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The Death of Expertise

One of the most fascinating articles I have come across in months is The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. It’s a great piece, and you should definitely take time to read it.

Its basic gist is this: we live in an age where everyone has a publishing/broadcasting platform for their opinion (Twitter, Facebook, commenting systems, etc.). But just because everyone can talk and opine, however, doesn’t mean we should listen to them. Because there are still strata in quality of opinions, ranging from blatantly ignorant up to credentialed expert.

The premise Nichols posits is correct: we live in an age where experts have to share the same text boxes with laymen, and moreover, the laymen often think their opinions hold equal value to those of experts. And increasingly, I find the back and forth between the two increasingly fervent and belligerent. PhD and lab researchers arguing with random everymen who read a few articles in magazines and hit up a few links on Twitter. That’s not an exaggeration.

Here’s a personal example.

Not too long ago, I was talking to a very casual acquaintance about gluten. Gluten is all the rage these days, and the movement towards gluten-free foods is one of the biggest trends in the food industry. Gluten is a protein composite found in wheat and related grains, and in certain folks it triggers a sensitivity that manifests in symptoms that fall along a continuum ranging from mostly imperceptible to acute. Gluten is a valid concern if you are reactive to it.

My conversation with this person happened in a café line as we waited to place our order.

HER (to café employee): I’ll take a turkey sandwich on gluten-free bread.

HER (to me): They finally started carrying gluten-free stuff. About time!

ME: Yeah. If you react to gluten, life can get pretty miserable.

HER: Yep, sure can.

ME: Do you react?

HER: Oh, I think I do, but I’m not sure. I moved my whole family to gluten-free just in case.

ME: Whoa! Sounds expensive!

HER: Oh, it is. And it limits your food choices!

ME: You should look into a LEAP/MRT test to see if your family is really sensitive. That’ll give you the whole picture.

HER: Oh, I don’t need to. I’m convinced gluten is evil. Ha ha!

ME: Oh, okay. It can be, but if you digest it with no issues, and everyone’s biochemistry is different, it’s literally a non-issue.

HER: Well, it’s actually not that big a deal. Gluten is just a fancy way of saying wheat, so we just avoid wheat.

ME: Well, gluten is more than wheat.

HER: No, not really.

ME: Hmm. Well, okay. It’s actually a composite protein found in wheat any a great many other things, such as grains like rye and barley, and even sauces and salad dressings. It’s more common than most think.

HER: You’re thinking of processed foods. Gluten is just wheat.

ME: Well, you should look that up. If you’re trying to avoid gluten, you’ll be surprised where it sneaks in your diet.

HER: Well, you’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m entitled to mine.

The problem with this exchange isn’t that she wanted to avoid gluten. It wasn’t even that she was avoiding gluten without evidence she needed to do so. It was that when she was confronted by facts about her decision to avoid gluten, she fell back into a position of belief that her (wrong) understanding of gluten was on par with the facts. And it’s not.

I am by no means a doctor, but I do study nutrition to a point some would call obnoxious, plus I have some contacts I have found on a Doctor’s review site, which have helped me, you can click here to find more about the site. The fact that this harmless conversation devolved into a matter of opinion rather than understanding evidence is a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. In other words, the more ignorant someone is, the more sure he defends that he’s not ignorant.

Call this entire phenomenon a casualty of technology prevalence: we live in a time where a great deal of human knowledge is available on a computer we keep in our pockets. That’s great, but it doesn’t mean everyone is educated, nor does it mean everyone has done the work to achieve mastery in a given domain.

Now, more than ever, we have to be very careful about the inputs we decide are credible. There’s more information out there than ever before in human history, but the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty ugly. It’s up to us to be vigilant and squelch it to make it usable.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

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