“Snake oil is a euphemism for deceptive marketing and health care fraud. It refers to the petroleum-based mineral oil or “snake oil” that used to be sold as a cure-all elixir for many kinds of physiological problems. Many 19th-century United States and 18th-century European entrepreneurs advertised and sold mineral oil (often mixed with various active and inactive household herbs, spices, and compounds, but containing no snake-derived substances whatsoever) as “snake oil liniment”, making frivolous claims about its efficacy as a panacea.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake_oil
It seems to me that the “snake oil” phenomenon is still very much alive and well in 21st Century America. Recently, a certain televangelist was warned by two state Attorney Generals to stop promoting “silver solution” as a cure for the coronavirus. Another news article tells of “Strange devices (that) have been cropping up on the lapels of political figures around the world. Sometimes known as Air Doctor and sometimes as Virus Shut Out, they look like normal ID badges. But according to their manufacturers, they use chemicals to wipe out airborne pathogens and protect wearers from disease.”
This article in the Federalist by Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor in the Harvard Extension School, encapsulates my rant for today. Tom says:
I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.
Just so, and it bothers me greatly. Of course, experts can make mistakes, they are, after all, human like the rest of us. But when somebody spends years at schools and universities studying a subject, and then years laboring in that field of study gaining real world experience—why wouldn’t you listen to them? Why wouldn’t you give more weight to their opinion on their subject than someone with no schooling or experience on that subject? I am a scientist with expertise in certain areas of geology, but not in other areas. Even though I have more experience and knowledge than a layman, I’m more than happy to yield my opinion when I recognize expertise in someone else. I just don’t get the current attitude. Nichols says:
To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly… Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality…
Nichols uses the example of whooping cough, an often fatal scourge that was nearly eliminated last century. But it is now resurging in this country because otherwise seemingly intelligent people aren’t vaccinating their children. And they are following, not the advice of medical professionals or their own doctors, but this…this… this… ditz
Who said, “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.”
How did we, as a society, get to this point that we ignore competence and expertise and give ear to foolish and dangerous nonsense? Nichols argues some of it is due to globalization and the rise of the internet. There are no longer gatekeepers or editors that used to filter at least the most egregious idiocy. Nichols says:
Now, anyone can bum rush the comments section of any major publication. Sometimes, that results in a free-for-all that spurs better thinking. Most of the time, however, it means that anyone can post anything they want, under any anonymous cover, and never have to defend their views or get called out for being wrong.
The universities bear some blame, as they no longer educate students but have become “boutiques, in which the professors are expected to be something like intellectual valets. This produces nothing but a delusion of intellectual adequacy in children who should be instructed, not catered to.”
Of course, some of this is just human nature and was always so. In psychology it is called the Dunning-Kruger effect a lack of self-awareness where the person vastly overestimates their knowledge and expertise, when, in fact, they are a… well… dumbass! A loud, in-your-face, supremely confident, obnoxious one at that!
What can be done? Nichols has some ideas:
- We can all stipulate: the expert isn’t always right.
- But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, it shouldn’t engender insecurity or anxiety to think that an expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. (Because, likely, it is.)
- Experts come in many flavors. Education enables it, but practitioners in a field acquire expertise through experience; usually the combination of the two is the mark of a true expert in a field. But if you have neither education nor experience, you might want to consider exactly what it is you’re bringing to the argument.
- In any discussion, you have a positive obligation to learn at least enough to make the conversation possible. The University of Google doesn’t count. Remember: having a strong opinion about something isn’t the same as knowing something.
- And yes, your political opinions have value. Of course they do: you’re a member of a democracy and what you want is as important as what any other voter wants. As a layman, however, your political analysis, has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.
Well, I’m NOT giving up. I’m going to keep insisting, in my circle of friends and family, that we heed the advice of the experts and ignore the conspiracy theorists. That we not keep silent but speak up and rebuke nonsense with common sense. Maybe I’ll get shouted down sometimes… well so be it. I’ll pay the price. And I’m urging all who read this post to keep on keeping on. Don’t grow weary in well-doing. Don’t give up the fight. Be the voice of reason when you are given the opportunity. Rant over – Mike out- mic drop.