Thursday, February 26, 2015

I'm No Expert

I'm not an idiot.

Even if you count all of those times I couldn't find my keys, and the bad fashion decisions I made in the 80s, and even that time I believed the kids when they told me they didn't know why the cat was in the refrigerator... it's still not enough to grant me idiot status. I'm a pretty astute individual. I pay attention. I know how to use (most) of my brain.

I recently had a couple of articles I wrote featured on The Mind Unleashed, articles criticizing the public school system (5 Things You Didn't Know Your Children Are Learning In School and 5 Ways to Make Children Hate Reading just in case you were curious). While there were some lovely people who messaged me about some of their own (or their children's) school experiences with support and encouragement, there were also a lot of very negative comments (if by negative I mean comments that insult not only my intelligence but my writing ability, my parenting skills, my genealogy, and the air I breathe... which I do. People on the internet can be so MEAN!)

I don't expect everyone to agree with me (that would be boring), especially when criticizing such a fundamental element of our society as public education.  What was most surprising were the flippant dismissals of the information because I'm "just a homeschool mom".

They are right, of course. I'm no "expert".  While I do have more than fourteen years of experience educating my own kids and I've spent countless hours researching pedagogy and educational theory (because these are MY kids and there's no scapegoat should I completely screw them up) and I spent 13 years in the system as a student myself (I'm also married to a teacher with more than twenty years of classroom experience, but like someone so astutely pointed out, "Being married to an astrophysicist doesn't make you an astrophysicist."), I'm not a licensed teacher and I don't hold a degree in education.

As more than one person angrily pointed out, I'm not an expert.

What is an "expert" anyway? In most fields, the experts are the ones who graduate from pre-approved degree programs after writing pre-approved dissertations and passing pre-approved exams and being licensed by pre-approved boards manned by other pre-approved experts. Expert opinions have already been programmed by pre-approved popular belief systems.

There's a reason that any doctor who speaks out against vaccines or chemotherapy or pharmaceutical  therapies or any other standard of practice loses their medical license. Questioning and criticism of the accepted system isn't allowed. Dissent isn't allowed. Experts walk in straight lines and only recite the accepted scripts. Before you jump to conclusions about quackery and dangerous violations of standards of care, let me remind you that hand washing was once scoffed at by the established experts. (Poor Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis offended his peers by suggesting they could save lives by simply washing their hands between patients. He was tossed in an insane asylum where he was beaten to death by guards. It wasn't until years after his tragic death that his hand-washing practice gained widespread acceptance in the medical community. How many more easily preventable deaths occurred in the interim because it wasn't accepted by the "experts"?)

It happens in politics and economics and education as well. The experts are often wrong, but still anyone with a differing viewpoint is labeled a crackpot. Being considered an expert isn't necessarily about skill or competence, and it certainly has nothing to do with reform or innovation. Being an expert is more often about fitting in and getting along, about repeating the standard ways of doing and thinking, about not rocking the boat.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the "experts", the people who are taken seriously, are the ones who tell us what we want to hear (or at least what the people with money and influence want us to hear). The "expert" opinions that make it into news stories and governmental policies and medical standards of practice have been screened and cherry-picked to spoon-feed the general public pre-approved information - information most often stemming from those with financial interests in the outcome.

The entire system of expertise- from the news media to research institutes to professional boards to institutions of higher education - largely serve the corporations that fund them. There's a reason that education reform largely revolves around more testing, but most people aren't aware just how deep the influence of companies like Pearson and McGraw Hill runs (companies which control everything from textbooks to teacher certification. It's probably in their best interest to control what the "experts" in education say about the system, and they do... the "experts" have to pass their test in order to actually be considered "experts")

It should be expected that experts sell us on coal as a clean energy source, or vaccines being safe and effective, or bankers being innocent in financial crises, or the safety of GMOs, or the need for more testing to determine teacher effectiveness. It's up to us to be skeptical, not just of the "truths" the experts spew, but of the experts themselves... the whole expert-making process is questionable when there's control and money and power bubbling under the surface of the whole shaky structure.

And likewise, just because a message isn't flowing from the mouths of the accepted authorities, doesn't mean the message is one we should so flippantly and readily dismiss.

No, I'm not an expert. My opinions and conclusions come from my own research, observations, and rational assessment of inadequate outcomes (that's a nice way of saying "system failures"), all peppered with a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking (neither of which came from my public school education).

Just because I'm not spouting the pre-approved rhetoric of the pre-approved "experts" doesn't mean I'm an idiot. It just means I'm thinking... no approval required.


JoAnne Applebaugh said...

I actually am an expert. I worked hard to learn all I have, to add something of value to the literature and understanding in my field, to evaluate norms and practices using the scientific method and tests that are carefully constructed not to push toward a certain outcome over another. I am careful to understand my biases so that I can counter their effects on my research and find others to review my work. My methods are clearly outlined, my sources meticulously documented so that anyone can go back and review them and reach their own conclusions.

I am sorry that people are mean on the internet. I am sorry that they disrespected you and treated you like your conclusions were invalid. That was neither acceptable nor in keeping with the pursuit of knowledge via discussion and debate. Ideas matter, theories matter, differing perspectives enhance the dialog and strengthen understanding when dine appropriately. I am sorry that the Internet did not provide that forum. I have been there and I know it is frustrating.

Personal attacks tend to be evidence that someone is not equipped somehow to effectively make their argument. Whether that is because the argument they support is weak or because they themselves aren't able to make the argument for whatever reason can be unclear.

That said, I am an expert and I feel personally attacked by this post. Now, certainly, it is a bit sensitive for me to feel *personally* attacked, it's not like you're calling me out directly. Still, though, you are saying that my perspective is less valid than yours precisely BECAUSE of my education. You are not just questioning, but outright maligning me as being bought and brainwashed. You are saying that about all experts, I am an expert, and by the transitive property you are saying it about me.

How is you dismissing my perspective any more acceptable than if I were to dismiss your perspective? Are we not both thoughtful people investigating the world around her and using her own critical thinking skills to draw reasoned and educated conclusions?

I am an expert in my fields. What that means is that I have spent more time studying my fields and I have gone through rigorous reviews, having to defend my conclusions every step of the way. Why does that make me less legitimate?

If anything, you think it makes me less legitimate because of your biases. Your bias based on the belief that all experts are indoctrinated and bought. You have followed a logical progression to get to that thought, but you did not accurately investigate it by actually spending time in academic settings and seeing how much we disagree or what we go through to prove ourselves -- or disprove ourselves when the evidence goes against us. You have also applied your thought across the board without allowing for deviation among a rather large population. There are, actually, several flaws in the methodology you have used to come to your conclusion. I know that because I have spent years evaluating myself and my peers for the same sorts of flaws.

So, the issue, I think, is that people were not fair to you and, out of hurt and frustration, you displaced your anger onto a very large population of people. It's a natural reaction and one that we all have trouble with.

Your argument, instead, should not have been against experts, per se, but against accepting experts without question. All advancement comes about through question and investigation. The ideas matter, not who brings them to the table. The great thinkers of old didn't advance us so much based on whether or not they had degrees, they advanced us because they asked questions and pursued knowledge. People were wrong to say that you could not do that in a valuable way, but you are wrong to say that I cannot.

JoAnne Applebaugh said...

I apologize for typos and some grammatical errors in my comment. I typed it on my phone and my thoughts moved a bit faster than my fingers. That left some errors and not-the-best writing.

Alice Jones Webb said...

First, let me say that I’m sorry you felt personally attacked. I definitely didn’t have you specifically in mind when I wrote this rant. It wasn't necessarily criticizing individuals within the system, but the system itself (in this case the way society picks it's experts). But I understand that any time a large system is criticized, the individuals that make up the system feel a need to defend it.

I also want to say that I agree largely with what you said. My argument IS that we should not be accepting the opinions of experts (and ONLY experts) without question.

I did, however, use a few sweeping generalizations (as well as some casual disregard) as a device to prove a point. I was illustrating disrespect by being disrespectful. In the same way that I was flippantly disregarded for my lack of expert-approved credentials, I was purposefully casting doubt on the opinions of experts based on the very qualifications that gave them that expert label. It seems to have worked at least a little bit. Anytime I can elicit an emotional response, I feel like I’ve done a good job.

The bottom line is that we should be questioning EVERYTHING. But at the same time we should be listening, too. Sometimes the best gems of wisdom come from the most surprising places.

~TwitchyBunny said...

What!?! A writing device!?! NOOOOOOO! Consider me schooled. :)

It's funny, isn't it, how easy it is to get feelings tweaked? Especially on the internet? Like, somehow, the whole apparatus is set up for us to make snap responses without taking a deep breath and just evaluating what's actually being said? I sometimes wonder if the inherent impersonality of it all leads us to subconciously over compensate with added emotion. Then again, a whole lot of the academic settings I've been in led to a whole lot of emotion ally charged argument. Maybe it's just human to feel like when an idea we hold is attacked then we're being attacked too.

As for the system itself: there are certainly flaws. Having worked both in academics and government, I can agree that there are places where improvements would certainly be in the best interests of the pure pursuit of knowledge... or even just general fairness. That's probably true to some extent everywhere, but academics and government are my background.

We definitely agree that everything should be questioned and that we shouldn't exclude anyone from the discussion. A diversity of voices with a diversity of backgrounds only enhances the robustness of results. Good ideas not only come from unlikely places, it's that very flexibility of thought and experience than enhances problem solving skills. It helps us avoid the very group-think you're talking about.


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