I live in the realm of knowledge – the quest for and creation of. With the proliferation of social media, whitewashed news coverage and stories, and a heightened skepticism of education, people have clap back with quips like, “well that is your opinion,” or “everyone has an opinion,” or “I present my facts, you present yours, and they are in disagreement.” All of this to call into question the reliability and credibility of evidence and scholarship. Yes, everyone has an opinion and everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, not every opinion is valid or carries the same weight. For instance, the person who has spent several years or a lifetime studying, exploring, or working in a particular area has an opinion based on evidence from systematic and sustained study. I fancy myself pretty handy with cars. I can change my own oil, perform tune-ups, gap my own spark plugs, and sometimes even diagnose a weird sound accurately. I have replaced head gaskets, water pumps, heater cores, alternators, batteries, etc…But, and it is a big but, I am not an auto mechanic. When I hear a weird sound or my car does not perform in the way I expect it to, I take it to a professional, an expert, someone who has the tools, equipment, experience, and knowledge to more efficiently and accurately diagnose my car and repair it. Simply put, the auto mechanic’s opinion is superior to mine because they possess the expertise due to their training, sustained study, and experience in automotive repair. My opinion, on the other hand, is partial and prone to faulty assumptions. My auto mechanic has spent every day of their work life over however many years fine tuning their skills of diagnosis and repair. They are an expert on automobiles, while I am a casual observer, a novice, a neophyte. Likewise, when people comment on something in areas in which they do not work, they do so from the same place I diagnose my car – as a casual observer, a novice, a neophyte. They do not spend every day of their work or personal life systematically studying, observing, reading, and learning in that area – no matter how well read they may think they are or how much authority is in their voice, they are not an expert – well informed, an astute observer, or competent at whatever they are speaking about maybe, but not an expert.
Let me provide a couple of examples:
Climate change for example is so widely debated among people who are not climate scientists. When 97+% of the world’s climate scientists say that climate change is real, is caused by human activity, and is a threat to life on this planet, the reality of climate change is not debatable or negotiable. When the media or politicians or the general public debate whether climate change is real, their opinions based on non-scientific expertise or evidence are invalid. The reason these opinions are invalid is because these people have not spent sustained time studying climate change, have not read the many scientific studies on climate change, and are nothing more than casual observers who have not conducted systematic research as is required for actual science. The fact that some groups would ignore the scientific evidence puts every life on the planet at risk – as potable water sources dry up, plant species and animals go extinct, and the air become more toxic – and I’m not even addressing the warming of our oceans, melting of our arctic zones, or any number of increasingly intense “natural” disasters.
A second example is the anti-vax movement which has bubbled to the surface of household conversation. Anti-vaxxers are a group of people who ignore the medical science of vaccinating their children, instead claiming that these vaccines cause autism and other ailments. Every single piece of actual scientific evidence has been ignored by a large group of people in this country and around the world. It is due to vaccines that many generations of people have no idea about polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and other painful, life threatening, or life altering diseases. Eradicating these diseases was no minor feat, it took years of study to develop vaccines, trials, monitoring, gathering data, reporting on that data, and aggressively working to immunize every single person on the planet – which still has not been fully achieved. And because of this work, few of us will ever have first hand knowledge of these terrible debilitating diseases. Because of the rise of the anti-vax movement, medical professionals have taken a firm stance against vaccine choice (and here), except in medically necessary circumstances. Further, these anti-vaxxers are putting people who cannot safely (with the advice of medical professionals) get immunized at risk, which is a very real health problem – deadly for some.
This next example is twofold. First, consider those who honestly believe the Civil War was fought over state rights and the protection of perceived overreach by the federal government. While soldiers had a variety of reasons for going into battle and some reasons might align with this fallacy, historians throughout the United States (again, people who live, eat, and breath history – read, study, and systematically and carefully comb through primary documents as their daily jobs) agree that the Civil War was over the protection of slavery. Primary documents from leaders (and here) at the time, demonstrate that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. This revision of history by non-historians is akin to Holocaust denial – of which there is a dangerous contingent there as well. So, in both of these instances who is expert? What are the facts? What is the reality? Do we rely upon the word of weekend history buffs or actual historians who have been educated and trained in how to identify, look at, and piece together historical documents? People who spend their work days and much of their private lives combing through primary documents and historical artifacts to put together a more complete picture of history are more credible and reliable in their analysis than the average person because they are experts in their field. And, like climate scientists with climate change or medical professionals on the anti-vax movement, professional historians are in agreement about the causes of the Civil War.
Similarly, when social scientists, activists, and organizations that systematically observe and document white supremacy state that the “alt-right” or that DJT’s advisors (here, and here) are white supremacists, their observations and opinions carry more weight than the average person. The reason the opinions of members of these groups carry more weight is because they have spent considerable time (you know, their daily jobs, a lifetime career) systematically studying the history, language, behaviors, and proliferation of these groups. They have spent their careers amassing and creating knowledge about white supremacy and the intricate workings of this system. Some have studied primary documents, interviewed white supremacists, observed the inner-workings of these groups, worked to dismantle the power structures in support of white supremacy, and more. Their opinions move well beyond mere opinion because they are based in evidence and sustained study. These people are experts in this area. While many people may have observations and counter-observations, their opinions on these matters carry little weight compared to people who dedicate 8+ hours per day, 40+ hours per week, 52 weeks per year, over the course of many years studying and observing these things.
Now, I am not a climate scientist, medical expert, or historian. Granted, I am much more than a casual observer, novice, or neophyte in many aspects of history. I specialize in education and higher education history and I tend to focus on issues related to access and equity which intersects with many key historical moments – slavery, Jim Crow, Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill), the Civil Rights Movement, Bakke v. Regents (University of California), Fisher v. University of Texas, and others. Because of my sustained study in these areas, I am an expert. However, in these other areas where I am very much not an expert, I must rely on the expertise of those who are.
What a fact actually is seems to be up for debate now. Just as my diagnosis of car problems does not make me an auto mechanic, most people’s opinion, critique, or social commentary on social or political issues does not make them a social or political scientist. And just because a leader such as DJT states an opinion or conspiracy theory as fact, does not make it so. A lie is a lie is a lie not matter who says it or what position they hold. When fact and opinion are elevated to an equal platform many things become clear and problematic. The first is that nothing is real or true anymore and that is a challenging position to be in as an individual and as a country. If we can’t agree on who is an expert or what a fact is then we cannot trust anyone or anything we hear. We either all need to become experts in everything (which is impossible) or we need to come to terms with expert, evidence, and truth. The other thing that can potentially happen is that we are demolishing knowledge that took centuries to build. For example, we have not returned to feudalism because that was a particularly painful and difficult time for most of the population, a particular segment of the population that would easily encompass most of the U.S. population now. Historians, sociologists, political scientists, and economists know this is a bad economic and political system. Furthermore, when experts across one or several domains come to consensus on a topic – such as those mentioned above and a good number of other subjects not covered – non-experts should feel confident that the reasoning is indeed sound.
Consider this. Every field has evolved over time – carpentry, masonry, farming, economics, the many branches of the physical sciences, the many branches of the social sciences, etc…they have evolved over many hundreds of years of people dedicating their life’s work to the sustained study, observation, reading, systematic inquiry, debates amongst others in the field (many would call this vetting), and other professional related activities. People who work or study in these fields with any seriousness share ideas with others in the field, they attend professional conferences, present at conferences, publish in trade journals to share knowledge, they become life-long learners in that area. For this expert knowledge to make it into the mainstream means that prior knowledge has been built upon and it has been vetted by many experts in the field. So when a person chooses to ignore an idea, they are choosing to ignore the full lineage of the idea, how it was arrived at by many more people than just that one person and unless they have immersed themselves in that area, they have a minimal foundation on which to stand.
People who study learning and brain science say that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field and 10 years doing the same thing to master any field. While some people are more informed about a particular topic, that still does not make them an expert. Reading popular scientific journals, dabbling in history – for example, reading every book on the Holocaust, living one’s life and deeply reflecting and seeking out knowledge on the circumstances of events in one’s life does not make that person an expert. It might make them more informed and more knowledgeable, but it does not make them an expert any more than my automotive savvy makes me an auto mechanic.