A question of expertise

Contemporary society is unofficially organized by two principles.

  1. Authority, competence, and trustworthiness is established solely through the possession of credentials testifying to a relevant education and training.
  2. Ultimate authority over the entire social order belongs to the media, which adjudicates social status of both individuals and groups and tells people what their opinions on all matters of the day should be.

These two principles are not obviously in harmony.  What training do opinion journalists have to justify their vast power?  What credentialing process qualifies one to be a philosopher king?

The question will probably strike readers, as it would have struck Plato, as grotesque.  Surely the qualification to be a philosopher king, or more generally to have one’s opinions on all subjects taken seriously, is wisdom, something more likely to come from hard experience than from any university degree.  That’s not the point though.  The point is, if you were on board with the program of the modern world, you would respect only credentialed expertise.  You would also read the New York Times religiously and believe whatever you read there.  However, it is quite doubtful that the writers at the Times can boast any expertise that would justify such credulity.

We could easily look up the degrees and academic publication history of the writers at the major journals.  Some would be impressive, although I expect most wouldn’t be.  However, as soon as one poses the question, one realizes that no list of degrees would justify the obeisance these journals receive.

The Times and other big newspapers could claim expertise as journalists.  It’s what some of their employees were trained in, and they have interviewed their subjects and thus have the “expertise of direct witness” to report what they’ve seen and heard.  If they were humble newsmen just reporting what they’ve seen and heard, this would be enough.  But they also endorse political movements and candidates, propose an authoritative interpretation of American history, declare scientific hypotheses off limits, and in many other ways behaves as if possessed of a universal competence of judgment.

Amusingly, one of the things they do with this universal competence is ridicule people who defy expert opinion.  Only experts are qualified to have opinions according to the most influential people, who have no relevant expertise on most of the subjects they write on.

5 Responses

  1. I became a little less baffled by the world once I saw that all cultural institutions are now branches of the entertainment industry. The universities, churches and news outlets are largely entertainment venues appealing to different but overlapping markets. Modernity produces leisure, boredom and a desire to escape modernity, with ubiquitous entertainment as a result.

    Anyhow, I see journalists as something like the master of ceremonies in a vaudeville act. Maybe Ed Sullivan is the archetype. They have a schtick of their own, but they mostly introduce assorted jugglers and clowns. Thus they claims to be experts in identifying expertise.

    But as you say, their moral and intellectual pretensions are preposterous.

  2. This is a great observation, Bonald.

    Does liberalism have a way of reconciling the contradiction?

  3. I think the liberal would deny both organizing principles. They are completely true in practice, but seldom acknowledged in theory. Thus, this contradiction has little polemical value.

  4. I’d missed this post – a good bit of observation!

    Of course, when you take a step back from the fray and think about it; it is nuts to expect that an essentially oppositional (because essentially demonic) ideology such as Leftism would be coherent or even aspire to coherence – especially when ‘arguments’ such as changing the subject, and moral grandstanding through a megaphone, are so much more effective.

    So effective that the Left can permanently avoid answering any questions about what exactly they are aiming-at with all their *double-negative* ‘moral principles’ (against inequality/ race/ women/ marriage & family etc).

    The New Left utopia was outlined by John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – with its list of all the things ‘we’ are ‘against’ – but with no possible coherent, positive state of affairs in which all these negatives could simultaneously be accomplished.

  5. None of us have the credentials for ultimate authority-that’s why we were granted Revelation.

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