Posted by: CJ | August 14, 2010

Teh Interwebs vs. The Experts

I was talking to a friend a few days ago about a dam that burst. (In Iowa, I believe.) He was frustrated because after the dam failed, a dam expert came in to assess why it failed. The locals disagreed with the expert. Possibly because the expert’s analysis suggested the dam was mishandled and hence (since it was privately owned) would have to be rebuilt by the community. The locals were rather insistent the dam was faulty from the get-go, so the state or federal government should pony up money to replace it.

What got my friend so frustrated was the reporting of the disagreement. The papers reported it as if the locals opinion and the expert opinion were of equal weight. He thinks that valuing the opinion of experts has gone markedly downhill over the past 50 or 60 years. My friend was quick to admit that you should only give experts extra weight in their area of expertise. So, for instance, don’t listen to what car wax your dentist recommends. But that’s what the dam expert’s area of expertise was: dam failure.

So, in short, my friend was frustrated that damn kids these days just don’t respect their betters. Roughly.

But, sarcasm aside, he definitely has a point. It’s the flipside of part of the effect of the internet and the rise of search engines and wikipedia. They make expertise less valuable. In many areas of life experts just aren’t as necessary. And when they are, often it’s because of regulations or theatre as opposed to real necessity. That’s why, for example, we have to get a doctor’s referral to go to a specialist or physical therapist even when it’s obvious that’s what we should do in the first place. Similarly for all the various education experts that are experts more because of degrees earned than actual experience. And this is especially, especially true for areas related to computing technology. Older people tend to want to rely on local experts to guide them through unfamiliar technology, while younger people just rely on background knowledge and google.

The net effect of this easy access to information and faux experts is people don’t value expertise as much. Unfortunately, they don’t value it even when they should. On the flip side, people who haven’t integrated this into their worldview often over-value expertise.

I don’t have a real point besides that. Just that these two problems seem related, and it would be wonderful if everyone found that happy middle ground and stayed there.



  1. Its thinking like that would lead one down the paths of the socio…path…ic (LAME I KNOW). Is it me or is America the land of the “if it doesn’t effect me i like it”, or is it the whole human race? I need to get out of America to find out I guess. I just hope i don’t get sick from the water.

    Yes i realize this comment was rather pointless.

  2. Meh, my whole post was kinda pointless. Just meditating on how easy access to information means people devalue knowledge gained through experience. Even when that’s stupid.

    What bothers me most, in a way, is people who haven’t worked to achieve mastery in something. They just totally don’t understand the changes as one works up from ignorance. And so they never really grok the difference between wikipedia blowhard and mastery.

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