When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign,
that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
– Jonathan Swift
Imagine at your annual health checkup that some test numbers look concerning. Upon further examination, the doctor gives you the news that you are in early stages of a specific type of cancer, and while serious, she doesn’t appear overly concerned.
But before the physician can utter another word you look squarely into her eyes and confidently say, “Okay doc, here’s what we’re going to do about my treatment.” You then proceed to inform her about the vitamins you’re going to take, the exercises you’re going to do at the gym, and the food you’re going to eat.
Your doctor’s expression turns from mild concern to outright shock.
Most oncologists would be flabbergasted to hear patients informing them about what they believed were better protocols for their illnesses. And yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if they could share real stories of patients who actually rejected their medically professional protocols because those patients “knew better.”
This scenario illustrates what author and professor Dr. Tom Nichols refers to as “the death of expertise.” He argues that Americans have moved the idea of democracy from being a condition of political equality (e.g., every person gets one vote) to a state of actual equality “in which every opinion is a good as any other on almost any subject under the sun.” This means believing that your personal attitude about anything is equal to, and as authoritative as, anyone else’s, even if that anyone happens to be an expert who has devoted his or her life to studying that subject upon which you are opining about.
So, who cares what world-class oncologists have to say about the best way to treat this specific cancer. Some patients read an article on Facebook or some alt-whatever news site that claimed eating 50 pounds of blueberries a week would kill the disease (of course, it also had stories to prove it).
From political attacks on TV to Twitter-wars about theology to Facebook fights on medical issues, Nichols surveys our national discourse and observes (and forgive me, this is long, but it’s so good):
We no longer have those principled and informed arguments. The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of “uninformed,” passed “misinformed” on the way down, and is now plummeting to “aggressively wrong.” People don’t just believe dumb things; they actively resist further learning rather than let go of those beliefs…
At the root of all this is an inability among laypeople to understand that experts being wrong on occasion about certain issues is not the same thing as experts being wrong consistently on everything. The fact of the matter is that experts are more often right than wrong, especially on essential matters of fact. And yet the public constantly searches for the loopholes in expert knowledge that will allow them to disregard all expert advice they don’t like…
Worse, what I find so striking today is not that people dismiss expertise, but that they do so with such frequency, on so many issues, and with such anger. Again, it may be that attacks on expertise are more obvious due to the ubiquity of the Internet, the undisciplined nature of conversation on social media, or the demands of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. But there is a self-righteousness and fury to this new rejection of expertise that suggest, at least to me, that this isn’t just mistrust or questioning or the pursuit of alternatives: it is narcissism, coupled to a disdain for expertise as some sort of exercise in self-actualization.1
Consequently, in light of all that Nichols examines, he offers a stark challenge and sobering conclusion: “The relationship between experts and citizens is not ‘democratic.’ All people are not, and can never be, equally talented or intelligent. Democratic societies, however, are always tempted to this resentful insistence on equality, which becomes oppressive ignorance if given its head.”2
This is the danger of the death of expertise, of believing that everyone’s opinion is just as weighty, authoritative, and correct as anyone else’s. The only prize we win is oppressive ignorance, a refusal to see what’s true or best that leads us to our own dismay if not demise. Oppressive ignorance is a patient telling one’s oncologist how to do his or her job best or a thousand other examples of people telling a consensus of experts they don’t know what they’re talking about. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s less a recipe for elitism than a disaster that leaves us not with coalition of decisionmakers but a confederacy of dunces.
This kind of thinking (and living) should be a far cry from those who call themselves followers of Jesus. Scripture guards us from oppressive ignorance by continually calling believers to surround themselves with the wise (i.e., experts) so they might…wait for it…deposit their wisdom into us so that we might be wise and live wisely!
In fact, the Bible dedicates an entire book to encouraging believers to be community of wisdom instead of a confederacy of dunces. Here is just a sampling:
- Prov. 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
- Prov. 4:7, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.”
- Prov. 12:15, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
- Prov. 19:20, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.”
- Prov. 18:15, “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.”
- Prov. 24:3-7, “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. A wise man is full of strength, and a man of knowledge enhances his might, for by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory. Wisdom is too high for a fool; in the gate he does not open his mouth.”
Seeking wisdom doesn’t give a blank check to believe everything the wise say. It doesn’t mean they are infallible. You and I both know that. We listen to the wise not because they are perfect but because they are experts in one issue or another. They possess a knowledge and experience base that we don’t, and as such, are valuable resources for making better decisions when we cross paths with those issues in the future. This is why Scripture is so high on seeking wisdom. It honors both the Creator and the creation he made. It’s the smart and biblical thing to do.
Let’s return to our opening illustration and reveal that the reason the doctor initially wasn’t distraught by the patient’s cancer discovery is because she trusts this kind of cancer is highly curable. How can she know that? It’s because she (an expert) also knows that medical researchers and scientists (also experts), over the past several decades, have developed medicines and treatments that will give patients a 98 percent chance of full remission. That’s the wisdom she possesses. All you need to do at this point is leverage her wisdom by listening, learning, and applying that wisdom. While that might not make you wise in all things, it definitely makes you smart in this scenario.
Will there be times that the wisdom we are given contradicts the wisdom of God? Sure. In those cases, we hold fast to godly wisdom and Christ, in whom are hidden “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3),3 as its ultimate expression. As 2 Corinthians 5:13 says, “For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you.” However, generally speaking, as followers of Jesus we should be known as humble folk who pursue the wisdom around us.4
We don’t revile the wise. We seek them out.
If in certain scenarios we happen to be the experts in the room, then humility should mark us all the more. Either way, we should live lives that honor experts and leverage the wisdom they give (and that we seek!) so that we might make better, and yes, even more God-honoring decisions than we would without it.
This isn’t just smart, it’s spiritual.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.
– Prov. 4:7
* This article originally appeared on Clear Creek Resources on Sept. 29, 2020. It has been republished by permission by Clear Creek Community Church.
- Nichols, The Death of Expertise, x-xi.
- Ibid, 238.
- I encourage you to read my friend Jeff Medder’s blog about Jesus as our wisdom in his brief post Wisdom Is A “Who” More Than A “What”
- This also provides an impetus for followers of Jesus pursuing learning and education.