The new expertise

Expertise in a postmodern world is more aligned with experience than it is in the modern world, where academic credentials and formal training often determine one’s status as an “expert.” In fact, such a premium is placed on experience that it threatens institutional expertise, and this is a culture war underway far beneath the view of most.

The latest evidence is a war of words and action between parents of autistic children (the experience experts) and the institutional expertise of the American Association of Pediatricians (AAP). The issue is vaccines given to children. Advocacy groups, whose “face” is model/actress Jenny McCarthy, want vaccines “cleaned up,” while pro-vaccine groups, such as Every Child By Two (ECBT), fear what would happen if parents stop vaccinating their children.

ECBT recently named actress Amanda Peet as their spokesperson, so the “dueling actresses” roadshow is underway. Ms. Peet called parents who choose not to vaccinate their children “parasites,” a statement for which she has apologized. Later, on Good Morning America, Ms. Peet urged parents to listen to the experts, doctors and scientists, not actors.

As you can imagine, being called a parasite didn’t go over very well with Ms. McCarthy. Her response? “Until she walks in our shoes she has no idea.”

I claim no knowledge of autism, but this is textbook experience expertise speaking, and it’s going to get louder, because the tools for spreading it exist where they didn’t before. People sharing their medical experiences is a major threat to the institution of medicine, which created a lobbying arm in the mid-90s to make sure the American Medical Association and similar groups maintained control over medical information on the Web. As I recall, their reasoning was to “protect the public,” but they were also protecting their wallets.

There are tons of medical sites today, but none of them are very useful for self-diagnosing or self-solving what ails a person, even though the knowledge and technology exists to do so.

Of course, the lawyers would have a field day, but that’s another story.

As Jay Rosen wrote a couple of years ago, the nature of authority is changing in our culture, and doctors are a prime example. The doctor is still the doctor, but his or her authority isn’t absolute anymore, and that has profound ramifications for our culture, regardless of what the lawyers might say.

(See also: Passages: Lorenzo Odone)

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