Tõnis Saarts: The origins of cursing experts

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The superiority of the intellectual aristocracy and experts and the plurality of opinion in the digital age do not mix. This fundamental controversy has people confused, Tõnis Saarts finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

When member of the government's COVID-19 scientific advisory council Dr. Peep Talving was attacked a few weeks ago, the media and public were shocked but immediately adopted the version where the good doctor was attacked as an expert by anti-vaccine and anti-restrictions activists.

Even though circumstances that have come to light since hint at different motives, it is telling how quickly people came to believe the version where Talving was harassed as an expert.

In the days of the Brexit referendum, proponent of the "Leave" campaign Michael Gove uttered a controversial sentence: "I think the people of this country have had enough of experts." Gove summed up something that had been smoldering in Western societies for some time – anti-intellectualism, anti-expert sentiment and the desire to restore "every man's wisdom" to a place of honor. How did we get here? What are the origins of cursing experts?

The first keywords that come to mind are social media and populist politicians. Indeed, claiming in all seriousness that the Earth was flat earned one the status of a laughing stock in every more or less serious group in the pre-internet era. Someone like that was not published in the press or invited to participate in speech meetings.

Today, proponents of the flat Earth theory can find thousands of likeminded individuals online. This renders conspiracy theorists more confident and creates the fantasy that the public is largely on their side.

Experts intervening with claims to the contrary works to hurt the self-image of certain people. "How can a random professor suggest that I don't understand how the world works… Many people think like I do..."

If we add to the mix populist politicians who tell us that climate change is a bunch of nonsense, goose fat and dishwashing liquid help ward off the coronavirus and that experts are untrustworthy and politically biased, we have come full circle.

But reasons for cursing experts go even deeper. Social media has not only created the problem of "echo chambers" and "information bubbles" but has also given rise to a much more fundamental controversy. On the one hand we have utterly democratic online media that is dominated by opinion rather than analysis and where everyone can become an expert by googling for information, while on the other stands mainstream media that picks speakers based on their status and qualification.

The superiority of the intellectual aristocracy and experts and the plurality of opinion in the digital age do not mix. This fundamental controversy is increasingly leaving people confused.

I do not use the phrase "intellectual aristocracy" in vain here as this brings us to what is perhaps the most serious root cause of all. In the modern world, a person's social status and chances of success are increasingly determined by their level of education.

The expansion of higher education that has taken place over the last 50 years has created a new, so-called cognitive class that has gradually occupied the most prestigious and high-paying positions in society. The gap between people making a living in areas that require modest cognitive capacity and those working in knowledge-based fields has widened to an extreme degree – to the detriment of the former.

However, even that is not all. Certified experts have increasingly invaded all manner of decision-making bodies that debate important matters including finance, social or climate policy etc. These people have great influence on the decisions politicians make in the name of the people in a situation where no one has elected them.

Therefore, putting the pieces of this puzzle together, it becomes quite clear why certain social groups are skeptical of all manner of experts. In their eyes, the new intellectual aristocracy considers itself so special to have deserved the right to speak for the whole of society, make decisions and teach everyone else how to live. This in a situation where the internet offers a free and open forum of opinion and everyone is free to google themselves to expert status.

Besides, experts often use illegible terms when communicating with the public, are constantly arguing among themselves, sometimes make faulty forecasts, with some even coming off as politically biased etc. So why should we trust them?

And yet, the coronavirus crisis has shown that results of decisions made based on expert recommendations are better than what would have followed "common sense" a la politicians. That said, this peculiar mix of trust in and cursing of experts will likely remain a part of the 21st century. It includes a lot of controversial developments that have come to affect our lives in the last few decades: the advent of social media, new class warfare as a result of the education revolution, the rise of populism and much more.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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