David Rieff says that yes, we have grown too trusting in the opinions of experts, who have proven themselves to be unreliable, but that we now face the opposite threat from the Cult of the Amateur. Excerpt:
On both the right and the left, this intellectual and moral populism is so commonplace as to have become an article of faith. Put it down to the failure of experts to deliver. Whether it was, at least for liberals of a certain generation, a Robert McNamara or a McGeorge Bundy during Vietnam–‘The Best and the Brightest,’ and all that–or, on the right, a justified contempt for the social engineers of the welfare state, who on balance seem to have done more harm than good, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, in half a century, we have moved from the cult of the expert to the cult of the amateur.
But to call this a disbelief in expertise is only partly right. What many people today believe–the young especially, having never known a world without the Internet–is that anyone can become an expert.
What the Internet, by providing virtually limitless access to information, has done, is made us all feel that we are in some sense experts, at least on any subject that is not so technical that even the most self-congratulatory cannot seriously pretend to real knowledge. Thus young policy wonks in Washington, who have never heard a shot fired in anger, except, perhaps as distant background noise during a fleeting ‘Condel’ to a theater of war, discourse with seemingly perfect self-assurance on U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine, and bloggers with absolutely no scientific training believe that they have the right to an opinion about global warming one way or the other. But what this belief that we are all experts illustrates is not the democratization of knowledge, but the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
A true and important point. But it seems to me that the Internet only put into hyperdrive cultural and intellectual currents already moving swiftly through our culture. I think, for example, about religion (as you knew I would). The Protestant Reformation, which predates the Internet by 500 years, began the democratization of religious thought in the West — a degeneration of authority and the idea of authority that has now resulted in the catastrophic (to me) hollowing-out of the Roman Catholic Church’s authority — by which I mean many, probably most, Catholics in the West no longer believe their consciences bound by the teaching of the Roman magisterium.
Why is this “catastrophic” to me, a man who rejected the authority of the Roman church? Because when I lost my faith in the Roman church’s magisterial authority, I did not lose my faith in the idea of meaningful authority existing outside of my individual judgment. It is catastrophic for the long-term survival of Christianity, in my view, to have the concept of binding authority collapse, as it has assuredly done. The rise of the Cult of the Amateur in popular Western religion has resulted in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is the final decadent stage of Christianity in Western civilization, although it should be pointed out that a) this is not really Christianity at all, and b) sociologist Christian Smith has shown that the MTD corrosion attacks all religions in this culture equally.
When the postman and the Pope are theologians whose opinions have more or less equal weight, we have not the democratization of religion, but, as Rieff indicates about knowledge and expertise in general, entropy — which is to say, decay and dissolution.
Let me encourage you again to read Rieff’s post. It’s not about religion at all, but about expertise and foreign policy, and why the Internet makes it more likely, in his view, that the US will intervene militarily in foreign lands. Don’t let my having riffed on a religious tangent keep you from reading the original.