According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Americans reject the advice of experts so as "to insulate their fragile egos from ever being told they're wrong." That's in support of a book by Tom Nichols called The Death of Expertise, which essentially advances that thesis.
Well, it's certainly true that the "experts" don't have the kind of authority that they possessed in the decade or two following World War II. Back then, the experts had given us vaccines, antibiotics, jet airplanes, nuclear power and space flight. The idea that they might really know best seemed pretty plausible.
But it also seems pretty plausible that Americans might look back on the last 50 years and say, "What have experts done for us lately?" Not only have the experts failed to deliver on the moon bases and flying cars they promised back in the day, but their track record in general is looking a lot spottier than it was in, say, 1965.
It was the experts - characterized in terms of their self-image by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest - who brought us the twin debacles of the Vietnam War, which we lost, and the War On Poverty, where we spent trillions and certainly didn't win. In both cases, confident assertions by highly credentialed authorities foundered upon reality, at a dramatic cost in blood and treasure. Mostly other people's blood and treasure.
And these are not isolated failures. The history of government nutritional advice from the 1960s to the present is an appalling one: The advice of "experts" was frequently wrong, and sometimes bought-and-paid-for by special interests, but always delivered with an air of unchallengeable certainty.
In the realm of foreign affairs, which should be of special interest to the people at Foreign Affairs, recent history has been particularly dreadful. Experts failed to foresee the fall of the Soviet Union, failed to deal especially well with that fall when it took place, and then failed to deal with the rise of Islamic terrorism that led to the 9/11 attacks. Post 9/11, experts botched the reconstruction of Iraq, then botched it again with a premature pullout.
On Syria, experts in Barack Obama's administration produced a policy that led to countless deaths, millions of refugees flooding Europe, a new haven for Islamic terrorists, and the upending of established power relations in the mideast. In Libya, the experts urged a war, waged without the approval of Congress, to topple strongman Moammar Gadhafi, only to see - again - countless deaths, huge numbers of refugees and another haven for Islamist terror.
It was experts who brought us the housing bubble and the subprime crisis. It was experts who botched the Obamacare rollout. And, of course, the experts didn't see Brexit coming, and seem to have responded mostly with injured pride and assaults on the intelligence of the electorate, rather than with constructive solutions.
By its fruit the tree is known, and the tree of expertise hasn't been doing well lately. As Nassim Taleb recently observed: "With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers."
Then there's the problem that, somehow, over the past half-century or so the educated classes that make up the "expert" demographic seem to have been doing pretty well, even as so many ordinary folks, in America and throughout the West, have seen their fortunes decaying. Is it any surprise that claims to authority in the form of "expertise" don't carry the same weight that they once did?
If experts want to reclaim a position of authority, they need to make a few changes. First, they should make sure they know what they're talking about, and they shouldn't talk about things where their knowledge isn't solid. Second, they should be appropriately modest in their claims of authority. And, third, they should check their egos. It doesn't matter what your SAT scores were, voters are under no obligation to listen to you unless they find what you say persuasive.
And you know what makes you less persuasive? The kind of contempt displayed by Foreign Affairs. If expertise is dead, it's because those who claimed it overplayed their hands.
It's not the death of expertise, so much as a suicide.