Naive Expert Greater Threat than Fake News

Writer, occasional visiting professor, and “renowned public scholar,” John Warner takes to social media regularly to opine about the failures of pundits and high-profile Op-Ed commentators, notably the ever-dreadful David Brooks. This Tweet strikes at what I have labeled the “naive expert”:

My response was something like “Welcome to my world!” since educators, practitioners and scholars, have worked through the high-stakes accountability era under that exact environment: Politicians, the public, and pundits holding forth on teaching and learning as if no practice or research has ever existed, and then, policy being adopted that seems at times purposefully endorsing what practice and research explicitly reject.

For just one glimpse into “my world,” consider that a couple years ago a journalist at a newspaper reached out to me through social media. When we talked by phone, the journalist immediately confessed that they had taken the education reporter position to get in the door; the journalist has no background in education, or even in covering education as a journalist.

This is a routine fact I witness constantly—journalists have training in journalism (itself a serious problem, as I have confronted often) and then are expected to navigate topics and fields simply by seeking out both sides of the issue, despite having no expertise for determining the credibility of any claims about the topic.

The result is that most media coverage of education is at best misleading, and often in ways that contribute to flawed public perceptions and decades of misguided policy.

Concurrent to Warner’s confronting naive experts—who pose far greater threats to our democracy than fake news—one of the poster boys for the arrogance of public commentary absent any real expertise or experience in the field, Jonathan Chait, held forth about the Obama education legacy, arguing that this legacy is positive but ignored.

Chait suffers from the Columbus effect—”Look! I found this thing!”—and appears completely clueless that throughout the Obama administration, scholars and educators mostly rejected Obama’s education reform agenda that was almost indistinguishable from the equally flawed education agenda under George W. Bush (see this edited volume and my essay).

While Chait benefits from his bully pulpit as a christened public intellectual, most people will fail to read the far more credible and evidence-based responses from Peter Greene and Jersey Jazzman.

Greene dismantles Chait through a series of 9 powerful points, and I want to note that #5 (“Chait doesn’t know what the “sides” are”) serves as an excellent entry point into my own post from 2013 that frames the education reform “sides” in ways that Chait cannot fathom. Chait is trapped in making everything about partisan politics, instead of having experience and expertise in education, which would help him see that ideology is more powerful than crass partisan politics.

Jersey Jazzman builds on Greene’s post and offers a very important framing; naive experts fumble fields in which they have no credibility, but scholars in one discipline often tread into other disciplines in the same sort of ham-fisted ways [1]:

Chait’s piece here is an excellent example of this problem [“naive expert”]. So allow me to take a pointed stick and poke it into the econometric beehive; here are some things everyone should understand about recent research on things like charter schools and teacher evaluation that too many economists never seem to get around to mentioning.

And while Warner laments the damage done to teaching writing, and I have fretted for decades about how naive experts have caused us never to fulfill the promise of universal public education, a far more troubling example of this threat is now playing out in the U.S. where we are in a perpetual state of moving past the most recent mass or school shooting.

From school safety to gun control debates, most in the media are allowing commentary based on the person’s status, and almost no media are requiring an evidence-based discussion. Just as mainstream media have been complicit in the failures of education reform since the early 1980s, mainstream media are complicit in the political and public paralysis that continues to allow mass and school shootings in the U.S.

While politicians and the media toss around “the marketplace of ideas” to justify the “both sides” and “all voices matter” approaches for public discourse, failing to address the credibility of voices ultimately fails that marketplace.

Expertise and experience matter, in fact, in ways that naive experts fail miserably.

So let me end by returning to Columbus, mentioned briefly above.

The Columbus myth—that he discovered America—endured and continues to endure because of the Columbus effect, those without real and nuanced historical knowledge or sensitivity to native people both created and then perpetuated a provably false narrative about Columbus and his often inhumane as well as incompetent reign as a so-called explorer.

Even as historians unpacked the Columbus myth, however, the punditry and public have continued to frame the facts of history as political correctness or some sort of misguided social justice over-reach (see also the chasm between historical facts about and the myth of the Founding Fathers).

The naive position combined with power, like Columbus, works in ways that harm everyone.

Expertise and experience are not perfect, but they do offer the better opportunity for creating a more perfect union.

Yes, let’s discredit fake news, but let’s also admit that the naive expert punditry poses the greatest threat to our democracy and humanity.

[1] See Well, It’s Complicated: How to Stop Living by What You Think and Start Living by What You Know