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Editorial: The role of experts

Peter Shokeir | [email protected] Contrary to what many commenters say on social media, browsing WebMD and listening to podcasts doesn’t make you a medical expert.

Peter Shokeir | [email protected]

Contrary to what many commenters say on social media, browsing WebMD and listening to podcasts doesn’t make you a medical expert.

In fact, while that type of education isn’t inherently bad, it seldom bestows expertise on most subjects—health care, policing, foreign affairs and so on.

The most humbling fact of all is that it’s impossible to be an expert on everything.

Much of our society depends on implicit trust.

Whenever I plug a toaster into an outlet, I assume I won’t be electrocuted.

If I step inside a building, I expect the structure won’t come crashing down on me.

When I eat at a restaurant, I’m confident I won’t get food poisoning.

Of course, if sparks are coming out of the electrical socket or a piece of bread has mold on it, that’s when common sense should kick in.

Our basic trust in systems comes from the understanding that regulators, institutions and other sources of expertise are ensuring no one is cutting corners.

In recent years, this trust has been breaking down.

Misinformation, economic stagnation and political upheaval certainly have played a role.

Expertise has also unfortunately failed us on many occasions—factory farming, the opioid crisis, foreign intervention, where were the experts when it came to these issues?

Granted, disillusionment with experts in one field of study or a particular institution doesn’t mean the whole idea of expertise should be discarded.

But whether we like it or not, that has been the result.

Ideally, we’d like the most qualified people to run the show, and for a crisis such as COVID-19, the experts should have the biggest say.

This has to be reconciled with the reality that we live in a democracy where everyone has a say, at least theoretically.

The medical community has also never asked so much from the general public—a big ask for a big threat—and people have the right to be skeptical about broad health policies such as lockdowns, travel restrictions and vaccine mandates (but please get vaccinated).

However, when it comes to the technical questions and the fine details, that’s when the average joe has to take a bow and let the folks with the microscopes call the shots.