Its time to reboot the relationship between expertise and democracy

header_essay-v3-gs1103419In 2002, a distinguished historian wrote that the widely told tales of ‘No Irish Need Apply’ signs in the late 19th-century United States were myths. Richard Jensen at the University of Illinois said that such signs were inventions, ‘myths of victimisation’, passed down from Irish immigrants to their children until they reached the unassailable status of urban legends. For more than a decade, most historians accepted Jensen’s scholarship, while opponents were dismissed – sometimes by Jensen himself – as Irish-American loyalists.

In a 2015 story that seemed to encapsulate the death of expertise, an eighth-grader named Rebecca Fried claimed that Jensen was wrong, not least because of research she did on Google. She was respectful, but determined. ‘He has been doing scholarly work for decades before I was born, and the last thing I want to do was show disrespect for him and his work,’ she said later. It all seemed to be just another case of a precocious child telling an experienced teacher – an emeritus professor of history, no less – that he had not done his homework.

But, as it turns out, she was right and he was wrong. Such signs existed, and they weren’t that hard to find.

Young Rebecca, did what a sensible person would: she started looking through databases of old newspapers. She found the signs, as the Daily Beast later reported, ‘collecting a handful of examples, then dozens, then more. She went to as many newspaper databases as she could. Then she thought, somebody had to have done this before, right?’ As it turned out, neither Jensen nor anyone else had apparently bothered to do this basic fact-checking. Miss Fried has now entered high school with a published piece in the Journal of Social History, and she is not alone in overturning the status quo.

Read the full article in Aeon