Mask mandates have ended in most parts of the United States. Stay-at-home orders are done. But the skepticism of expertise that the past two years of COVID-19 taught us won’t easily depart.
Many officials and experts tasked with crafting public health guidance and scientific innovations comported themselves admirably. But others did not. They made politicized judgment calls and dubbed them capital-S Science, behaved with scandalous hypocrisy, and misled the public with noble lies. That duplicity was harmful to more than physical health. It harmed the public reputation of expertise itself.
The death of expertise, as Atlantic writer and former Naval War College professor Tom Nichols argues in a book by that name, “is not just a rejection of existing knowledge.” It is “more than a natural skepticism toward experts,” whom he defines as those possessed of “an intangible but recognizable combination of education, talent, experience, and peer affirmation.”
Rather, Nichols says, “I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers.”
Nichols reports hearing stories from experts of all sorts—from academics to plumbers and electricians—who regularly find themselves arguing with uninformed or misinformed laypeople convinced they know just as much or more than the expert.
It happens to pastors, too. “One of my best friends is a pediatrician,” Derek Kubilus, a Methodist minister in Ohio, told me by email, “and we often lament together that we are both experts in fields where we are expected to help people who already consider themselves to be experts!”
The trouble is that we need expertise. Modern life can’t run without it. Though sometimes the layperson is right and the expert is wrong, the uneducated—or Google-educated—guess is often worse, and it is hubris to think otherwise. But it’s easy to doubt with all the failures of authorities we’ve witnessed, including within the church.
We have no shortcut around our need for virtue. Experts and nonexperts alike must pursue humility and respect.
For nonexperts, this means we ought not to behave like the proverbial fools who “despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7), assume their own intuition is correct (12:15), and scorn prudent advice (23:9).
As a practical matter, that requires adjusting our expectations to make room for expert fallibility. No expert has perfect knowledge or can always communicate or apply their knowledge perfectly. Some failure is inevitable, and revision after learning is a good thing. It demonstrates trustworthiness, not unreliability, because expert knowledge should increase over time, and experts should change their advice as that happens.
We should welcome those updates, for—as Proverbs bluntly says—“whoever hates correction is stupid” (12:1) and “leads others astray” (10:17).
For experts in any field, the task is to make it easier to trust true expertise. Experts have no right to tell noble lies—or any lies—to nonexperts or to technocratically control the behavior of other adults. Humility for an expert means realizing it is not their right or responsibility to determine what information the public is capable of handling well—what complex truths nonexperts can be trusted to know.
Experts can have hubris, too. With expertise comes the prideful temptation to “love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues” (Matt. 23:6), a desire Jesus says we should expunge from ourselves, for we “have one Instructor, the Messiah,” and “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (vv. 10–12).
Wielded aright, expertise springs from “being made in the image of a knowing God,” as Christian writer Samuel D. James has mused. “Humility to sit under this kingdom economy is the key to resurrecting a culture of trust—and with it, a flourishing, mutually beneficial age of experts.” Particularly in an age as complex and confused as ours, that is a flourishing we need.
This essay is adapted from Untrustworthy by Bonnie Kristian, ©2022. Used by permission of Brazos Press.
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