Americans have never more desperately needed reliable knowledge than we do now; also, Americans have never been less inclined to trust experts, who are by definition the people supposed to possess the reliable knowledge. There are many reasons why we have landed ourselves in this frustratingly paradoxical situation, and there’s no obvious way out of it. But I want to suggest that there’s one small thing that journalists can do to help: Stop using the word “experts.”
Of course, expertise is a real thing! — though perhaps not quite as commonplace a thing as is widely believed. In most of life’s situations we understand the value of expertise: few of us try to repair our own computers, and none of us decides to remove his own spleen. But occasionally we draw a line.
Some are inclined to draw that line in strange places — say, believing that the moon landing was faked, or that the world is ruled by lizard people. But the really common dissents seem to come in matters of health: you might not know any moon-landing skeptics or lizard-people True Believers, but you surely have an anti-vaxxer cousin, or an aunt whose belief in the healing power of essential oils persists in defiance of her doctor’s counsel. And if you’re going to try to persuade those dissenters from standard opinion to change their minds, almost the worst thing you can do it appeal to “experts.”
There are three reasons for this. The first is that many people with genuine expertise in a given field have a difficult time staying in their lane. I have long thought that the perfect example of this is the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The question of whether we are close to nuclear war is a political question, not a scientific one; an “atomic scientist” has no reasonable claim to knowing any more about it than you do, at least, not by virtue of being an atomic scientist. (Factoring climate change into the Doomsday scenario doesn’t help matters much, because atomic scientists aren’t climate scientists any more than they are psychiatrists or nutritionists.)
A second reason that invocations of expertise often fail is simply that people with equivalent expertise in the same field often disagree. This leads to the phenomenon, familiar to anyone who has ever flipped from one cable news station to another, of Dueling Experts.
The third, and most important, reason why appeals to expertise are futile is that the term “expert” functions as a kind of class marker. An expert is One Who Knows, a member of the noocracy or epistocracy — and you are not. “Experts say” is a phrase that often carries a strong implication: “So shut up and heed your betters.” This is not the sort of message that Americans like, even when maybe they ought to.
My suggestion to journalists, then, is simple: Never use the word “expert.” If you are tempted to say “We talked to an expert,” say instead that you talked to an immunologist, or an epidemiologist — and then take a moment to explain what an immunologist or epidemiologist actually is. Tell us that you talked to someone who has spent twenty years studying the ways that diseases are transmitted, especially from one person to another. Yes, that takes longer than saying “expert,” but it’s worth it. To describe the person you’re interviewing or quoting in that more detailed way tells a little story, a story not about someone standing on a pedestal labeled “EXPERT,” but rather a person who is continually working to learn more. A person who has thought hard, and tested her ideas, and worked with colleagues who care about the same things. A person whom we should listen to not because she belongs to a certain class that’s higher than ours, but rather because she‘s dedicated to gaining knowledge — and knowledge directly relevant to the questions we’re all asking right now.
It should be obvious that this discipline will also ensure that journalists rely on people with the appropriate knowledge. When you’re scrambling to find someone to interview or cite and can only find someone whose field is but tangentially related to the question at hand, he word “expert” can neatly obscure your problem.
All this takes more time and effort. But the word “expert” has been poisoned now for millions of people, and not always for bad reasons. I know that in journalism time is often short and word-count limited, but journalists have a responsibility to educate as well as inform their public, and this is a way to do that better. After all, you want to be an expert communicator, don’t you?