the creation of yet more new job titles such as senior vice president and so on.

Ironically, this is happening during a period when we are told that organizational structures are getting flatter. Another form of status maximization, and an illustration of the devaluation of expertise, is evident in the retitling of job roles; for example, the person who responds to your call to the energy supplier has become an ‘energy consultant’. The irony is that while no one respects experts in general, everyone wants to be seen as an expert in their own field.

The devaluing of genuine expertise, combined with the idea that everyone’s views are of equal validity can lead to things going badly wrong. On social media, life becomes a “tyranny of the majority,” and in business it can lead to a kind of feedback loop as generalist bureaucrats put systems in place that require yet more generalist bureaucrats to run them.

I do not wish to generalize unreasonably, but few of the new processes that are introduced into our working environments appear to be designed to suit those who fulfill the core business tasks. This might seem paradoxical until one thinks about who does the designing. Recently I undertook a senior teaching fellowship created by the UK government’s Higher Education Academy.

Obtaining a teaching fellowship is supposed to ensure that we academics are good teachers. Although completion of the fellowship required a lot of written work, culminating in around twelve thousand words, ironically, no one ever actually observed my teaching or read any of my pedagogical resources. The part that took the most time was having to tick off numerous banal ‘descriptors’ that mostly meant nothing, and bore little relationship to the actual process of academic teaching.

So who heads the Higher Education Academy, the arbiter of our teaching quality? The CEO is a lifetime administrator who, it appears, has never taught or assessed students, nor, importantly, undertaken the academic research that is the basis of all of our teaching materials. Indeed, not a single person on their executive team has ever worked as an academic.

Humans are not stupid. We want the best for ourselves and our own, supported by the latest evidence.

Nevertheless, the rejection of expertise is not found everywhere.

Humans are not stupid. We want the best for ourselves and our own, supported by the latest evidence, when, for example, we bring our child to the doctor. But when dealing with issues in which we are not consciously invested, then random and even foolish answers can seem acceptable.

I have found this when chatting with people about my research on expert leaders. In their own field, they will definitively explain and argue that only experts like them will do. But, if I ask the same person about a different setting, running a hospital for example, I often get told that a “non-expert manager would do just fine,” followed by a stream of arguments based on anecdote and “common sense” rather than fact or evidence.

We want our own domain of expertise to be recognized. We believe others should respect the value of our hard-won achievements. But, without seeing the inconsistency, we seem to be less concerned about recognizing other people’s expertise.


Excerpted from Credible: The Power of Expert Leaders by Amanda Goodall. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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