The Trouble with Generalism

On knowing what we don’t know.

Alastair Roberts writes:

One effect of biblical™ ideology has been to elevate pastors and theologians as universal experts. If all truth is biblical™, then the Bible experts are the universal experts. We should look to them for our psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, etc., etc. The result can be pastors who claim authority on a lot of issues about which they are naively ignorant, presenting these as matters of direct biblical™ authority in ways that end up undermining and even discrediting the authority of Scripture.

This is certainly true. It’s also true of more people than pastors and theologians. A pretense to expertise from a pastor is arguably worse because of the spiritual authority attached to his office, but it’s still pretty bad when journalists, politicians, and mommy bloggers do it too. In fact, pretense to broad authority based on specialized credentials is common enough in public life that we could consider it part of the problem with generalism.

To be a generalist is in some sense to always see continuity between issues and ideas, even—especially?—if that continuity may not really exist. Take generalist blogging. No one has done generalist blogging better or more interestingly than Andrew Sullivan. Yet it’s incredibly easy to peruse Sullivan’s archives and see where he is obviously stepping outside his knowledge. This isn’t something that a generalist blogger does despite his best intentions; it’s what he intends to do.

A lot of the American journalism industry depends on this kind of generalism. Most columnists are experts at writing, not experts at their subjects, which explains why it’s so common to see an MFA grad doling out explainers about foreign policy or the theological history of world religions. One of the secrets of the writing economy is that you don’t actually have to know anything to be a writer except how to write. The vast majority of books, articles, essays, and blogs, even the good ones, are the products of very brief research and virtually no seasoned experience.

Most of the smartest people I know are people are engineers, chemists, doctors, etc. You know what’s interesting about these friends? The vast majority of them do not blog about politics or submit articles on complementarianism. The most highly credentialed people I know are quite satisfied in their own specialized slice of life. They’ll talk circles around anyone when the topic turns to what they’ve spent years of their life learning and practicing, but they’re not going to be asked to be a columnist anytime soon, and they’d say no even if asked. The people I know who have the most to say about the highest number of topics, including myself!,  are not actually that qualified to talk about, well, any of them. We’re generalists, not experts.

When you say this, folks often get offended. They hear elitism and snobbishness. I think this is for two reasons. First, culturally, we really don’t make any distinction between free knowledge and deep knowledge. Google and iTunes U are epistemological Wal-Marts that constantly undersell the overpriced (=”elite”) competition. Everyone feels like an expert because why shouldn’t they? They’ve got the facts right in front of them, and they’re just as good as the facts at that university, right?

Second, the infrastructure of life in Western culture still does a pretty decent job of protecting ordinary people from the consequences of pretenses to authority. What Alastair is saying about evangelical pastors is definitely real, but it’s mostly a “dynamic” that is off-putting but seldom meaningful. There aren’t many stories about a church suffering a smallpox quarantine after hiring an anti-vaxxer as senior pastor (for what it’s worth, I think Jim Jones-like cults are a different kind of case). Likewise, a journalist with a bachelor’s degree who wages an ignorant Twitter war against history professors is mostly spitting into the wind. If you’re bound and determined to stick it to the “elites,” you can, of course, do so, but there’s only so much your Facebook posts can do.

All this makes it hard for most of us to feel the negative effects of generalism. It’s not that generalism is bad. It’s that generalism is generalism, not a synonym for “scholar” or “expert.” Alaistair’s point about evangelical pastors who use biblical worldview as a euphemism for selling their own intuitions and opinions is not an argument against actually doing biblical theology, or trying to live life in a biblically faithful way. It’s an argument against laziness, the laziness of wanting to constrict the complexities of life into a handful of truisms and in the process anointing Rehoboams as Solomons. It’s a temptation that everyone who likes to read and write widely faces, and it’s one we should be honest about.


The Death of Expertise

Remember that famous scene in Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society,” in which professor Keating (played by Robin Williams) orders his English literature students to tear out the introductory pages of their poetry textbook? Those pages, Keating explains, are the soulless pontifications of a scholar trying to explain verse. Nonsense, says Keating. Poetry isn’t what some expert says it is. It’s about “sucking the marrow out of life,” about spontaneous utterances of the subconscious and chasing your dreams and sticking it to your parents and headmaster. Forget the experts, boys; carpe diem!

As a misguided defense of the humanities, “Dead Poets Society” is easy enough to dismiss. The bigger problem is that Keating’s heedless disregard for truth and knowledge is a pretty accurate picture of how many Americans think and live. That’s the contention of Tom Nichols in his new book “The Death of Expertise,” a brief yet persuasive work that laments our generation’s factual free-for-all.

Americans, Nichols believes, are not just subsisting on a low amount of general knowledge. That wouldn’t exactly be a new development. Rather, Nichols is disturbed by the “emergence of a positive hostility” to established, credentialed, and professional knowledge, one that “represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other.”

According to Nichols, what White House press secretaries might call “alternative facts” have become common cultural currency. If love means never having to say you’re sorry, the Internet means never having to say you’re wrong.

For many people, a first-person blog post is (at least) as authoritative as a peer-reviewed study, and a Facebook link offers truth too hot for professional journalists and fact checkers to handle. This ethos doesn’t just promulgate wrong information, which would be bad enough. Nichols argues that, even worse, it fosters a deep distrust and cynicism toward established knowledge and credentialed communities.

Nichols’s book puts the symptoms of the death of expertise on a spectrum. Some effects are clearly more harmful than others. It’s no revelation that “low-information voters” feel as vehement as ever about a plethora of fictitious things. More worrisome, however, is the growing public comfort with dangerous conspiracy theories. Both of these trends owe much to the “University of Google” (to borrow one celebrity’s self-proclaimed credentials for rejecting vaccinations). With so much access to so much information available to so many people, the web has seriously undermined the responsible dissemination of verified facts and blurred the distinction between truth and talking point. Nichols writes:

The internet lets a billion flowers bloom and most of them stink, including everything from the idle thoughts of random bloggers and the conspiracy theories of cranks all the way to the sophisticated campaigns of disinformation conducted by groups and governments. Some of the information on the Internet is wrong because of sloppiness, some of it is wrong because well-meaning people just don’t know any better, and some of it is wrong because it was put there out of greed or even sheer malice. The medium itself, without comment or editorial intervention, displays it all with equal speed. The internet is a vessel, not a referee.

Nichols doesn’t lay all the blame on the internet. Higher education has contributed to the death of expertise, Nichols writes, both by churning out poor thinkers from its ranks and by defining education itself down to mean little more than payment in exchange for a degree. “When everyone has attended a university,” Nichols observes, “it gets that much more difficult to sort out actual achievement and expertise among all those ‘university graduates.’” Similarly, public trust in professional journalism has been harmed by incompetence on one end and clickbait on the other. All of this, Nichols argues, combines to foster an instinctive cynicism toward expertise and established knowledge. When experts get it wrong, well, of course they did; when they get it right, there’s probably more to the story.

One issue that seems relevant here, and one that Nichols lamentably doesn’t really parse, is the triumph of subjective narrative over objective arguments. Americans have always loved a good story, but what seems unique about our time is the way that story and first person narrative have assumed an authoritative role in culture, often to the contradiction and exclusion of factual debate. Instead of trading in truth claims, many simply trade in anecdotes, and shape their worldview strictly in line with experiences and felt needs.

The privileging of story over knowledge is a glaring feature, for example, of much contemporary religion. While real theological literacy is alarmingly rare, what are far more common are self-actualizing narratives of experience. These authoritative narratives take all kinds of forms—they’re the diaries of the “spiritual but not religious” Oprah denizens, and they’re also the cottage industry of “ex-[insert denomination/church name]” watchdog bloggers. In both cases, when jolting stories about the problems of the religious expert class collide with more established doctrine or practices, the tales triumph.

What’s more, young evangelicals in particular seem more likely to get their theological and spiritual formation outside the purview of pastors, churches, and seminaries (a triad that could be considered representative of a religious “expert” class). Blogs, podcasts, and TED Talks seem to offer many American Christians a spiritual life more attractive than the one lived in institutions like the local church and seminary. Indeed, a casual disregard for formal theological education seems to be a common marker amongst many young, progressive evangelicals, several of whom enjoy publishing platforms and high website traffic despite their near total lack of supervised training. An Master of Divinity may be nice, but a punchy blog and a healthy Twitter following is even better (you don’t have to think long or hard before you see this dynamic’s potential for heterodoxy).

Perhaps we ought to consider this the “Yelp” effect on American culture. In an economy of endless choices, “user reviews” are often the first and most important resource that many of us consult in making decisions. Putting trust in the aggregated consensus of the crowd is likely more endemic in our daily experiences than we think. It’s how we decide where to have dinner, which car to buy, what insurance company to rely on–and, increasingly, whether or not to inoculate our children, and which interpretation of the New Testament to accept. When the self-reported experiences of our peers are just a couple clicks away, and our first instinct toward expertise and credentialed wisdom is suspicion of bias and elitism, it’s not hard to see how we got here.

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, Nichols’s book doesn’t offer many answers for the death of expertise. This is somewhat understandable; there are only so many different ways to say “epistemic humility,” after all. There is obvious need for self-awareness, both among laypeople and among the expert class. As Nichols notes, credentialed experts should “stay in their lane,” not risking credibility in order to appear omni-competent. Likewise, readers should acknowledge the inherent value in professional training and the processes of verification and review. While these things do not make expertise infallible, they do make expertise more reliable than sheer intuition.

But in order for this epistemic humility to take place, something else needs to happen first, and that is the re-cultivation of trust. Trust has fallen on hard times. Mutual trust in the public square is increasingly rare. In many cases, good faith dialogue and hearty debate have been exchanged for competing “righteous minds” that suspect the worst of ideological opponents. The “death of expertise” is, in an important sense, the death of trust—the death of trust in our public square, the death of trust in our institutions and cultural touchstones, and even the death of trust in each other.

Believing in the inherent value of experts requires us to accept fallen human nature in its limitations. It requires us to to admit that individuals with a laptop and a curious mind are limited, and that “limited” does not here mean “stupid.” The value of experts—whether professors, doctors, theologians, architects, or, gasp, even government officials–is value that we see when we accept that time and training and accountability and certification are helpful precisely because they impose a control on individual passions and abilities. The fact that not everyone is an expert is a good thing, because human flourishing is not when, as the joke goes, “everybody is above average,” but when people learn from each other in striving for the common good.

Expertise is not an infallible panacea. Nor is it a politically motivated trap. It is the natural consequence of being made in the image of a knowing God, who gives gifts and graces to each, for the good of all. 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.