This piece about crumbling faith in expertise is making the rounds on the web (see also Becky's comments):

The democratization of scientific expertise carries danger with it. If experts cannot be trusted in a world whose problems are complex, who do we trust? To many, it seems, the answer may just have to be themselves (or their social or political interest group). While it may have been unwise to give as much unguarded confidence as we have in the past to the experts on any issue, it is crazy to assume that our untested, "common sense," and sometimes skewed judgments on complex questions are an appropriate substitute.

If we become our own experts on important matters where science can lead to more informed judgments, we will too often substitute ignorance for insight. Science will become irrelevant and we'll be left with only our own value preferences.

The New York Review of Books also offers a take on this subject, noting that many in our culture (including, but not limited to the Tea Party movement) exhibit "blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers."

And Feynman, acknowledging that physics has inconsistencies and unsolved problems, makes a strong defense of technical expertise:

But all the principles [of physics] that are known are inconsistent with each other, so something has to be removed. We get a lot of letters from people insisting that we ought to make holes in our guesses. You see, you make a hole, to make room for a new guess. Somebody says, 'You know, you people always say that space is continuous. How do you know when you get to a small enough dimension that there really are enough points in between, that it isn't just a lot of dots separated by little distances?' Or they say, 'You know those quantum mechanical amplitudes you told me about, what makes you think those are right? Maybe they aren't right'. Such remarks are obvious and a perfectly clear to anybody who is working on this problem. It does not do any good to point this out. The problem is not only what might be wrong but what, precisely, might be substituted in place of it. In the case of the continuous space, suppose the precise proposition is that space really consists of a series of dots, and that the space between them does not mean anything, and that the dots are in a cubic array. Then we can prove immediately that this is wrong. The problem is not just to say something might be wrong, but to replace it by something - and that is not so easy. As soon as any really definite idea is substituted it becomes almost immediately apparent that it doesn't work.

The second difficulty is that there is an infinite number of possibilities of these simple types. It is something like this. You are sitting working very hard, you have worked for a long time trying to open a safe. The some Joe comes along who knows nothing about what you are doing, except that you are trying to open the safe. He says 'Why don't you try the combination 10:20:30?" Because you are busy, you have tried a lot of things, maybe you have already tried 10:20:30. Maybe you know already that the middle number is 32 not 20. Maybe you know as a matter of fact that it is a five digit combination.

- Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law, p 161

This is true of just about all of the sciences. The problem is not so much that genuine experts are blind to the unsolved problems in their fields. It's that any science is incomplete and imperfect, and yet we have to make decisions: about policy, about your health, about business plans, about things that matter to society. That's a difficult task, even without factoring in interactions with the media and the political process. Few people come out of that process looking clean, but that does not mean expertise has no value.

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