October 9, 2020


Joel Nodelman

Real Experts or Complete Idiots – 2 Polarizing Views

About the author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

Many folks claim to be experts. Some are legitimate and others, well, not so much. Often, folks say they’re experts to prop up speculation. After all, who’d challenge an expert?

Last week, one of my Facebook friends shared a post that prompted my comments this week. The post said:

I hate it when people confuse education with intelligence. You can have a Bachelor’s degree and still be an idiot.

They attributed this to Jack Nicholson. So, I did a Google search and found the exact quote attributed to at least five people. It pushes the right buttons for some folks.

Some Experts May Be Idiots

And the basic idea is true. All groups include folks with diverse skills and personalities. Having a degree doesn’t guarantee that a person is the best in their field. Education seldom changes a person’s nature. So, some folks with degrees may be idiots. However, the underlying message worried me:

Real Experts or Complete Idiots - 2 Polarizing Views

A Young Expert

We don’t need to listen to experts because they’re all idiots.

You might well ask how I got that from this quote. Well, the friend who shared it prides himself on his common sense, brags about his lack of formal education, and what he accomplished despite it all. He also believes all climate scientists are idiots, and that COVID is a hoax. He says he has common sense, can read, and can make up his own mind. So, yes, he wanted to undermine the experts.

An Example

A long time ago, I attended an environmental assessment hearing. I saw a very young Ph.D. assure the Panel he was going to share very complicated information, but he’d do his best to simplify things so they could understand it. He called himself an expert. In doing so, he opened up his expertise for challenge in cross-examination. He said it, now he had to prove it.

Over the next ten minutes a lawyer grilled him about his resume, line-by-line. The lawyer demanded he show how each bit of experience supported his testimony. 

The young man couldn’t do it. In the end the experience reduced him to tears. The panel let it go on and on; a bit of payback for sneering at their expertise and abilities.

Was the young Ph.D. an idiot? Not really! He was simply inexperienced. Were the panel members being idiots? Perhaps, a bit, but their reaction was predictable, under the circumstances.

The sad thing was, the young Ph.D. was an expert but he insulted the panel. So they made him pay the price. As I recall, he was very knowledgeable and had good things to offer. But his lack of social skill led to the panel discounting his voice.

We Need Experts to Solve Complex Problems

Solving hard problems requires real experts. You can’t replace this with a five-minute Google search, so-called common sense, and speculation. 

So, while there are always idiots, we have to be careful to not discount the message because the messenger is ham-handed. And we have to be careful to not buy into stupid arguments meant to undermine the value of expertise.

Real Experts or Complete Idiots - 2 Polarizing Views

We Need Experts

You Don't Need a University Education

I want to wrap this up this week by acknowledging that academic training is not the be all and end all. My father was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known, and the Depression forced him to leave school at Grade 6. But my parents planned for us to go to university even before we even started kindergarten. They saw it as a better path for us.

This background gave me the chance to observe both sides of this debate close up. Yes, there are idiots everywhere. Education doesn’t train it out, any more than the lack of education ensures we don’t become idiots. It is a human condition and not a reason to discredit expertise to justify inaction.

Learn More About Climate Negotiation

If you’d like to read more about our research on effective climate conversation, check out the links below. We have developed a self-directed, online course based on our work.

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