Whether the internet is responsible for the erosion of trust in expertise is an interesting question.
I believe, however, that a recent article by Josh Fischman in the Chronicle of Higher Education raises a related, but different claim: “The notion that professors’ jobs depend, essentially, on society viewing them as smarter than everyone else is novel, and likely to be more than a little controversial.”
In some sense, the idea that anyone’s job depends on her expertise is totally uncontroversial. People will continue to go to doctors when they are sick and mechanics when their car needs repairs. But will they continue to go to college if they doubt the expertise of the professors? Perhaps not – though this overlooks the fact that people go to college (or university) to become certified as experts of one sort or another themselves.
Expertise is about more than having information that others do not. It is also about, as Fischman’s article comes close to suggesting, being PERCEIVED as having knowledge that others lack. The question of an expert’s job security, however, also depends on the perceived NEED for that expertise – and so relevance is also an issue.
Academic freedom has to be tied to academic responsibility; and the latter ought to include a consideration of whether the expertise academics are “selling” is something that society needs (a richer sense of accountability). Otherwise, we will have only ourselves to blame if society no longer “buys” the need for academic expertise.
I discuss these issues in terms of peer review in my chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity, published last year.