Internet access is not expertise

As with most things, the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. Having basically the sum total of human knowledge at one’s fingertips that can be accessed anywhere in seconds is on one hand amazing, and on the other incredibly dangerous. Most people who spend an hour googling a topic believe that they are fully-qualified experts.

Take the anti-vaccine crowd who claim they have done research – namely reading articles that confirm their biases – and feel qualified to speak on the matter to medical doctors. Without knowing the first thing of how the immune system actually works, what antibodies are, the concept of herd immunity or what autism actually is, they are completely and positively sure that vaccines make children autistic and dismiss anything said to the contrary by people with decades of study and an alphabet soup of letters after their name.

There is no shortcut to becoming an expert, there is no replacement for rigorous, academically honest study. It takes a ridiculously long time to learn even the fundamentals of a field, much less anything in-depth. Sadly, the Internet has convinced people that expertise is just within one’s grasp, a Google search or two away. Anti-terrorism, economics, international relations, climatology, politics, law, ethics, the list goes on. These days everybody is an expert in everything with something to say.

The most absurd instance of this happening recently is in response to the killing of the gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati zoo after a child fell into the enclosure.

It is truly amazing how many people I know that turned out to be experts on primate behavior, zoo management, the pharmacology of tranquilizers and parenting. Or maybe there are very few people even remotely qualified to speak on such matters and everybody else are just profoundly ignorant armchair quarterbacks.

Nobody simply says “I don’t have enough knowledge to determine what the proper course of action would be,” nobody has the courage to say “I don’t know.” It seems like a fundamental human fallacy when faced with incomplete information to not recognize that not enough information exists and come to whatever conclusion happens to sound best at the time.

I have no idea whether or not zoo staff were justified in their actions. I don’t know the first thing about gorilla behavior, I have no basis to interpret the actions of the gorilla. I don’t know how much danger the child was in and I can’t know what would have happened if actions were not taken. Future events are unpredictable, it’s part of what makes life so exciting.

Even more telling is the fact that the experts do not agree. There are highly qualified individuals claiming that the gorilla was protecting the child and there are others that say the child was in imminent danger and shooting the gorilla was a necessary act.

If experts can hold completely opposing views, then it’s very possible that the matter does not have an easy answer, or any answer at all. That doesn’t seem to matter to the majority of people, who don’t recognize the complexity of the situation and instead fall back on the illusion of having superior knowledge that comes from nothing but how they feel the world should work.

I once heard somewhere that the basis of wisdom was being able to say “I don’t know.” A lack of knowledge is scary, a fear of the unknown is something almost all humans have. Sadly, the quick fix sells far better. Nobody wants to face the fact that there are things they don’t know, so they  default to the security of ignorance. It is up to each of us to use the rational faculties given to us by billions of years of evolution and maintain intellectual honesty.

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