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In our topsy-turvy world, experts are the new pariahs

For a brief, shining moment, it seemed as if Oprah Winfrey was willing to give up being America's hand-holder-in-chief to become its commander-in-chief. Bloomberg's David Rubinstein recently asked Ms. Winfrey in a television interview if she might run for her country's highest office – given that it is now clear "you don't need government experience to be president of the United States."

She appeared to mull the question for a moment, and a country held its breath, imagining the impossible: Empathy! Wisdom! A daily kaffeeklatsch in the Oval Office! A free pashmina under every sofa! In the past, Ms. Winfrey said, she had always considered the bar to the White House set too high: "I thought, 'Gee, I don't know enough. I don't have the experience.' Now I'm thinking …" – here she raised her eyebrows knowingly for the camera – "Oh."

Oh, you don't need experience or knowledge to gain political power these days, as Ms. Winfrey well knows. In fact, they will act against you. A lack of expertise is actually an asset. The outside is the inside, up is down and if you play a business tycoon on TV, you may find yourself saying your scripted lines in the White House – or 24 Sussex Dr. (Ms. Winfrey, in her wisdom, said her own bid "is not going to happen.")

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Donald Trump, as we know, has little time or patience for eggheads and their book learning. "The experts are terrible," said the man who receives his foreign-policy analysis from the high-haired anchors on Fox & Friends and his conspiracy theories from somewhere considerably darker.

Consider his cabinet picks: The head of the Environmental Protection Agency is now Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier who has sued the agency he now runs. Rick Perry, the head of the Department of Energy, did not even know what the Department of Energy did before he assumed his job. No biggie, though – it just includes the care and maintenance of almost 7,000 nuclear weapons. Anybody with an ounce of common sense could run the place. The last two heads of that department, by the way, were an MIT nuclear physicist and a guy who won a Nobel Prize.

Which kind of makes them outcasts in a topsy-turvy world where experts are the new pariahs, with the letters of their degrees tinkling like lepers' bells. Even our own politics have become tainted with the proud resurgence of this Know-Nothingness. Conservative Party leadership candidate Kellie Leitch – the possessor of a Scrabble bag of letters after her name – rails against "out of touch elites" who don't understand the desires of the common voter. (I'm sure Dr. Leitch, a surgeon, would recommend that any of those voters seek elite medical treatment should they need it – and not, say, look for a heart-valve replacement in an auto body shop.)

Conservative leaders' success, Preston Manning said last month, would be dependent on reconnecting with voters who "are becoming increasingly alienated from and disenchanted with governments, experts, mainstream media and political parties, including our own." This may explain why one of the front-runners in the Tory leadership race has no experience in politics but does possess advanced degrees in shouting, insulting and not wearing pants to work.

It's an odd place in which we find ourselves, actively scorning people not for their ignorance but for their specialized knowledge. Fortunately, the American academic Tom Nichols has just published an engaging book called The Death of Expertise to explain how we came to this sorry pass. He lays the blame at many doors: colleges, for failing to teach critical thinking and treating students like clients to be milked for cash; journalists, for poorly communicating information; experts, for talking only to each other and failing to own up to their mistakes; human psychology, which leans toward irrationality; and the Internet, for everything else.

But Prof. Nichols, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College (and is a five-time Jeopardy! champion), saves his fiercest ire for the great unread, the much-vaunted "common voters" – all of us who are too lazy to look beyond our biases and too arrogant to accept the information when we do find it. "The death of expertise is more like a national bout of ill temper," he writes, "a childish rejection of authority in all its forms coupled to an insistence that strongly held opinions are indistinguishable from facts."

The public may always have had a suspicion of the specialist class, Prof. Nichols writes, but that suspicion has only recently devolved into outright contempt. Populism, currently on the rise in many political ecosystems, has always held that weedy technocrats choke off the full flowering of the people's will. "People in this country have had enough of experts," the British politician Michael Gove famously said before Britain voted to leave the European Union. Maybe they have, but that doesn't mean they're going to get much useful information about immigration policy down at the pub. Or that they'll get competent leaders out of people whose experience is confined to TV stages.

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"These are dangerous times," Prof. Nichols writes. "Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything." A year ago, this might have seemed like hyperbole, but today it reads like the scrawl on the bottom of a CNN story (which will immediately be described as "fake news"). It's all quite alarming – but only if you think about it too much.

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About the Author
Columnist and Feature Writer

Elizabeth Renzetti has worked at The Globe and Mail as a columnist, reporter, and editor of the Books and Review sections. From 2003 to 2012, she was a member of the Globe's London-based European bureau. Her Saturday column is published on page A2 of the news section, and her features appear regularly in Focus. More

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