Experts, Shmexperts

Review: Marc Fitch, ‘Shmexperts: How Ideology and Power Politics are Disguised as Science’

Mizzou protests
Mizzou protests / AP

"With these issues confronting the university system, it is fair to be skeptical of its credentialed graduates and whether they are really in a position to make recommendations as to the function of society."

And how.

Those words were written months before institutions such as Yale, Ithaca, and Mizzou broadcast their madness for all the world to see—that is, when protesters allowed the media into the protestor’s encampments. By now we are familiar with the actors in this tragedy. There is Tim Wolfe, the scapegoated president guilty only of inflaming a mob by giving in to its demands; there is Melissa Click, professor of mass media and mediaphobe; there is Yale’s "Shrieking Girl," who just couldn’t even.

There is much to be written about this particular outbreak of hysteria on the quad. Until then, we can make do with books like Shmexperts by Marc Fitch, from which the prescient quote above was pulled.

Shmexperts devotes a chapter to higher education because the problems there are emblematic of the problems in our national discourse. Americans, Fitch writes, hold a "new, awe-inspiring reverence for degrees conferred by colleges and universities" that imbue the degree-earner with status. In plain language, we look down on those who didn’t complete 16 to 24 years of formal education, and look up to those who did. Until this week, Professor Click could easily have been snapped up by a harried cable news booker as an authority on freedom of the press.

These opportunities are exploited by "experts"—square quotes very much intended—who according to Fitch use the "illusion of science" to make claims about things that are "inherently not a part of that expert’s specialty"—for example, those who claim that science has disproven religion, as though the natural had somehow clubbed to death the supernatural. Fitch’s complaint here is not new. Leo Strauss wrote convincingly in the last century about the widespread view according to which "all knowledge which deserves the name is scientific knowledge." More recently, much has been written about Neil deGrasse Tyson, that yogi of science and quintessential expert, whose musings outside of his field are frequently ludicrous, when not based on fabrications.

Fitch’s beef is ultimately with "the mistaken notion that people who are geniuses or highly credentialed should be able to solve any problem." This notion treats knowledge as though it is transferable to any use, like money. The reality is more complicated. Take music, for example: while some areas within music may be of broad use, like learning to read sheet music, others, like learning to play the harmonica, are of limited use. The harmonica player is no closer to learning the xylophone from an additional year of harmonica practice.

Or take plumbing, for example. In the introduction, Fitch describes the Rube Goldberg solutions proposed by a team of top-flight scientists—led by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu—to cap BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, solutions involving underwater explosions and mud balls in sausage casings. The design that ultimately capped the well was first proposed by Joe Caldart, a Kansas plumber. Where Dr. Chu’s indisputable expertise in "methods to cool and trap laser light" proved of little use, Caldart’s expertise with pipes proved decisive.

In the book—which at times wants for a firmer editorial hand—Fitch differentiates between "experts," whose influence is baneful, and "professionals," whose influence is productive. However, as the author makes clear, he is not objecting to expertise or specialization as much as the hubris of the intellectual. His terminological distinction, then, seems inapt. Why should genuine experts in a field cede the title to pretenders? Better to stand up for expertise in its many forms—from Dr. Chu’s expertise in physics to Mr. Caldert’s expertise—than to disparage the term and risk the criticism that one is in some way anti-intellectual.

Still, as the quote at the beginning of this piece demonstrates, there are many useful observations in this book, observations worth considering as long as there are universities to produce kooky professors, and media outlets to put them on the air.