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The Experts We Need

Policy gurus spend too much time with others like them – top civil servants, high-flying journalists, successful businesspeople – and too little time with ordinary voters. If they could become “humble, competent people on a level with dentists,” as John Maynard Keynes once suggested, voters might identify with them and find them trustworthy.

LONDON – In the midst of the debate on the most crucial decision the United Kingdom has faced in a generation, then-Minister of Justice Michael Gove exclaimed, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.” That statement received almost as much media attention as Gove’s recent admission that he has used cocaine.

But Gove’s statement was no impromptu outburst. It was a deliberate attempt – common nowadays among populist politicians – to build political capital out of anti-expert anger. The names vary – technocrats, nerds, dweebs, eggheads, pointy-heads – but the sentiment is the same across many countries and contexts: distrust of know-it-alls and the evidence-based public policies they favor.

The Death of Expertise is the revealing title of a 2017 book by Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College. Nichols gets it just right. Once upon a time, when doctors or teachers opened their mouths, people listened. Today, people who have done a half-hour of “research” on the Internet claim to know just as much. And any expert who confidently claims x, backed up by decades of study, may face thousands on Twitter or Facebook who claim that “in their experience,” y is true.

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