Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Experts? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Experts

Years ago, during the first Dubya presidency, I heard a story on NPR that stopped me dead in my tracks. Just like when the Challenger exploded, I remember exactly where I was when I heard it.

The piece was about how the fact that President Bush didn't have a -- how shall we say? -- intellectual bent really resonated with voters. Like it was a selling point.

People actually liked that he slipped up so often. That he made grammatical mistakes while speaking and spouted non-sequiturs. And that he didn't seem like a wonk, with his head all crammed full of...complicated ideas and whatnot. Apparently that made him more likable. Relatable. People wanted a president who seemed like an average guy, just like them.

Not surprisingly, they re-elected him. Well, sort of, but I'm not going to get into that now.

Me? I'm not ashamed to say I like my Presidents smart. Crazy smart, actually. Sooooo-much- smarter-than-me-it's-not-even-funny smart. Rhodes Scholars? Bring it. Harvard Law Review editors? You got my vote, hon. I want the person with his or her finger on the nuclear button to be so frigging brilliant they can barely be conversant with me. I like my Presidents, in other words, to be...experts.

I was honestly floored that my fellow Americans did not share this view. It was a wakeup call for me, having grown up in a family where smarts were the coin of the realm, trumping just about everything else. You wanted my four brothers and me on your It's Academic squad, not your basketball team.

I've been thinking about that NPR piece a lot lately.

Because there's a trend at play in the social media world that I find worrisome, and it's an offshoot of the same social forces that apparently helped elect George Bush twice. (If it isn't particularly worrisome to you that a man like him could be President of the United States for eight years, maybe you shouldn't read any further.)

It's been said a zillion times that one of the great things about the explosion of social media is its great democratizing effect. And I get that, really I do.

I'm constantly telling my husband what a thrill it is to discover the voices of bloggers who are not professional writers but who regularly craft absolutely haunting, honest, charming or uproarious prose. (Heather, Megan, Stephanie and Ashley come to mind off the top of my head.) I'm so delighted that blogging has allowed their voices to be heard so widely. I also said years ago that the guy who used to write the Bachelor recaps for Television Without Pity deserved a Pulitzer prize.

Nor is it lost on me that that the online readers are often just as funny as the celebrity panel on Us Weekly's Fashion Police. (True story: I was supposed to have a tryout for the Fashion Police right around the first week of September, 2001. It, um, never happened.)

There's a flipside to that same democratic impulse, though, that I find troubling. In this great information revolution, we're throwing the baby out with the bath water. It's undeniably heady to have so many easy means of information transmission at our fingertips, both inside and outside traditional media channels. Just about anyone could, say, send a tweet right now to Wolf Blitzer. Or write a long blog post about how they feel about CNN.

But we're biting off more than we can chew. We're appointing ourselves experts on anything and everything, spouting off simply because we have easy means to do so, not necessarily because we have anything valuable or credible to say. Good, trained reporters are losing their jobs left and right, in favor of doing journalism on the fly by wikipedia and twitter, even when that can sometimes mean getting just about everything wrong.

There's almost no way not to sound hopelessly old-fashioned and/or defensive (I was, after all, a print journalist), but there's something to be said for the trained information gatherer, the careful vetter of sources. Someone who can listen to a cacophony of information, much of it contradictory, and make level-headed sense of it. Someone who's trained to search for unvarnished truth and know when they're being spun. Someone who's trained to talk to experts and glean what's valuable, separating the information wheat from the chaff.

To wit. Last week I saw a link from a popular mom blogger who'd been invited to write a guest post on another blog about carseat safety, specifically about the benefits of keeping your child rear-facing. Sure! I'll write your guest post. I have a laptop! And a Starbucks down the street! With WiFi! The only problem was that said mom blogger apparently didn't really know anything about carseat safety; her post basically had her repeating some anecdotal Snopes-ish urban legends she'd heard on when to turn your baby forward facing. But now that post, inaccurate as it is, becomes part of the body of information on the subject.

Then I followed a link touted as "really good information" about the H1N1 vaccine. This time it led to a post from another mom blogger, who admitted the difficulty of finding credible information supporting the anti-vaccine position. But luckily, she had found some. Well, sort of. Her sources included a few natural health websites and blogs I'd never heard of, one I have heard of, and not in a good way, (the infamous,) a Baby Center mom blog post "with over 100 comments," and my personal favorite, some squirrely, conspiratorial youtube videos of unknown provenance. Oh wait. I forgot the story from Inside Edition.

Once upon a time, in the old timey days of publishing, I was a fact-checker for Time-Life ("Coincidence? You be the judge.") Books, where we had to use something quaintly known as "red check sources" to verify the accuracy of what we printed; none of these, I can assure you, would have passed the red check source test. And I'm not trying to slam said blogger. Really I'm not. I'm sure she fervently believed she was doing readers a service. They thanked her in droves in the comments, actually. I'm just sad that in their zeal not to be taken in by the party line, to RESEARCH THIS INFORMATION YOURSELF, as one of those youtube screeds warns, people are, rather ironically, being taken in. Just not in the way they thought.

This isn't about the vaccine per se. I am not going to use Clever Title TK as a forum to debate the merits of the H1N1 vaccine or get into how the mainstream media is in bed with big pharma and hoodwinking us all about the evils of vaccination. I'm more than happy to admit I have absolutely no credentials to do so. That's just not my thing. I'll leave that to the... (wait for it) experts. (I will, however, thank Queen of Spain for this post, which makes the brilliant observation that refusing the vaccine has become the "hipster parenting move of the moment" and asks us all to "take off our tinfoil hats." OK, I just tipped my hand, didn't I?)

What I will do is argue passionately that while the channels for information distribution can be democratized to the nth degree, and everyone and their cousin's plumber can have a blog and a twitter feed and can make movies on their iPhones and slap them up on youtube, the stubborn fact is that all information is just not equal. Just because something has been published somewhere on the Internet does not automatically lend it credence. Some information is reliable and credible. Some is not. Credibility isn't intrinsic; it needs to be earned. And I will never trust the information coming from your cousin's plumber's sister-in-law in a Facebook comment as much as that coming from the CDC. If you don't want to get the H1N1 shot, that's your prerogative. But please don't tell me that I should be moved not to because of something you saw in the comments of some random blog on Baby Center for God's sake. Please. (I can't help thinking of the person who commented on a recent Newsweek movie review by calling the author -- who happens to have been my brother Daniel -- a "real dick" and a "tool." There are some super people out there in commentland, I tell you.)

I can't help but wonder if this is yet another splinter of the creeping narcissism I wrote about last week. Is it that same seemingly endless hunger to examine our own lives closer and closer, to hear our own voices rather than listen to the words of others? Is that why we have we become so afraid to put our trust in experts?

“It’s shocking,” science journalist Michael Specter, author of the new book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives, recently told Wired. “We live in a country where it’s actually a detriment to be an expert about something.”

How sad is that? I think we need experts. I like experts. I like expert doctors and expert urban planners and expert Presidents. I like expert washing machine repairmen and expert teachers and expert chefs. I like that they all know things that I don't have to. It's a good system. It works for me.

And before you get all up in my face screaming elitism, I'm well aware that experts are never infallible, and that there will never be a true consensus on who qualifies as one. I know that there are instances when the government, even its scientists, hasn't acted in our best interests. I know we have to advocate for ourselves, even in a democracy. I know the media is far from perfect and Jayson Blair and blah blah blah blah. I know. I know.

But I am not going to allow the random comments of 100 people on a Baby Center blog post -- are they virologists? epidemiologists? doctors? high school graduates, even? -- become the equal of the warnings of the experts at the CDC, in all their peer-reviewed bureaucratic glory. Ever.

And maybe even more importantly, I refuse to be made, in this upside down world, to feel sheepish or worse -- actually stupid -- for valuing genuine expertise, both scientific and otherwise, with all due respect to your neighbor's manicurist's babysitter.

Yes. You heard right. I'm coming out of the closet. I'm an information snob.

My name is Jennifer. And I trust experts.


  1. I adore you even more now! Great post!

  2. I rant about this very thing IRL all the time, so I'll restrain myself and just say...Couldn't. Agree. More.

  3. Jen: You've nailed this. I trust experts, too! You are not alone!!!

  4. Experts FTW!!!

    A little skepticism and double-checking is good too.

  5. Jen, that was fantastic! I agree with every word!

  6. Thank God there's still some sanity left in the world. Great piece.

  7. I heard my neighbor's cousin's manicurist's dad actually works for the CDC!..Or so I'm told!

  8. I'm a librarian, and I agree with you.

    I became a librarian after the Internet happened, so it's mostly on the word of my older colleagues that I understand that answering reference questions used to be much more interesting. Yes, it's great that we have Google, and that lots of average people can find their own answers darn quick. But my own experience at the reference desk led me to believe that people aren't always getting good information - they're just settling for what they can find in a matter of seconds.

    I've talked about this at length with my mother in law, a physician, who in the last ten years or so sees more patients who think they know better than her because they can use WebMD. And I've talked about this with the dozen or so teachers in my family, who constantly deal with parents who think *they* are the education experts. I mean, don't get me wrong - it IS great that more people have more access to information than ever before, but we've all got to realize that an encyclopedia is not the same as a thesis, if that makes sense!

  9. "An encyclopedia is not the same as a thesis." Christine just hit the nail on the head. And if were only an encyclopedia we were up against I wouldn't be so worried. But it's Perez Hilton and internet hearsay and urban myth and Carrie Prejean and Tweeting pro football players and fake Fox footage and Glenn Beck and IM'ing and The Onion and, well, someone stop me. Good points, Christine.

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  11. Thank the good Lord above! There are still some intelligent people out there who still have the common sense God has given them. My husband and I were beginning to believe that reason had become extinct.

  12. Oh how i love this post. You made the point I was trying to make...but so much much much better. It's not that I shun all parents who refuse a vaccine, I shun the so-called research some of them point to. All information is NOT equal and I really wish we'd stop treating it as though it was. On the flipside, we all get to be a part of that information and add our own experiences to the great, vast resource that is the web. Give and take I guess

  13. OK, take two at saying this properly.

    I think what Christine's astute comment makes me realize is that this piece kind of wavers between indicting the purveyors of information (i.e., the bloggers/twitterers et al who put it out there) for this problem and indicting the consumers of information for it (i.e., the knowitall patients/parents/voters who try to seek out their own sources of "better" info.

    But what's interesting is that in the current media climate, those two are increasingly becoming one and the same.

  14. Hi Jennifer. My name is Janice, and I'm an information snob too.

  15. Great post! I couldn't agree with you more.

  16. Just wanted to say I think this is a great post! It's definitely food for thought. Thanks for writing it.

  17. YES! ME TOO! You have nailed why I love both George Will and Barack Obama. Smart people rock :)

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