Is there a starting point to the decline of the expert?

One of the reasons I’m interested in studying the interactions between experts and non-experts is my own perception that the respect we have for experts has declined, even over the 40 years of my own lifetime. There are many potential factors that have contributed to this decline, from the internecine fighting of postmodernism to the triumphant march of the market through the lifeworld, but today I’m interested in trying to find an approximate time to date this change.

Howard Markel has an interesting review of Golden Holocaust: Origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition at the New Republic. The author of the book, Robert Proctor, shows how scientists began to connect tars and cancer as early as the 1930s, and that this evidence even led to a campaign to reduce tobacco consumption in Nazi Germany. By the 1950s solid medical evidence was being collected that showed a definitive connection between tobacco smoking and cancer. The Surgeon General of the United States issued a report on the dangers in 1964. Tobacco companies worked diligently to prevent any regulation or constraints on their business for the next 40 years. The executives of the companies were still denying any dangers from tobacco as recently as 1994!

The causes of this recalcitrance to accept any expert or scientific evidence about the dangers of tobacco is not too hard to explain: the tobacco companies had a major economic incentive to continue expanding their market and protecting themselves from regulation. To accomplish this purpose they brought as many lobbyists and experts as they could afford to spread misinformation and create doubt about the evidence that tobacco was a public health danger. The result of this will be 1,000,000,000 more deaths over the course of the coming century if current consumption trends continue without change.

I consider this as yet another piece of evidence that the decline of the expert goes back quite a ways. There seems to be a relative peak of scientific and technological triumph for experts between WW1 and the 1960s. After that point various challenges, political and intellectual, strip the expert of his influence. Whether this will ultimately be for our collective good or not remains to be seen.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.