United 3411 and the death of expert opinion


The past few days have seen the social media world explode with rage toward United Airlines for its handling of a bad situation when it needed to remove four passengers from an airplane in order to put a deadheading crew on. I don’t want to argue either side of the issue here, because I know I’d never change any minds. Either you feel the airline is a horrible monster that only lives to make passenger’s lives miserable, or the airline tried everything possible to resolve a difficult situation made impossible by a selfish and belligerent passenger.

Neither view is totally accurate, and as is the norm these days, the discussions rapidly moved to two camps at either end of the issue, where their only purpose was to obliterate the competition while the actual issues go undiscussed.

When the story broke and the fireworks started, I did post a rather long message on Facebook trying to point out what happened from an airline employee’s side of the issue. Many of my friends agreed with me, and a few disagreed. To my friend’s credit nobody aimed their barbs toward me, but in a few cases they strongly disagreed with my points and said the airline should have done it ‘their way’, despite the legal requirements to do otherwise.

All of this got me thinking about how we react to difficult news stories, the response from social media and of the unfortunate growth in ‘alternative facts’, as they’ve been dubbed in the press. And more than that, this story about United only cemented my feeling that social media and the 10-minute news cycle have changed how we respond to the world around us. What this means, is that I have been greatly disturbed over the past few years about the dismissal of expert opinion in the news and in social media. It started with more ‘throw-away’ issues like Chemtrails (see my previous blog post), but then moved to more important stories like global warming, refugees, and foreign involvement in our electoral process.

Suddenly, everyone has become an expert, and real experts in various fields are being dismissed as ‘biased’. If knowing more than most about a particular subject means that person is biased, then consider me biased toward aviation, science, current events and education. When I post something on social media in those subjects I try to be open about my position on the subject, as well as my background, which might allow a little bit of expertise on the content. Most of the time though, the people reading my posts are my friends, and the world being what it is, most of them are of like minds to me. This is sort of ‘preaching to the choir’, so my posts often live in isolation from a more representative cross section of the public in general. In the vast arena of social media, this isolation allows for very focused content and people tend to only read posts and stories that reinforce their current beliefs and biases. In turn, this allows people and organizations with economic interests in a particular issue to get their point across to the audience that would support them the best. If the position of these stories is in opposition to current science or political truth, the author will often denigrate the ‘experts’ as biased, such as with the current industry of climate change denial, in order to earn the support of the article’s readers.

The problem with all this of course, is that the real experts got their credentials the hard way: study, education, work, and life experience. The audience for these questionable posts don’t care though, and simply follow along with calling the experts biased. I believe this is a very dangerous trend. Ignoring the advice of someone who has spent a lifetime studying a particular subject is like throwing the entire library of human knowledge out the window because you don’t like a particular page in one book. Of course, you must use a little skepticism with what you read. But for many that skepticism has been flushed down the swirling waters of social media, and they simply let the currents take them to where the article writers want them to go. Do we want to relinquish our duty as thinking, analytical humans to the writers of social media stories? For me the answer is no. But for many today, it apparently is yes.

For the economies of the world to grow, for countries to expand and broaden their influence, for people to become better educated and for everyone’s lifestyle to improve, we need to rely on others. There is no place in the world where you do anything but barely subsist without assistance from a massive network of other people. That network relies on experts to design cars, build airports, monitor the environment, heal the sick, build homes, move the supplies of the world and run governments. We need these people because the enormous complexity of the world can’t be tackled by one person. Experts are the key to each area that we need to grow. Science is often involved in these areas, but because of a natural distrust of the unknown, scientific experts are sometimes looked on with suspicion or even outright fear. That is what is exploited by those who want something other than what the experts are saying. Using words like ‘socialism’, doubt is cast toward experts. Deeply emotional ideas like individual freedom and patriotism are used too, in an effort to steer the readers away from these expert opinions. These stories are dangerous because they are far too short-sighted for our overall good as a country & world. We need others. We need experts who have studied areas that not all of us can learn. We need a population who wants to learn, who can think critically, and who can believe the experts that have earned their trust.

Having access to social media has been a huge benefit to the world. Information is passed quickly, friends are connected, and life can be made easier. There is a dark side, of course. The social media world of black & white ideas, of anger, mistrust and narrow viewpoints needs to change. Without that change progress will slow, anger will grow, and the divide we see in government and our personal lives will widen. The needed changes won’t happen, or will be watered down versions of what is required without a concerted effort by all of us. Look into your own life, and make an assessment of your level of trust for experts. Like I said before, blind trust is just as bad as no trust. But what would be good for everyone is to widen your input to bring in sources of information you haven’t used before. Look with a very skeptical eye on sources that are plainly slanted toward one political viewpoint. Do the hard thing and accept compromise. Learn from trusted experts, and we can move forward. Ignore them, and we will be stuck in this bickering quagmire for a long, long time.

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