In his 2016 essay in Medium, David Hopkins blames the TV sitcom Friends for the downfall of Western Civilization. The premise of the article sounds ridiculous, but it makes an important point about our society’s view of experts. He claimed the show “signals a harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America, where a gifted and intelligent man is persecuted by his idiot compatriots.” Of course, he’s referring to Ross, a paleontologist, who is picked on by his friends for being boring and too intellectual. It’s a theme that runs throughout the entire ten seasons of “Friends.” The anti-intellectualism modeled on Friends was watched by tens of millions each week for a decade and Hopkins thinks that it made its way into the American zeitgeist.
Hopkins is on to something. We do have an problem with experts in America. Large swaths of the population reject what experts say simply because they are experts. Case in point, I recently had a conversation about COVID vaccines with the guy working on my air conditioner. He said he wasn’t going to get vaccinated because he thought COVID was no worse than seasonal flu, and he didn’t think the vaccines were safe. I told him about a webinar I’d attended where an infectious disease specialist from Columbia University presented why COVID is much worse than the flu, how the vaccines work, and why they are safe.
The repair guy said, “I don’t trust people from universities.” Unfortunately, his view is shared by tens of millions of Americans.
There’s paradox here. The COVID mRNA vaccines are stunning achievements that illustrate the power of science and the importance of expertise, but, for a large portion of the populace, their roll-out has created even greater distrust of science and experts.
If you had told me a few decades ago that everybody would have nearly all the world’s information in our pockets, I would have thought that society would be better informed and more rational. Regrettably, the opposite has occurred. This contrast was captured by Tom Nichols in his book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters:
These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of laypeople lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.
I think Tom Nichols is correct, and I’m concerned for our country and species. Experts are vital. We need expert engineers, scientists, medical doctors, psychologists, physicists, and geneticists. Each generation of experts stands on the shoulders of the prior generation and contributes to the unfolding of our progress. Gene editing, new types of vaccines, and the possibility of clean energy through promising technologies like nuclear fusion stand to improve humanity and enable humanity’s long-term survival.
Of course, experts aren’t infallible. They make mistakes and can be wrong, but that doesn’t mean that we should dismiss experts altogether. For example, early in the pandemic it was thought that SARS-Cov-2 spread via contact. So, we all used a ton of hand sanitizer and wiped down our groceries. Then it was determined that the virus didn’t spread by contact. I know people who now dismiss any sort of advice about COVID from experts because they were wrong about hand washing. What these people are missing is that there was good reason to think that the virus spread by contact because experiments showed it could live on surfaces for hour or days. It was only through rigorous epidemiological analysis and testing that it was determined that there is only a small risk of COVID from contact. This is how science works.