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Expertise

The Experts Killed Expertise

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expertise

Public policy expert Tom Nichols recently wrote an article entitled, “The Death of Expertise.” In it, he writes at some length about his fear of “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen.” Expertise, Mr. Nichols explains, is being replaced by “a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion,” which in his words is both “silly” and “dangerous.” For Mr. Nichols, it’s silly because “without real experts, everyone is an expert on everything.” It’s dangerous to him because you can’t have a bunch of uneducated proles running around making decisions, can you? His fears aren’t completely unfounded and the article as a whole is a generally good examination of the relationship between us common folk and the egghead class in the information age. But there are some observations to be made on behalf of the laymen he chastises.

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Fewer Professionals, Please

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In the summer of 1769 the town of Boxford, Massachusetts was on edge. Jonathan Ames’ pretty young wife, Ruth, had taken ill, and when Mrs. Kimball, a neighbor, came to visit, Ruth’s mother-in-law claimed the odor coming from her chamber was too foul to admit visitors. Kimball nevertheless insisting on a visit, found the room agreeable, but her friend writhing in pain on the bed and foaming at the mouth. When the young woman died the next day, her body was buried quickly, attended by an out of town minister for a very small group of family, with no coroner examining her remains. Within days, the town was demanding an investigation and a formal accounting that by our standards would seem ghoulish. Gathering at the meeting house, after prayer, a jury of 25 citizens, 13 of whom were physicians, ordered the body to be exhumed, not just for the members of the medical profession, but for the whole town to see. The crowd was so immense, and the desire…

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