Blog | Wednesday, June 22, 2016

How expertise dies: of character, credentials, and crap

Perhaps no topic better illustrates the enormous gap between knowledge and ignorance, and its profound importance to the ambient understanding of all humanity vital to advancement at the most basic level, than evolution. The story of evolution by natural selection is, effectively, written, in vivid detail, in the language of molecular genetics. If you can read this language, the tale it tells is clear, decisive, and irrefutable; the facts presented about as prone to denial as sunrise.

Nor need you be literate in molecular genetics per se, any more than you need learn Russian to read Crime and Punishment. There are highly proficient translators in both cases. A bounty of books on evolutionary biology have been written by the unassailably erudite for the decidedly less so among us. Complex science has been translated into the lingua franca.

What, then, is the basis for denial in all its shades of gray, from intelligent design, to young earth creationism? In a word, ignorance. But not ignorance of the traditional “I really wish I knew, but alas, I don't” variety. Rather, this is generally ignorance of the “my eyes are covered and my ears are plugged, so you must be wrong” variety.

The only way to dispute the evidence for evolution is never to look at it in the first place. The fossil record is itself almost astonishingly replete, given what is required to preserve the faint impressions of fleeting life in dust and mud over millions of years. But the fossil record is all but irrelevant, mere icing on the cake. The cake is baked of our DNA, which provides an encyclopedic account of life's recipe.

So, permit me to reiterate: the only way to dispute so incontrovertible a case is to ignore it. Now, of course, you cannot ignore the content of an entire domain and achieve any recognition by peers, credentials, expertise, or even rudimentary understanding. Ignoring leads only to ignorance. Actual experts can and do, of course, disagree in their interpretations. But those interpretations require knowledge and understanding. Knowing is prerequisite to interpreting. Disagreements born of expertise are interesting, and resolving such tensions is in the service of progress.

Not so the dissent of non-experts. Asserting the deficiencies of a field one has never mastered is tantamount to the claim that any language you don't speak is just gibberish.

The problem is indeed acute for evolutionary biology, but by no means unique to it. In every field, from evolutionary biology, to biomedicine, to political science, the cries of non-experts populate cyberspace: listen to us, too! We've only ever read what we already decided to believe—if we've read anything at all—but listen to us just the same.

The long-standing tendency to repudiate understanding not on the basis of alternative understanding, but on utter lack of understanding and, for that matter, never attempting to learn, is massively amplified by the Internet, the ultimate leveler. Nobel laureates, and consummate nincompoops, have recourse to the same megaphone. This is where expertise goes to die.

But how does it die? There is famous concern about ending with a whimper rather than a bang. Sadly, we are well into the realm of a demise more tiresome still.

Non-experts routinely assert their opinions to refute the views of experts they simply don't like (this may refer to the views, the experts, or both). If challenged for want of expertise, they label it an attempt at character assassination. They allege that their legitimate, alternative view is being suppressed. In other words, they whine, 140 characters at a time.

But credentials are not character; that's a load of crap. Credentials, whether formal or informal, are the price of entry into any legitimate debate. Expert debate actually requires expertise on both sides. Two literary scholars might differ in their interpretations of Crime and Punishment, or War and Peace, and an interested audience might benefit from the exchange. But the audience is forgiven for restricting its interest to debaters who have actually read the works in question. Participation in the vein of, “I never read it, but I know it stinks,” would be reliably less illuminating.

Confront the pretenders for what they are, and you find yourself in the morass where credentials are conflated with character. They may also charge at you under an anti-elitist banner, implying that expertise is really just prissy privilege in disguise. But that campaign reeks of hypocrisy. Find me the anti-elitist willing to let any untrained, highly opinionated stooge perform neurosurgery on their child, and I will give up my day job for hula dancing.

So, yes, our culture seems tolerant to the substitution of fatuous hearsay for genuine knowledge, earned the hard way (is there any other?). Yes, our culture is implicated in the death of expertise.

It dies neither with a bang, nor a whimper. It dies silently, drowned in the endless echoes of incessant cyberspatial whining by those conspiring, ignorantly, to kill it.

David L. Katz, MD, FACP, MPH, FACPM, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University's Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, Conn.; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. This post originally appeared on his blog at The Huffington Post.