The world is always changing. New ideas emerge, and are propelled across a vast web of culture through various communication mediums. As a society we have built mechanisms to determine which ideas are worth adopting and which are not, and it's this phenomena that I wish to explore. In determining the right direction forward there's a major problem that needs to be tackled. How does our complex system of culture decide what perspectives to promote and support? Whose voices are heard, and whose are not? These questions have important implications as we look to address issues of economy, environment, and social justice. At a personal level these questions ask us, how do we know what we know, and how does that knowledge inform our worldview?
Consider this. In your life there are sure to be areas of knowledge that you know more about than the average person. Maybe you received a degree in political science, or perhaps you have practiced a discipline like marketing for many years. Then you head out into the world and situations arise that call on your expertise for an opinion. So if you have achieved a certain level of understanding about a particular topic, you will generally assume that your perspectives are informed and correct when you discuss said topic, and you can feel a certain level of confidence in asserting your perspectives. But what happens when you are confronted with another who enters into a discussion with a similar level of confidence in their knowledge? How do we determine the value of competing perspectives? Three major questions arise.
The first it this. How do we determine credibility?
We live in a society where anyone can share an opinion. Access to information is widespread, and while we have certain socially accepted metrics for credibility such as professional accreditations and years of experience, these are no full proof indicators of correctness. As an expert, it is entirely possible that someone you meet could have studied a subject informally, and learned all there is to know about the subject to a level that surpasses your own. In these circumstances it may become clear through conversation that the other person is more knowledgable. But think about this more nuanced scenario. What happens when you meet someone who has access to information that you do not, but who is also missing information that you have. Our perceived expertise can lead us to enter into discussions with an air of arrogance, with an assumption that we can educate others to the validity of a certain idea. But what we know can also blind us to what we do not. It is possible that the person you are speaking to does deserve to be recognized for their expertise, but you fail to because you have not thought about whatever additional elements the other person had considered. It is equally possible that the other person has less expertise and your initial interpretation of their perspectives are accurate. So how do we navigate this problem? This appears to be at the root of society's growing undermining of science and mastery.
To think about this idea, I think the next logical question is this. What motives are people entering into a conversation with?
How we show up in a conversation can make all the difference. Engaging in open and inquisitive discourse focused around questions to suss out truth seems like a good approach if the end goal is to arrive at the best perspective. By asking questions we indicate that our interest is to understand, and by listening to each other we can inquire about areas that seem unclear or uncertain. If you want to see a great example of this type of conversation, check out this conversation featuring Ram Dass and Terence McKenna as they discuss approaches to transforming consciousness. But experience teaches us that this is not always the goal that others have in mind. One problem is that sometimes the end goal is not to come to the right conclusions, it's to arrive at the conclusion that best serves you. This is often true of politicians and others in positions of power who care more for their own interests or that of a small group, rather than the interests of the whole (which I argue are best served by approaching truth). Another problem with expertise that follows along the same vein is that it is strongly tied to our conceptions of self. I've seen conversations get quite heated quite quickly because the participants held their beliefs so strongly that they refused to even listen to the other person. An example of this can be seen with those who hold strong religious beliefs, and immediately dismiss other conceptions of reality because theirs has been so deeply ingrained within them since childhood. I think most people have certain parts of themselves that they closely guard, but maybe some of these areas need to be open to change...
Which leads us to the third question. How do ideas get adopted?
Innovation is core to our society. We fund research and education so that we can advance our knowledge, and use that knowledge to develop new technologies, strategies, processes, etc. But how does knowledge move from innovators and scholars to society at large?
You've probably heard of the telephone game before, and I think it is an appropriate metaphor for what I am trying to speak to. What starts off as fully formed idea will get broken up, diluted, and misunderstood as it travels down the chain from expert, to commentator, to media, and lastly to the layman. It appears that our society is not structured to embrace knowledge, maybe because it is not our primary concern, or maybe because we are too specialized that understanding across disciplines becomes difficult.
In regards to knowledge not being our primary concern, consider those heated discussions I alluded to above. What good does it do society to hear two people shout over top of each other? This is a form of discourse that lends nothing to progress, because there is no collaboration, no inquiry. It is simply a reassertion of a point, to promote ones standing, rather than an exercise in discovery (and discovery lies at the core of knowledge building). When you consider that our society values and emphasizes appearance to the extent that it does, it is no surprise that we do a poor job at approaching reality. It is unlikely that a viewer will be able to get the information they need to make an informed choice from this type of delivery system.
And unfortunately, I think this type of communication, or filtering of ideas, is going to grow over time. Why? Short attention spans and limited time. The problem is that communicating complicated issues is hard to do in a 30 second interview, or a short blog entry, and most people are not going to read a scientific journal every month to keep up to date with scientific debates. And there can't even be an expectation that that should be the case, because no one has the time to be an expert in every field. Imagine trying to keep up to date with advancements in politics, theology, environmental science, technology...it's impossible. So instead we resort to generalized versions filtered through media in small segments, which is fine, until you are asked about something and feign expertise because you do not want to appear unknowledgeable. The problem with this is that it adds another node to the telephone game, causing knowledge to be undermined more and more.
And here we encounter another issue with discourse. The truth is that some people are great communicators, and will be able to navigate these public areas of discourse better than others. While someone may have fully thought about a certain issue, it does not mean that they will be able to pull all the necessary pieces together in a discussion to make a well-formed argument. This could occur if this person is more introspective, or their sense of identity is too strongly tied to this area that they get too defensive and closed off. So what happens when these experts enter into a discussion with someone who is uninformed, but charismatic? If the goal is to arrive at the best answer, the best approach would be to allow someone as much time as they need to fully work through their ideas by defining concepts, and connecting various lines of thought together into a complex tapestry of understanding; and then to have that rebutted by another who is given the same amount of time to share an opposing perspective (aka a debate). But that often doesn't happen, especially not in social environments. The truth is that it's not polite to spend 5-10 minutes explaining a perspective, and it's also not conducive to a good time. So in the short span of attention that others give you, which perspective will win in the sprint? My guess is that it will be whoever can make the best emotional appeal.
So why is expertise important?
The question essentially comes down to this. How do we know what we know? And how do we decide on the best path forward as a collective?
This question is critically important. We may live in a pluralistic society that values free-speech and diversity, but that does not mean that everyone's knowledge is equal. Should a climate change denier be allowed equal time in a panel discussion as a climate scientist who has 98% support in their field? On one hand yes, because you never want to shut the door to new opportunities to learn, but on the other hand you also don't want to get bogged down by a group of charismatic dissenters to the point that you can't make any movement forward. I don't think there's an answer to be found here, because the issue at hand is far too complex. We simply don't know what we don't know, and eventually have to choose a path forward.
Somehow we need to discover an approach that helps us discover the questions we should ask, ask them in a space that can provide a fairly solid answer, and reflect on the answer to see if it makes sense. I've found a version of this on my time on Reddit, as it draws opinions from a wide group, and has a mechanism to allow the best answers to come forward, but even that system is limited by the limited expertise of those who are assessing an answer's value.
Maybe the solution is as simple as creating a culture built around curiosity, humility, and a systems approach to thinking. What do you think?