The Trump administration may represent an apotheosis of the DIY-analysis tendency, but it did not originate it. The tendency exists in the more-sophisticated forms of climate-change denialism, for example, which do not argue that temperatures are not rising—after all, the data are incontrovertible—but instead dispute the scientific consensus that it is caused by humans. These sophisticated denialists offer alternative theses, from cyclical climate change to little ice ages. They do not reject the data collected by experts; they simply analyze that data to a different end.
The same impulse is at play in conservative critiques of the press and higher education. Liberal professors are told to stick to teaching information to avoid classroom bias, even though higher education necessarily involves interpretation and analysis. Reporters are chastised for adding interpretation and analysis into reports and scolded to stick to the facts—as though news reporting could be or ever has been a dry recitation of disconnected facts without selection, context, or prioritization.
In both cases, the critique arises not from a substantial change in higher education or the press (even though both institutions may have moved somewhat left over a period of decades), but rather from the new expectation that the reader or student will have the tools and context to analyze the raw data as effectively as the trained scholar or reporter.
At its heart, this tendency is optimistically democratic, positing faith in the ability of any individual to do the work of a climate scientist or intelligence analyst or Schopenhauer scholar. It’s fed by the power of the internet, which offers unprecedented access to raw information and forums in which amateur analysts can publish and receive attention for their interpretations.
Nor is it confined to conservatives; from Louise Mensch’s Twitter feed to my email inbox, Trump’s critics have a sheaf of novel theories about intelligence, constitutional law, and criminal investigations. As Kurt Andersen has written, leftist insistence on questioning authority that flowered in the 1960s connects directly to this instinct. But the current president has made this tendency core to his political appeal, launching endless waves of attacks on media outlets, law-enforcement agencies, and civil servants as hopelessly biased in their interpretation of facts, and encouraging and promoting alternative theories.
Questioning authority is good. Skepticism in moderation is important. Ultimately, however, few ordinary citizens are equipped to process raw intelligence or analyze the effects of particulate matter on health. The benefits of painstakingly developed expertise extend beyond the simple accrual of facts to include contextual knowledge, judgment, and intuition. As any victim of an overzealous DIY home-improvement project can attest, there are many tasks that yield to enthusiasm—but there also comes a time when it’s wisest to call in a professional.