In certain circles, nothing is more appalling than the decline of recognized expertise – degreed, pedigreed, refereed, peer-reviewed expertise.
The very idea that some people believe themselvesqualified to opine (the legal term) on various matters simply because they done studied up on it on the internets – well, it simply won’t do.
Over at thefederalist.com, Tom Nichols is not amused. “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. …
“This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. 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.”
“Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes” – that’s putting mildly. The Challenger and thalidomide were not exactly minor moments in the history of technology and medicine. I wonder what Nichols would have made of self-styled critics of the space program and drugs who had raised alarms ahead of those disasters. What if they didn’t have college degrees?
Nichols equates criticism of “expert” doctors by non-experts to faith healers and chicken gut poltices (were there ever such things)? But when it comes to vaccines and autism, the real parallel is between health care providers and consumers, a point Nichols completely misses in his rush to bolster the doctors, the experts.
“To take but one horrifying example,” Nichols writes, “we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zip about medicine. (Yes, I mean people like Jenny McCarthy.)”
Never mind that most of these whooping cough patients were in fact vaccinated. Or that not just Jenny McCarthy but prominent medical experts like the late Dr. Bernadine Healy said the same thing.
Back in 2005, I wrote an Age of Autism for UPI called March of the Experts, playing (if anyone noticed) off The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman, a book that detailed the idiotic vanity and miscalculations that trigger war after war.
In autism, experts have continually been wrong, I wrote – blaming parents’ personalities for making their child autistic, ignoring the recovering of the very first child diagnosed with autism after being treated with gold salts, and condemning anyone who has ever tried biomedical treatments ever since.
“These days, parents aren't condemned for having autistic children,” I wrote, “just for doing something about it without the permission of experts who are certain nothing can be done.”
In fact, autism is the classic case in point that experts deserve no special standing. When I first went to college, I read a statement in the course catalog that has stuck with me ever since: “A course is simply a group of students examining a particular subject under the direction of someone who has studied it before.” There’s a lot of humility in that definition of the teacher, the expert – they’ve studied it before, period. Now it’s the student’s turn.
So I don’t hail from the school of expert worship. A good deal of what I’ve learned about autism has come, in fact, from what I’ve read using the internets. You can find scientific papers that way, and you can make of them what you will, whether you are an officially declared expert or not.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.