Your sink is leaking all over your bathroom floor. Whose advice do you take on how to fix it - your plumber's or your accountant's? I suspect that the sane among us would typically go to the plumber. If we were suspicious about the first plumber's advice, we'd probably call another plumber. Similarly, the rational among us would not look to a plumber as a source for informed commentary on the economy, foreign affairs, or journalism.
We understand that expertise matters.
We don't consider experts to be infallible, we don't bow down and worship at their feet, or uncritically accept everything that every expert says, but we understand the importance of knowledge and experience. Experts are not born, they're made through a long process that involves spending enormous amounts of time and effort to study a field. It's been suggested that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to gain expertise in a field, and that's not a bad lowball estimate for a lot of fields.
There are many fields, though, where 10,000 hours is not enough training to be considered an expert. That much time and effort might be enough for people to consider you to be competent, but only just.
Take medicine, for example. Residency is an enormously intense period of training - most programs officially limit interns and residents to 80 hour work weeks, but in a lot of places that's treated the way most people treat speed limits. Even if you assume that residents only average 70 hours a week, the vast majority of doctors will have worked for far more than 10,000 hours before they sit for board certification exams. The intern who sees you on his or her first day on the job has probably spent at least four or five thousand hours on clinical rotations as a med student.
Want to get a Ph.D in any of the sciences? After you're done with your undergrad, you should plan on spending at least five years in grad school. After that, plan on spending another few years as a postdoc before you even think about applying for a tenure track Assistant Professor job somewhere.
With that in mind, I'd like to share the source of my current irritation with you.
On Sunday, the LA Times ran a little article about the plummeting vaccination rates among students entering Kindergarten in California. Officially, students are required to be vaccinated before starting school out there, but California has such a ludicrously broad exemption policy that "I don't feel like it" seems to be considered a valid reason to not vaccinate.
Apparently, quite a few parents don't feel like vaccinating their children. The trend is apparently particularly noticeable in upper-middle class neighborhoods. One of the reasons that was given in the article really caught my attention:
At Ocean Charter School in Del Rey, near Marina del Rey, 40% of kindergartners entering school last fall and 58% entering the previous year were exempted from vaccines, the highest rates in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Administrators at the school said the numbers did not surprise them. The nontraditional curriculum, they said, draws well-educated parents who tend to be skeptical of mainstream beliefs.
"They question traditional knowledge and feel empowered to make their own decisions for their families, not deferring to traditional wisdom," said Assistant Director Kristy Mack-Fett.
It makes me want to scream. Allegedly well-educated adults, responsible for the children they have brought into this world, apparently feel that modern medical science is just another form of "traditional wisdom". Apparently, they not only believe that their degrees in accounting, economics, communications, business, and basket-weaving provide them with a firm foundation for disagreeing with the members of the American Academy of Pediatrics, they feel more "empowered" when they do so.
These people "investigate" vaccines - probably at the prestigious University of Google - in order to find out what the benefits and risks are. They decide to accept the thoroughly debunked views that are largely advocated by a comedian/actor and a Playmate-turned-actress and disregard the position advocated by people who have dedicated their entire lives to the study of infectious disease in children. They believe that they've actually made an "informed" decision, and they feel better about themselves for being "involved" enough to make it. They feel good about risking the lives of children - their own and other people's - because they're bucking the "traditional wisdom" of the medical community.
Knowledge is power, but apparently ignorance is "empowerment".