I’ve known a few experts in my time. Working at a museum for nearly 20 years, I was surrounded by experts every day. From firearms to Indian artifacts and from birds to western history, my colleagues were authorities in their chosen fields, recognized far and wide for their expertise.
Years of study and research stand behind their knowledge and reputation. For example, my friend Chuck Preston is now one of the foremost experts on the golden eagle. This isn’t because he read everything he could get his hands on about these birds of prey – which he probably did.
Rather, Chuck spent more than a decade with a team watching them up close and personal in the Big Horn Basin and recording everything he observed. If I want to know anything at all about golden eagles, I’ll listen to Chuck without hesitation or argument.
The same is true for my friend Jeremy Johnston whose knowledge of Buffalo Bill and our area’s history is practically unparalleled. He’s spent years poring over faded original documents and yellowed letters. He’s examined the first-hand accounts of historical events, including his own ancestors.
If I want to know anything at all about Buffalo Bill or this area’s history, I’ll listen to Jeremy without hesitation or argument.
Even Husband Carl is an expert. When our kids were young, he owned and operated a snowmobile dealership. Granted, he always had mechanical aptitude, but he also routinely tested theories to make sure his customers had the best operating sleds around.
If I want to know anything at all about snowmobiles, I’ll listen to Carl without hesitation or argument.
More and more, however, being tagged an expert is a negative thing. Don’t I want my surgeon to be an expert with a scalpel? Shouldn’t I have confidence in the auto repairman that he won’t make a mistake with my vehicle and cause a collision? Am I not glad that the butcher knows a thing or two about what makes a good cut of meat?
Eric Merkley, writing in the March 19, 2020, edition of WashingtonPost.com, tackled the bias that many in America have against experts. In the story, he quoted Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter who wrote the 1964 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Even some 50 years later, it seems to ring true. Hofstadter said that these folks believe that “intellectuals … are pretentious, conceited … and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive …. The plain sense of the common man is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise.”
Sure, the doctor, the mechanic and the meat-cutter might not be considered intellectuals in the academic sense. Still, because I have no medical training, can’t fix a car or can no way dissect a beef, I have to rely on the experts.
Merkley worries that the anti-expert tendency might be our undoing. In his own study, 20-25% of Americans don’t trust the experts.
“Citizens will listen to those they trust,” Merkley concludes. “But, of course, who counts as trustworthy will vary from one person to another.”
Ain’t that the truth…