What makes someone an "expert?" Well, one might respond, having significant knowledge about their field makes someone an expert in that field. "Who determines what 'significant knowledge' is?" Well, a wide agreement across society, no? "Perhaps, but how do you generate wide agreement across people who are barely aware of each others existence? Such as the 320 million Americans, most of whom will never meet each other?" Well, you require recourse to an institution!
Welcome back to credentialism:
Credentials are ultimately a signaling device. They signal that some institution has declared that this person has attained some level of expertise/knowledge/status according to the rules of that institution.
Credentials are not necessarily evil, and they can be very useful. For instance, imagine I have a leaky pipe. I could call up my friend who has been playing around with some tools and who I generally trust, OR I could go and find a licensed plumber. If I trust that the license means something real (like it is only conferred after passing a rigorous examination), then I have good reason to trust the credentials. As much as I like my friend, I’ll probably call up the licensed guy.
But this only works so long as people trust the credentials. And because credentials don’t just magically appear out of thin air, credentials only matter so far as people trust the credential-conferring institutions. Maybe I know the local plumbing organization is corrupt and gives out licenses to anyone who pays enough money. In which case, a license may actually be worse than nothing: this person may ruin my pipes even more! So, I would need to look elsewhere. Maybe it is time to give my friend a call…
Now, we have talked about credentialism and oversocialization, but recent developments (especially the CDC guidance changing) have reopened a question about "expertise." It seems as if the label "expert" is not actually a neutral label (for lack of a better term). Instead, one becomes an "expert" when one serves a narrative faithfully. "Expertise" becomes a legitimization scheme, similar to how "Science" operates:
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the cult of scientism is that the stamp of Science confers legitimacy. It says "this belief has been verified by a method that is held by society to be as close to 'objective' as possible." It goes beyond our subjective opinions and establishes objective fact. Or so it claims. The ability to claim that one's beliefs go beyond one's own subjective feelings and instead reflect objective reality is a powerful weapon. And so you see a variety of political debates devolve into a pair of utter dorks trying to see who can post the most shiny graphs supposedly supporting their preferred policy.
Science therefore is presented as being either non-political or somehow "extra-political": external to debates over what is "good"/"bad" or "right"/wrong. Of course, it cannot grant legitimacy if it is embedded in politics: that is the realm of subjective values of course! The fatal flaw is that Science IS political.
Expertise extends far beyond the scientific realm, but Science as Legitimizer can be seen as a particular case of Expertise as Legitimizer. In each case, we see some institution appealing to a figure or entity that supposedly has access to knowledge or understanding that the rest of us lack. This figure or entity is supposed to be trusted, and wields power in that manner.
But what we see is that the label of Expert is wielded in purely cynical terms (or oversocialized terms, as it is difficult to distinguish the two from each other). Instead, an individual or entity is conferred the position of Expert by an institution so long as the individual or entity is willing to further the interests of that institution. Whatever remaining belief in meritocracy or our educational system is weaponized to get people to follow Elite interests.
In that sense, "expertise" is a useless framework given how degenerated our institutions are. "Experts say" is as meaningless a phrase in the New York Times discussing coronavirus as it is in a tabloid discussing miracle weight loss pills.