The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    Book Reviews

The Limits of Expertise

Chad Wellmon

Scandinavian Stock/Shutterstock.

Americans don’t trust their institutions. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in fourteen key institutions. Americans doubt whether their basic institutions—from organized religion and the news media to Congress and the medical system—are providing them with the knowledge and expertise that sustain a democratic society. And levels of confidence are clearly on the decline: In 1993, when Gallup first conducted its survey, 38 percent of Americans expressed faith in their institutions.

But what does it mean to trust not just a particular person—a parent, a friend, a lover—but an institution? When Gallup’s survey respondents claim to have confidence (or not) in science, medicine, politics, or media, what are they trusting these institutions provide? I’d say knowledge. In a world that has long been both burdened and liberated by more and more complex information, we rely on others to make sense of it all and help us navigate it. Enlightenment figures such as Immanuel Kant may have exhorted modern man “to dare” to think for himself, but a key feature of that enlightened thinking has been the recognition that each of us needs help. We need doctors to help heal us; we need scientists to help us understand the universe and better harness its power and beauty; we need politicians who lead us and tend to our common life together; and we need engineers who maintain our infrastructure and imagine new ways of being in the world. We need people who know specific things and share that knowledge with the rest of us out of a commitment to a common good. We need experts.

In The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, Tom Nichols, a professor in the department of national security at the Naval War College, describes expertise as the social division of intellectual labor. In an increasingly complex world, admitting the “limits of our knowledge and trusting in the expertise of others” serves not just our selves (I need a doctor to check out this mole) but also, and more importantly, our common life. Our democratic republic, he argues in this punchy and provocative book, relies on the fate of expertise.

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