We’ve all heard someone start a sentence with, “I’m not a legal expert, but . . .” as if not having gone to law school is something to apologize for. You can sub in other words for “legal,” and you get a general form for sentence starters in many conversations. These sentence starters operate as disclaimers, alerting those listening as to one’s nonexpert status.
It’s funny to think about the topics that prompt people to issue nonexpert disclaimers. Legal issues, yes. Scientific issues, yes. Medical issues, yes. In other words, people tend to emphasize their nonexpert status when voicing opinions on topics in highly credentialed fields. (In a country where every citizen is equal under the law, the tendency is especially pernicious on legal issues — more on that in due course.)
People don’t say, “I’m not a restaurant expert” at the start of a Yelp review. They don’t say, “I’m not a highway expert” before offering their views on road design or traffic congestion. “I’m no cinema expert” has never preceded a movie recommendation.
But it goes for more politically charged issues, too. Lack of expertise on the insurance industry doesn’t seem to hinder people’s ability to speak their minds on the cost of health care. It’s been demonstrated repeatedly that many who call for gun control know next to nothing about gun sales, gun laws, gun manufacturing, or gun operation, yet they opine with full conviction and a clean conscience.
So why the nonexpert disclaimers for the highly credentialed fields? Really, those are the ones where your lack of expertise is most obvious and doesn’t need stating. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are about 650,000 lawyers in America, and there are about 330 million Americans, so you’re probably not one of them. Doctor is the really obvious one. Doctors are addressed as such, and if you’re not called “Dr.,” we all know you’re not a doctor.
The nonexpert disclaimer, when used, probably comes from a good place. It’s an attempt at showing deference to people who know more than you do. There’s nothing wrong with that instinct. Nobody likes a know-it-all, so you try not to be one.
But people who offer a nonexpert disclaimer proceed to offer their opinions anyway. It’s a bit like the classic line “I don’t want to get political but . . . ,” which invariably means someone is about to offer his or her hyperpartisan take on a hot-button issue. Users of that line actually did want to get political, and pretending otherwise is somewhat dishonest.
Similarly, “Hey, I don’t think I know enough to have an opinion on something, but please listen to it anyway” doesn’t really make sense. If you don’t think your opinion is any good, it should be common courtesy that you wouldn’t waste other people’s time by sharing it with them. You clearly do think your opinion is worth voicing, so why pretend otherwise?
The nonexpert disclaimer, then, is false modesty. It’s an act. It should stop.
If you’re not an accountant, don’t try to advise me on my taxes — but you can tell me what you think of the tax system. You can have opinions on things you’re not an expert on. In fact, as a citizen in a representative republic, you’re expected to. It’s called “voting.” By casting a ballot, you’re choosing a package of policies that the candidate you supported will pursue. You’re certainly not an expert on all of those policy areas, and you’re probably not an expert on any of them. Yet you still vote. Expressing nonexpert opinions is not all that different.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of in not being an expert on the law. Of the current members of Congress — the people who write the laws — only 36 percent have law degrees. At first, it’s tempting to think it’s a bad thing that so many of the people in charge of making laws lack expertise in law. But, if anything, 36 percent is too high. The ideal legislature is not a committee of lawyers fine-tuning the laws to some expert-defined standard. That’s the false promise of administrative law. It’s a one-way road to unrepresentative, unaccountable government. The law applies to everyone, and therefore it should not be so complex that it takes expert training to understand.
If you’re a Christian, you believe in a religion whose central figure chose as His apostles a bunch of fishermen and government employees. Those were the people He entrusted to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth, not the religious experts. (Paul was a religious expert, and he famously had to go through quite the ordeal before he would come to serve Christ.) Christ does not set expertise as a precondition to following Him. As always, there’s wisdom in His approach.
If you ever talk to experts on something, you’ll notice that they are often fully aware of the things they don’t know. You’ll commonly hear them refer to the work of other people — the people they believe to be experts. The limits of the human mind are such that individuals can’t really be experts on anything too broad. Some of the most valuable knowledge many experts have is knowing which other experts to talk to.
The flip side of the limits of expertise is that everyone is an expert on something. Talk to anyone for more than five minutes about his or her job, and you’re guaranteed to learn something you didn’t know before. Ask people about their hobbies, and you’re likely to find comprehensive knowledge of football or a board game or cooking. People also just find certain things really interesting and read a ton about them. That applies even to children. There are plenty of middle-schoolers out there who know more about animals or cars or geography than 95 percent of adults will ever know.
Access to expertise is the easiest it has ever been. You need only two things: Internet access and literacy. The vast majority of Americans have both. If you feel bad about not being an expert on something, you can easily read what experts say and let it inform your opinions. In fact, you should read what experts say so that your opinions will have more credibility and be better formed before you express them to others.
Of course, the ease of access to expertise comes with even easier access to garbage. There are lots of wrong things on the Internet, and lots of people have poorly informed, bad opinions — it’s true! Those poorly informed, bad opinions have real, negative consequences. Democracy is a very expensive way to make decisions. It would be much more efficient to shut all the idiots out and let the smart people decide for everyone.
But that’s no way to run a free country. And using a nonexpert disclaimer to ritually denounce your own opinion before you voice it is no way for citizens in a free country to act.
If citizens took it as their duty to be well-informed and coherent when presenting their opinions, we would all be better off. But they do not have a duty to acquire a professional degree. They do not have a duty to earn a credential. And they do not have a duty to genuflect to the people who do have degrees and credentials.
I’m not a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer, and you probably aren’t either. Who cares? You have a God-given, constitutionally protected right to have an opinion on whatever you please. You also have duties to yourself, your family, your community, your country, mankind, and the divine. Responsibly exercising your rights and fulfilling your duties is your highest calling as a citizen — and there’s no credential for that.