Thoughts on the “Death of Expertise”, Bias, and the Continued Importance of History

Before I begin, please read this great piece by Tom Nichols on “The Death of Expertise.” Nichols writes of how ordinary people in his discussions with him will

“whine that I’m defending the fallacious “appeal to authority,” they might then invoke the dread charge of “elitism,” and finally accuse me (or people like me) of trying to use credentials to stifle democratic dialogue.

Nichols argues that we live in a world where people sit on Google and Wikipedia for a couple of days and are convinced that they know just as much as people with PhDs. When we look at idiots like Jenny McCarthy who rails against doctors, or how being an “expert” in something seems to be a death knell in the political world, there is little doubt that Nichols is wrong.

But while it is true that Google and Wikipedia have promoted Captain Beatty’s version of knowledge (“Cram them full of non-combusitble data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information), I don’t actually think that it is the only or maybe even the primary cause of this hatred of expertise. The problem is not just how the democratization of knowledge means that no one is special, but also the all-pernicious criticism of “bias.”

“Bias” is the word used to shut down the experts and to assert that the B.A. student is just as good as the one who got a PhD, that McCarthy knows as much as a doctor, and so on. And our obsession with bias is not just democratization, but the product of cultural Marxism and its effects on the study of history.

The problems of the effects of “bias” in history go back a long way, especially with Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution published in the early 1900s. Beard asserted that the Founding Fathers were not a bunch of enlightened patriots, but a cabal of rich men who wrote the Constitution to protect their moneyed interests. Beard’s writing are today thoroughly discredited, but the influence of “bias” continues to linger. Mao Zedong would later state that there is no such thing as “objective history”, but that everything we have been taught was just the product of evil white Westerners. And ever since, historians have continued to discredit everything that came before them, looking at the biases of previous historians and discrediting them because they were biased this way or the other.

Now, it is true that bias does exist in history. Every man’s viewpoints are colored by the world which he lives in, the family he lives in, his own personal history and so on. When Mao asserted that there is no such thing as an objective history, he was technically correct. And if we stopped there, asserted that there is no such thing as an objective history, and tried to see other viewpoints, that would be just fine.

The problem is that it does not stop there. We are taught from a young age that bias is a bad thing and is incompatible with the fairness which is part and parcel of a democratic society. And while trained historians can understand that bias is a thing that just happens as part of history, laypeople do not. So when you assert that a historian is biased or George Washington was biased, an ordinary person is going to assume that’s bad when it is not.

And then comes the final leap of thought which has created this lack of respect for expertise. It’s not that the PhD student is actually smarter than the high school graduate who spends five minutes on Google. The truth is that the PhD student is just biased in a different way from the high school graduate, and all that education did was pull him farther in the direction of those biases. And since those biases are bad, what’s the difference between his biases and my biases?

And that is wrong. Completely wrong. But the high school student runs into the Dunning-Kruger effect and fails to understand how wrong he is. And since there are more high school and B.A. people than people with PhDs out there, the results is that those with lower education are convinced that their biases are just as good as the PhD student’s biases. And in a democracy, he with the most votes wins.

What is to be done about this? Well, that requires someone with more intelligence than myself. But the first step is to understand. The fact is that bias exists in the study of history, international relations, political science, philosophy, and even “subjective” field out there. It cannot be destroyed or avoided. But that does not mean that there is something wrong with being biased, or that a biased expert is somehow only just as intelligent as the biased layman. But as long as bias carries this negative connotation which exists in our everyday language, this problem will likely grow – and it is just as dangerous to expertise as Google and Wikipedia.

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