Op-Ed: After a house fire, I was grateful for the experts who knew what they were doing
Americans increasingly deride experts, and reject expert advice because we equate expertise with elitism and snobbery. And yet we’re lucky to live among them, even if we only tend to appreciate their advice when something goes wrong, at which point we have no choice but to depend on their knowledge.
The day after Christmas, I was standing in the rubble of what had once been my family room, looking up through a burned hole in the ceiling into my living room. I was in shock, as people always are after a traumatic event like the house fire that had driven me from my home, along with my wife and my cat.
However satisfying it might be on occasion to hiss at “experts,” none of us can live without them.
Around me, groups of people were talking. There were firefighters, building inspectors, an electrician, a plumber, a contractor, even the town administrator. All of these professionals were speaking to each other about the damage and what needed to be done.
I didn’t understand a word of it.
I felt completely helpless. I have a doctorate in international relations. I have written several books. My advice has been sought by politicians, government agencies, private industry and the media. I am a veteran teacher with awards for the quality of my instruction.
None of that mattered as I stood there, a ridiculous figure with my unwashed mop of hair, some sweat pants tucked into unlaced boots, shivering in a T-shirt under my heavy coat as the temperature plummeted and the acrid stink of smoke seeped into my clothes.
Mostly, I was in the way. At one point, one of the workers gently moved me a few feet away from the damage, because the remains of the fireplace and chimney I was gawking at might collapse on my head.
That’s when I realized I was in the care of experts who were as good at their jobs as I was at mine. The plumber made sure the pipes were safe. The electrician made sure there was enough power to keep some heaters on in the face of a forecasted deep freeze, and then confidently dove into a tangle of burned wires I was certain no human being could fix. (I would rather have been looking at an ICBM. At least I know how those work.)
My house swarmed with people doing what they do best. More carpenters and electricians. Painters, a stonemason, debris removal specialists. They communicated fluently with each other in the language of house repair.
Most of them were happy to explain to me what they were doing, and I did my best to learn as much as I could. But sometimes, I was just lost. When a master electrician told me why my new outlets were safer than the old ones, I nodded politely until a nearby contractor overheard us and realized I couldn’t keep up. They dumbed it down for me.
Each expert relied on another’s set of skills: The plumber and the electrician worked together to get the heat back on, while the carpenters and the mason made sure the new fireplace would hold. It was an ongoing illustration of the division of labor.
One day, towards the end of the repairs, one of the painters asked me my preference about something that I didn’t understand. “Jim,” I laughed, “if you want to know about nuclear weapons, I’m your man. If you’re asking me about primers, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The painter chuckled, and then told me what he was going to do with my walls. Then he paused, and said: “So…what’s going to happen with this thing with North Korea?”
For once I didn’t feel bewildered. I gave him my best guess about how things might play out, trying to muster my skills as a teacher. He nodded, and went back to painting.
Asking questions of experts, whether painters or political scientists, is how we learn from each other. Most experts are happy to share their knowledge — if they’re asked by people who care about the answers.
But too many Americans are unwilling to ask useful questions, or they resist answers that conflict with their preconceptions. They prefer instead to express strong views on anything from vaccines to foreign policy even if they lack basic knowledge about those subjects. Over half of the American public would support attacking North Korea; only about a third can even find it on a map. Similarly, a 2014 poll found that Americans who support U.S. military intervention in Ukraine are among the least likely to know where it is.
We will never know why the fireplace that started the fire was constructed so poorly. Over a half-century ago, someone who was supposed to be an expert either made a mistake, or cut a corner. Or maybe he just wasn’t good at his job, and I was the last one to know it.
But when that one long-ago mistake nearly cost me everything, I was glad to be in the hands of people who were no less expert at their work than I am at mine. However satisfying it might be on occasion to hiss at “experts,” none of us can live without them.
Tom Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and Harvard Extension School, and the author of “The Death of Expertise.”
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