Everyone’s an Expert; No One Knows Anything

By Tom Miller

A few weeks ago, just after my cousin passed a kidney stone, she went to the doctor with an inflamed elbow. The doctor was convinced she had an infection, but I had Googled “gout” because her brother had a kidney stone years before and gout in his elbow. While we waited for the swelling to subside and before the physician could draw blood, I assured her the doctor was wrong, that she had gout which all of my research confirmed, and we plotted her new low-protein diet.

Not only had Google made me an instant medical authority, it had meaningfully diminished my trust in my cousin’s doctor. I was not about to accept his diagnosis since the last information he had on gout probably came from his text books a few years back and not from the wired knowledge that I scored days before.

Miller OctI am not alone. Doctors are not the only experts being Googlesmacked by curious Webizens. Across the country, access to vast amounts of knowledge on every topic has made overnight Nobel laureates of high school drop outs. Or so it seems.

Before someone calls a broker, she could check out the right ways to pick stocks. You can learn about pedagogy before choosing a teacher for your toddler; study therapy before going to a shrink; diagnose yourself before submitting to a doctor. Tools and training exist to turn garden-variety citizens into lawyers, survey researchers, landscape architects or encyclopedia authors. If you went to years of university for one of these professions, there’s an app or website as you.

If you used to think that only experts had the answers that mattered to your life, you now have been taught that you ARE the expert. You are the travel agent, relator, mechanic, cosmetologist, critic or, if it’s your predilection, the terrorist. Yes, people also can learn to manage so that when they confront the city or county manager for the first time, they won’t be intimidated by anyone who got her MPA from some fancy university. By the time the gavel comes down to discuss transportation alternatives, citizen activists will have become transportation planners; similarly, expertise travels for bond elections, water rights and energy extraction.

Civic engagement, the current watchword of local government, will come with modern challenges, thanks to residents’ access to information and data. City and county managers need not take the new found expert advice of residents as personal attacks or salvos unique to local government management. Instead, managers should appreciate the new world order that the democratic access to information creates. Residents, already inclined to be contrary when passionately opposed to government actions, may now be a bit smug even about the day-to-day operations of jurisdiction management, having taught themselves what city or county managers should do to discipline sworn officers, hire staff or borrow money. On the occasions when a manager can surprise the lay audience with stellar displays of managerial knowledge, there will be two kinds of learning that take place among residents – learning smart management practices and learning about the training it takes to be a good manager. The second may inspire humility.

The hill for all previously revered experts has gotten steeper. As for me, I’ll recognize the new challenges without relinquishing my day job as a trained survey research expert. I’m not about to purvey survey gizmobots. And I’m not going to become a physician’s assistant, either.

The blood work came back. My cousin had an infection.

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