”The rule, acknowledged or not, seems to be that if we have great power we must use it. We would use a steam shovel to pick up a dime. We have experts who can prove there is no other way to do it.” —Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House
"The experts say not to worry" is a phrase I think more of us should look upon with great scrutiny given the last five years of our lives.
This phrase is loaded for me. What would compel someone to say that given everything we’ve seen so far?
Technically, I’m an expert. And I would never, ever tell someone not to worry. That is not something I would ever say. In fact, I find there are, in my expert opinion, many things to worry about all the time.
But this phrase— “the experts say not to worry” — why does it have such widespread appeal? Where does it come from?
From what I can tell, there is this tendency among people to compress complexity down into fun-sized bites of knowledge until facts become so much trivia. The brain can only process so many variables at once without triggering a headache and so we naturally gravitate towards simplicity over cognitive exhausting complexity.
In other words, critical thinking is very hard. It actually is. The kind of critical thinking that I have been trained to do actually hurts my brain. The reason why is often because intentional analysis, genuine consciousness, opens you up to epiphanic insights, those eureka moments of thought that completely trash your previously held paradigms and parameters for how the world actually works.
Because it is hard, thinking requires discipline. This is actually why graduate school exists. Becoming a doctor of your discipline is more than just knowing a lot about your field. In fact, that’s why you get a master’s degree before you acquire a doctorate. The master’s degree testifies to your mastery of the content, your familiarity with the foundational knowledge thus far produced by those in your field. The doctorate signifies something else—your demonstrated ability to transcend that knowledge and contribute novel and valuable insight into the epistemic conversation.
Right, I know, even reading that is exhausting. But that’s the point of a doctoral program: to get your brain to a point where you’re not just passively digesting a ton of information and taking other people’s expertise for granted, you’re now in the business of challenging paradigms. But in order to generate new ideas, you have to first get comfortable with thinking for yourself in a void of unknowns. You have to be ok with not knowing for certain. That’s all science is.
But wow most people, when it comes down to it, hate uncertainty. The idea that most of what exists is not known to us is terrifying. It’s unsettling. If you let your mind wander into the darkness, who the fuck knows what you’ll discover about yourself. You might realize you’re not in control—of anything. You might even have to change. And people hate change.
So people rely on experts.
Why? Because experts absolve us of having to think. They provide this delusion of control. They make us think that there are tons of people taking care of this shit even when, deep down, we know there aren’t.
My mom watches a ton of news. And sometimes when she watches, she points out how often these news broadcasts rely on a rotating cast of random people in sharp blazers to stand in as “experts.” “Who are these people?!” She asks as eight “experts” are squeezed around a desk and given 15 seconds to say whatever. “Where do they come from?”
And that’s exactly how expertise is manufactured.
The media appoints the experts and what they say becomes expertise.
If the media produced an hour of programming that actually explored a problem in-depth and broke it down to its constituent complexities, people would turn it off and turn to reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. Complexity cannot win mass attention.
Because we don’t prioritize critical thinking in our school system, most people do not have the endurance to sit with complexity. They don’t have the discipline to think through the void of uncertainty and unknowns. The humility that critical thinking actually requires of us is to them literally humiliating. Because even though they know they don’t know any better, they still need to feel like they are someone who does.
This is, actually, the type of self-impressed idiot most susceptible to fascism. They seek out the cognitive shortcut of attaching themselves to the experts they think are winning the thoughtwar. It’s this tendency to surrender logic and reason to powers outside of yourself that makes you vulnerable to propaganda. But that’s been written about plenty by people much smarter than I am.
The point I just felt like making here today is that when the experts say not to worry, you should really start asking yourself why they would say that. What kind of expert would say that, given all the evidence? Who is choosing these experts? To what end is the expertise being manufactured?
Then: how is this expertise being recycled by others in your life to rationalize inaction and stasis?
Fun questions for a Saturday afternoon! Have at it!