Charles Moore's Mailbag

Yet More on the Consensus of the Competent and the Cult of Expertise

Charles Moore - 2002.03.05 - Tip Jar

This topic has generated a tremendous response, and for a while there I was wondering if anybody was going to disagree with my Philippic against professional gatekeeping and expert elitism.

Below you will find another batch of thoughtful, interesting commentary on these issues from LEM readers, including a few dissonant opinions, and more musing in reply from me. Thanks to everyone who wrote and shared their thoughts.

Cult of professionalism

From: Nancy Butts

Dear Charles,

I look forward to your columns each week on Low End Mac, but the one you wrote this week on the cult of professionalism really touched a nerve. I, too, am a working writer, in my case since 1982. The first eleven years of my career I was a reporter and then news editor for a weekly paper, and won four state awards for my work. I also published a couple of columns in the Macon Telegraph, a Knight-Ridder paper, and have done freelance work as well. All this, and my college degree was in religion, not journalism. Currently I write what are called young adult novels and have had a modest degree of success with my first two books. I agree wholeheartedly with every point you made.

But it wasn't until last night when I was watching the evening news that the full insanity of this cult struck home. I missed the beginning of the report, so unfortunately I cannot tell you the name of the researcher or what university or group he represents. I believe the report came out of a university in Washington. In any case, the gentleman was interviewed on camera to explain the results of his survey, and he was absolutely appalled that millions of American children were being left in the care of unlicensed, uncertified, untrained caregivers. To whom was he referring? Why, grandparents and other non-parental relatives. He saw no value in children being cared for by people who loved them and had an actual connection to them, and the importance of the decades of experience grandparents especially have amassed in "on-the-job" experience escaped him utterly. I think this researcher epitomizes what you wrote about earlier this week.

Nancy Butts

Hi Nancy,


The ideological notion expressed by the TV interviewee exemplifies what Christopher Lasch was getting at in the bits I quoted. It also owes much to the philosophy of Donatien Alphonse Francois - better known as the Marquis de Sade. In his "La Philosophie dans le Boudoir," Sade wrote:

Do not think you can make good republicans so long as you isolate in your family the children who should belong to the community alone.... If it is wholly disadvantageous to allow children to imbibe interests from the family circle, which are quite different from those of their country, it is wholly advantageous to separate them from their family.

In 1990, Dr. Mary Jo Bane, Assistant Professor of Education at Wellesley College, asserted, "In order to raise children with equality, we must take them away from families and communally raise them." If children can't be taken away physically - yet - Sade's ideological heirs like Bane are determined to separate them culturally and intellectually from their parents' (and grandparents') values when the latter conflict with the dogmas of secular humanism. The cult of "professionalism" and "expertise" just makes a scientific sounding excuse.

Best wishes for continued success in your uncredentialed writing career.


Elitism & Expertise

From Yoon Ha Lee

Dear Mr. Moore,

I am in the curious position of both agreeing and disagreeing with your stance on this issue.

First, you cite numerous instances of "expertise" leading to poor results in your response to Martin Sorensen. I am concerned at your conflation of correlation and causation; your examples suggest overly monocausal explanations for the phenomena you describe, viz. low literacy rates and high rates of degenerate disease.

I will say up front that I'm somewhat biased, as I am a teacher in training and even with the small exposure I've had to the issue, I've discovered it's extremely complex. For one thing, the definition of "functional literacy" keeps becoming more and more challenging. It used to be enough to be able to do simple ciphering, know your letters, read by rote (I've had the dubious pleasure of paging through a Horn Book replica).

Now we expect (almost) *all* kids to stay in school until 10th grade and be able to analyze Shakespeare knowledgeably. (See Ray McDermott's works on literacy, as a particular author I'm familiar with.) It may also be the case that worthwhile reforms suggested by educational experts fail to be implemented in a manner consistent with their vision, either for philosophical or financial reasons. I'm student-teaching at a high school where there aren't even necessarily enough textbooks for all the students in a given class; many teachers end up spending their own money to provide additional classroom resources, out of a not-particularly-impressive salary (I've done it already and as a student-teacher I'm not even paid).

Many other factors can contribute to literacy rates, such as the relationship between pedagogy/instruction and linguistic research on how most people learn to read and write effectively (I can read 50-100 pages an hour, and I was taught to read and write by a Korean mother whom most people, noticing only her trouble with English phonology, would have deemed "English-deficient;" on the first day of kindergarten I was teaching other kids how to write their names!), the incidence of immigrant populations who have had varying levels of formal schooling in their native language(s) (let alone English), the amount of support and resources available for students whose families speak another language and teachers' efforts (or lack thereof), the amount of support and resources available for *teachers* who may have little to no training in linguistics and language-acquisition theory - Well, the list could go on, and I trust that others can speak more knowledgeably on this matter where I am myself less than an amateur. :-)

Second, that being said, I am currently teaching in a field where elitism and expertism as you describe is rampant: math. In American society, the social construction of math is that either you're good at it or you're not, and never the twain shall meet. People are being *blocked* from access to important and powerful mathematical ideas because of a perceived elite of people who are "good at math"; math is decontextualized from people's lives to the point where it becomes possible and not particularly unusual for a student to ask me, "Ms. Lee, when are we ever going to see this statistics stuff in real life?" When I suggested that numerical data connote objectivity (which is not always the case) and that statistics are used in conjunction with people's math-phobia to mislead or deceive, she was shocked. In this context, I fully agree that certain types of elitism are harmful to society and the individuals who comprise it.

Third, as far as doctors go, caution is indicated. There are instances where doctors are not adequately informed about medical developments that are relevant to a particular patient. (I've heard complaints in this regard about women's health care; for example, medications are still not necessarily tested on both men and women, though research increasingly suggests that the same drug may have different effects on them.) On the other hand being a good doctor is *really difficult.* My father, who is a surgeon who did his internship and residency in the U.S. (and rails against the state of medicine in Korea, which still isn't quite on par), hates talking about antibiotics. Why? Because some consumers in their wisdom will badger their doctors into giving them antibiotics even for relatively minor viral illnesses (a common cold where secondary infections are highly unlikely, for example), or stop taking an antibiotic course so they can hoard medicine, only to be hit with a relapse when the few antibiotic-resistant bacteria are given freedom to renew their assault. When all's said and done, I would rather have a certified surgeon operating on me than someone off the street. :-p

Expertise is valuable because we can't all specialize in every topic that will impact us and our lives. However, it is the duty of the expert to be conscientious in his/her roles and especially to educate the non-experts as much as possible. It is also the non-expert's duty to be conscientious in seeking out knowledge as it becomes relevant, and in fact to *demand* to be educated so as to become an informed decision-maker.

And by the way, I always enjoy your columns on Low End Mac and Applelinks; you happened to hit a couple nerves, and I hope that I have been half as rational and calm in my response as you are in your journalism. Sincerely,

(Ms.) Yoon Ha Lee

(Just call me Yoon, I'm clarifying my sex to avoid embarrassing anyone as I've been addressed as "Mr. Lee" over the Internet on many occasions)

Hi Yoon,

Thanks for your letter. An adequate response would require an article-length dissertation, which is one of the difficulties in addressing these weighty philosophical topics in short articles. I stand by my causal evaluations on the basis of big picture end result analysis, but I freely concede that they stem from several decades of researching, thinking, and writing about socio-cultural issues, and not from particular, scientific methodism (which I think is part of my point - I do not blindly accept scientific opinion as the authoritative last word on anything, although it is the best authority we have on certain issues to be sure).

The late Richard Weaver, an astute philosophic commentator, observed that: "the specialist stands ever at the borderline of psychosis.... Specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed... suffering from a severe fragmentation of his world picture.... Men so obsessed with fragments can no more be reasoned with than psychotics."

That said, theoretically, teachers are a constituency I should sympathize with. Education and learning are values I hold in high esteem. However, at least here in Canada and broadly speaking (exceptions acknowledged), the teaching profession has become a strange hybrid of pseudo-professional arrogance and belligerent trade-union tribalism. Ideals of academic excellence seem to have fallen by the wayside on the road to economic self-interest, politically correct socialization, nitwit avant-garde teaching theories, and wannabe professional prestige.

Canada has the second most expensive education system in the world, but according to Statistics Canada, 29% of this cash-burner's 16 to 24 year old products lack the basic skills to read a newspaper. Since 1966, despite astronomical inflation of education expenditures, Grade 8 reading comprehension has declined by 9% and reading skills by 11%.

Nevertheless, the teaching profession vigilantly guards against any imposition of objective accountability and strives to control and manipulate public discussion of school programs, teacher performance, and student achievement. Teachers argue that education performance can't be judged objectively (untrue), making classroom malpractice or incompetence impossible to identify. This brazenly self-serving notion leaves learning objectives and outcomes up to the arbitrary judgment of individual teachers, on the basis of shifting fads and trends in teaching methodology. It also conveniently renders performance-based wage scales impractical, so teacher's pay (maybe you should come to Canada - teachers' salaries are pretty attractive here) is based solely on academic degrees and seniority.

My daughter, who was home-schooled up to the end of her middle school years, is now enrolled in public high school. She has completed three years' (Grades 10, 11, and 12) in two years, and her average for her mid-term exams (the ones that count for university application) was 96.4. However, she says that she feels like the longer she remains in public school, the stupider she is getting, and that she was farther ahead intellectually during her last year of home-schooling, in which she was nominally in Grade 9, but actually doing stuff like auditing and writing papers for a 100 level college philosophy course (she got As, and the prof said he was marking her no differently than his regular students). She says there are a few good teachers at her school, but even they are hamstrung by the inane curriculum and numbskull bureaucracy, as well as the cultural illiteracy of most of the students (and indeed many of the teachers - some of the stuff she's told me is enough to make you laugh or cry or both).

Enough teacher bashing for this session. ;-)

By the way, I'm 100 percent with your dad on the antibiotic issue, a topic I have written about for several publications. Better not get me going on that!

One of my big beefs with the medical establishment is the arrogant and supercilious dismissal of all healing and wellness methodologies that fall outside the allopathic Medical Model. Better not get me going on that either!

I certainly don't disparage genuine applied expertise, and I, too, would want a highly trained and skilled expert surgeon operating on me were it necessary too.

Thanks for reading.


Thanks for wonderful material

From Katie Bretsch

Thanks for the article and discussion on Internet v consensus of competent.

BRAVO!! Made my day!

Thanks, Katie.


"Professionals"... bah...

From Eric McCann

I read your article on LEM, The Internet vs. the Consensus of the Competent, and it brought to mind my experience in technical support.

People with certifications - particularly the MS certifications - get paid a great deal. If you have an MCSE, don't expect to make under $30,000/year. Still, many of these are "paper MCSEs" who love the letters after their name and tested well - but have no practical experience.

Dealing with these people is almost inevitably a pain - the less they know, the more arrogant they are. A typical conversation goes like:

"Well, I need you to do such-and-such."

"That won't help."

"We need to check the settings" (which are inevitably WRONG after this conversation."

"Look, I know it won't help, I'm an MCSE/MCP/NCA/PITA!"

"Then you should have no problem clicking on a control panel...."

Degrees and certifications don't do a heck of a lot to prove "credibility" to me any more because of this. It's too bad they still do for so many others.

Eric McCann

Hi Eric,

While it is, of course, possible to be an actual expert in a particular field, and I respect that, my empirical observation is that credentials alone are no guarantee of competence.

In certain fields (e.g.: surgery, aircraft piloting), credentials are certainly necessary and desirable, because the potential for harm from incompetent practice is great, but these are also areas where skills and levels of expertise can be objectively evaluated and tested.

This thread began with discussion of journalistic professionalism, and journalism is a field where objective evaluation beyond competence in things like spelling, grammar, and style is quite difficult, and where, IMHO, the marketability of what one produces should be the criterion of entry, success, or failure.


Oh I just can't seem to let this one go...

From Tim Baxter

Further thoughts on credentials (as you've got my brain working). Integrity is easily found in journalism, at least at the four papers I worked at.

Objectivity, on the other hand, is a sacred cow that may as well be butchered. True, complete objectivity requires omniscience, which I suspect isn't exactly a common attribute. The best we can hope for is to get as close to the truth as we possibly can, but even that begs the question, what is the truth? As close as we can will always be a bit distant from where the truth is because of our own, often unrecognized biases, lack of complete information, sloppy writing, or an inability to see where the truth may be. Or heck, any number of other factors could come into play. Honestly, I think papers may have been better (they were certainly more interesting) 75 or 100 years ago, when they made little pretense of objectivity but instead took an editorial stand.

From a strictly business standpoint, working toward objectivity may have been the dumbest thing they ever did, as it destroyed much of their product differentiation. Now, after dragging you through my half-baked philosophical and business ramblings, I wanted to add one more thought, which I think goes a long way toward explaining how journalists work....

I think when it comes down to it, there are four basic types of journalists. While few fit neatly in one category (do people ever?), I think these are pretty solid archetypes:

  1. Writers. These are the folks who can turn phrases like a pretty girl turns guys heads. They can just make 'em do whatever they want. They could make a cereal box worth reading.
  2. Thinkers. Possessed of an unusual clarity of thought and an abundance of original ideas, these are the people you read because they'll make you think, or you're at least interested in what they might expose you to next. FWIW, I'd place you in this category. Take it as a compliment.
  3. Reporters. These people can research and write on anything. It doesn't matter if they've never been exposed to it a day in their life, they'll find out everything and turn in clean usable copy by deadline. They ain't artists; they're bricklayers. They use their research and words to build something strong and useable. I'd put myself here.
  4. Those who finished the classes.

And since I just can't seem to stop on this... the very worst kind of writer is one who's intent on telling you how smart he is. If he's really a category 2 thinker, he doesn't have to tell the reader, they'll just know.

Which is my longwinded way of saying, "gee I really hate long-winded, semi-erudite ramblings with no lead, no precision of language and really, no discernible point at all."

In my journalism classes, "write concisely" was virtually a rallying cry.

On the other hand, you'd never know it by this longwinded missive.

Hi Tim,


I'm flattered by you placing me in Category 2. I consider myself more of a Category 3 type with aspirations toward Category 2 and futile wishes with regard to Category 1.

Several years ago, John Fraser, former editor of Saturday Night magazine and before that a reporter and foreign correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail for 17 years, delivered a withering critique of the journalistic objectivity cult - calling it "one of the vainest goals a humble craft ever set itself."

"There is no such thing as a strictly objective story," declared Fraser. "It isn't possible. Everything - from the structure of an article to the choice of facts is filtered through a particular outlook and a prejudiced mind.... The most you can hope for... is relative honesty. And the very best (i.e.: the most honest) journalists always let their readers know their specific prejudices and the general nature of the intellectual equipment through which they distill their stories."


Re: The Consensus of the Competent

From Clayton Bennett

Mr. Moore -

Disclaimer: This is a quick, ad-lib note; it is not careful writing.

First, thank you for introducing me to the writing of Christopher Lasch. I've been through several of his book reviews so far and a few short articles. He was as opinionated as William Bennett, George Will, William Buckley, or Michael Medved, but far more articulate and coherent. My browsing led me to the site, which is the best place on the Web I've found yet to challenge my ideas with intelligent opposing views.

Meanwhile, about the value of credentials: I'm a writer and editor who specializes in "business communication" - that is, materials designed to provide factual information that encourages readers to act. When I see what passes for marketing communications and public relations writing, I wish for a standards body that could keep at least some of the hacks away from the profession. At the same time, I left college with only a few credits to earn before I would receive a bachelor's degree. That makes me an uncredentialed amateur, no matter how good I believe my work is.

Compounding the problem further is the way a professional association or academic institution evaluates someone's fitness to join the club. With colleges, you can get most undergraduate degrees by paying up, showing up, and not giving up. Granted, Ulysses was right when he said perseverance alone was omnipotent. But that hardly inspires confidence in the quality of effort new grads will - or even can - make in the marketplace. Professional associations may have more strictly defined criteria for accreditation, but they may also be used as a way of enforcing conformity to the practices by which the profession protects itself against amateurs.

Having written that, I'm now thinking about earning those last few credits and pursuing accreditation - as a cynical and ironic gesture, of course. The mistaken value clients place on those little suffixes will have nothing to do with it.

One last thing: I enjoy your columns, and wish I could set up an AvantGo channel to make sure I don't miss any.


Clayton Bennett, who usually says more with fewer words

Hi Clayton,

Or as Blaise Pascal lamented:

"I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter." Lettres Provinciales (1657), xvi

And of course, the value of accreditation is dependent upon what is being measured and by what criteria.


Journalism as art: Art vs. Consensus

From Magilum

I recall having had a similar argument about art a while back in your own Mailbag column at Applelinks. I had little interest in the conversation when the other fellow started to sound like Dan Knight's mystery webmaster and journalism expert.

In any case, it was my contention all along that artistic talent, perhaps any talent, means more than any supposed education. It's a real devaluation of an individual's assets to suggest that a person must be spoon-fed on even a cookie-cutter curriculum to be worth a damn. While both talent and education may be good for some, the latter certainly can't take the place of the former.

Particularly with art, the line drawn between good and bad art does seem to be a subjective one indeed. For those without the eyes and judgment to really see art, let alone create it, their opinions are too often a bland deference to the most prestigious or popular view. Credentials can be considered a measure of education, and ability to regurgitate said education, not a measure of talent or creative ability. For those without talent, and the talent-blind, the state's seal of approval is all they have.

Exactly. :-)


Credentials and Journalism

From Katherine Keller

Dear Charles,

I have been following your pieces on journalism credentials with some interest. And though I hope you'll some day come to the light of OS X ;) you are dead on about this topic.

I am one of the founding members of Sequential Tart, "a 'zine by women who love comics". We'll be turning 4 years old in September. To make a long story short, the 'zine was founded by ten uppity women who couldn't find the kind of comics and pop-culture print magazine they wanted to read and realized that with one's comp-sci major, and three network admins we had all the tech savvy needed to get our dream up and running. We posted Volume 1, issue 1 in Sept. 1998 and haven't looked back.

We decided early on to make ST a not for profit enterprise. While we do sell banner ads to defray server space and bandwidth costs, no one writing for ST has ever been paid a cent. The site is a labor of love.

Our critics may dismiss us as a mere "fanzine," but at the end of the day (and this very long history lesson), I can say it's not about if you're "pro" or "am"; it's not about how much money you have behind you; it's all about whether or not people want come to your site and read your content. If you're good and have got something interesting and important to say, people will come.

Likewise, prestige isn't about being "pro" or "am." Prestige cannot be bought, only earned. And, pro or am, if, when you talk, people listen, then that is prestige.

LEM doesn't have its large readership (and prestige) because Dan Knight is a relentless marketing machine with a huge cash flow and a J-degree from a "big" school. LEM has its readership because every day Dan Knight delivers excellent content. Period.


Hi Katherine,

Well said, and you amplify the point I made about letting the market decide in my reply to Eric McCann above.

Of course, popularity is not necessarily a reliable measure of excellence (look at the relative market success of Windows vs. the Mac OS). ;-)


Re: More Thoughts on Professional Elitism and Gatekeeping

From Owen Strawn


Thanks for continuing the discussion of a fascinating subject - it seems a bit one-sided, but it is the side that I agree with...

I would like to respond on one or two points:

Please don't outright dismiss the value of psychological therapy. My life has been vastly enhanced through the help of a competent psychologist. Sometimes it takes an outside observer to help you understand the forces that shape your life, and to help you develop strategies for overcoming them. These are learned skills, and they are not often learned within the context of family in our western culture.

Of course credentials are no guarantee of effectiveness here either, but where else do you start?

Note that the responsibility for actualization remains with the individual - a therapist can't make you better, but they can help you learn to make yourself better.

Martin's desire for electric installations and structures to be developed by credentialed professionals comes probably from insufficient knowledge in these fields for him to evaluate them personally. This doesn't mean that he couldn't learn these subjects if he chose to, just that he doesn't choose to do so.

Credentials can be an important way to protect yourself in areas where you have no knowledge or other way to evaluate the quality of a service provider, but in that case you still have the responsibility to evaluate the quality of the credentialing authority.

I am a degreed engineer, but one of my major professional heroes is self-taught (Aerodynamicist John Roncz). I have encountered many engineers who demand that you accept their position because they have more experience. These are always wrong.

IMO this is that same as criticizing a journalist because of a lack of credentials. If a criticism is not based on the merits of the work, then I find it serves admirably as an indictment of the critic.

If someone (in any field) is not willing to teach you why they are doing it this way, then you must retain a healthy skepticism. This will frustrate competent professionals who have poor people skills, but maybe a therapist could help them deal.

Owen Strawn

Hi Owen,

Good summary of why credentials are sometimes a necessary evil (or at least potential evil when the *idea* of credentials is abused or misapplied)



From Joe C. Carson

I just read your latest...

I really have to ask, who is being the "Elitist" here and who is trying to become the Big Kahuna of "Gatekeepers?"

I think there is some sort of adage about pots making insulting remarks about kettles that might apply.

P.S. Are you guys still stumping for Apple to dump modern technology in favor of Intel's mid-Twentieth century antique technology?

Joe C. Carson



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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at and a columnist at If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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