It’s become de rigueur to lament the current state of discourse, where unbridled arrogance and ignorance seem always seem to dominate, no matter how complex the debate. Tacitly, we know that this is a hemlock cocktail for an enlightened civilization, but those of us who are no strangers to public debate conduct ourselves as if we were born in stage five of Kübler-Ross. The question is, why do we readily accept this state of affairs?
At least Naval War College professor Tom Nichols is still raging against the dying of the light. With his book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, which started out as a widely shared article on this website, Nichols has issued a sadly necessary and urgent call for epistemological humility. It helps that Nichols’ righteous indignation is coated in a healthy dose of wit, and it’s a further credit to Nichols that he recognizes those who are most attuned to this problem might be the ones most in need of this book.
Mercifully, the book isn’t an unchecked defense of elitism, and spends a lot of time discussing how experts themselves are to blame for these woes. In fact, the worst and most damaging forms of ignorance might just be those that masquerade as expertise. Or as Nichols puts it, “It’s an old saying, but it’s true: it ain’t what you don’t know that’ll hurt you, it’s what you do know that ain’t so.”
A Literal Case of the Death of Expertise
Make no mistake, people are being hurt by a refusal to acknowledge the authority of experts. At one point, Nichols provides an example of a man coping with the death of his elderly mother that is so on the nose it can scarcely be believed:
Pasceri, however, was convinced that one of his mother’s doctors, Michael Davidson—the director of endovascular cardiac surgery at a top Boston hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School—had ignored warnings about a particular drug given to Pasceri’s mother. In a literal case of the death of expertise, the accountant showed up at the hospital and shot the doctor to death. He then killed himself after leaving behind a flash drive with his ‘research’ about the drug.
Certainly doctors make mistakes, but it should be obvious that plugging symptoms into WebMD.com is incredibly unlikely to make you more qualified to issue a diagnosis than medical professionals. Yet doctors now encounter such hubris on daily basis. To paraphrase Hermann Göring, when people hear the word expert nowadays, they reach for their revolvers. This isn’t going to end well.
So what do we do about this? Nichols does what any good expert would do assessing the problem—he attempts to identify the causes, suggests solutions, and drives home the terrifying consequences should we fail to restore a degree of trust and humility to public discourse.
Dumber and Meaner
A number of the more obvious causes of all this are discussed in discrete chapters, and Nichols handles the nuances adroitly. The first has already been touched on—the Internet. Nichols is careful to recognize how it’s a blessing, but it’s also true that it has enabled “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
Nichols runs through a few common critiques of the Internet such as perceptions skewed by search engine rankings and the general shoddiness of Wikipedia, where Pokemon-related topics are subject to more extensive coverage than African countries. However, he manages to do so with aplomb and unearths a fair bit of illuminating data that readers likely haven’t been confronted with.
The chapter really shines in Nichols’ critique of how the Internet changes how we process information. He delves into research that should convict nearly everyone reading this. He quotes the authors of a study showing consumers of information on the Internet “are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed, there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins [supporting their preexisting worldview]. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.” Now imagine an entire generation coming of age having spent most of their life power browsing rather than reading.
Finally, the social effects of internet exchanges are considered. It’s worth picking up the book for the full survey of why Nichols arrives at this conclusion, but he’s right to worry that “not only is the Internet making many of us dumber, it’s making us meaner: alone behind their keyboards, people argue rather than discuss, and insult rather than listen.”
Is Our Children Learning?
Nichols’ chapter on the general degradation of education didn’t hold many surprises for me personally, owing to a fair bit of professional interest in the topic. However, the topic is essential to any survey of the subject at hand and Nichols’ own vested interest in it renders what he has to say exceptionally riveting. He’s been a professor off and on for nearly 30 years, and his attitude about what’s happened in higher ed is about as worldly and ticked off as befits a man of his experience. Nichols’ sense of personal urgency, both instigated and tempered by a clear devotion to his vocational excellence, on this topic is impossible to ignore.
To hear Nichols tell it, it’s becoming very hard for professors to educate anyone when schools are increasingly dedicated coddling and client service. “As a professor at an elite school once said to me,” Nichols writes, “’Some days, I feel less like a teacher and more like a clerk in an expensive boutique.’” Nichols cites a plethora of anecdotes and data to support the conclusion “college students may not be dumber than they were thirty years ago, but their sense of entitlement and their unfounded self-confidence have grown considerably.”
Indeed, the Internet’s instantaneous information problems have clashed headlong into this sense of self-entitlement. Nichols quotes an Amherst sophomore rebelling against the idea that professors do not have to respond to every email inquiry:
‘If the only way I could communicate with my professors was by going to their office or calling them, there would be some sort of ranking or prioritization taking place. Is this question worth going over to the office?’ To which a faculty member might respond: that’s exactly the point. Professors are not intellectual valets or on-call pen pals.
This lack of respect for knowledgeable instructors can’t help but be deleterious. Perhaps students can be spoonfed information. But possessing information is not the same as understanding. Understanding must be earned through effort and experience.
A Republic, If You Know What One Is
Those subjects are just two highlights, but Nichols should be lauded for breezing through an incredible myriad of subjects with such economy, clarity, and, as needed, various entertaining pop culture references. We’re talking subjects as diverse as the Dunning-Krueger effect and Gwyneth Paltrow’s dubious feminine hygiene regimen.
Nichols’ is careful to emphasize his own humility along the way, but in a book about the need to respect deep expertise, he makes a modest case for his own appreciable autodidacticism. It’s hard enough to relay a single aspect of the book, such as Nichols’ careful and fascinating thoughts on the importance of metacognition, let alone take a book like this as a whole and try and capture the gist of it.
If anything, I wanted more from the book. Nichols has so many stray insights he can’t possibly go into the detail they deserve. For instance, the discussion of how the failures of the Vietnam-era “Best and Brightest” meritocracy prompted the counterculture revolution that did its long march through America’s institutions is fascinating. In 50 years, America’s pendulum has swung from a condescending technocratic elitism that arbitrarily marginalized people to the default liberalism of the present—a liberalism that conflates small and capital “D” democratic values to the point where “everyone has rights” has transmogrified into a hellscape where everyone has the right to his opinion, no matter how erroneous. This transition is worth a book on its own.
But Nichols’ goal was to write an accessible survey of the myriad reasons why expertise is dying, and here he succeeded. (I read the book in two sittings.) This was admirably difficult, given the thesis. Writing a book about the need to defer to expertise necessitates readers examine and confront their own political biases, and Nichols makes a point of sticking it to both sides of the aisle.
For instance, in the chapter on media Nichols has a long section on the rise of talk radio. It would have been easy enough for yet another egghead to lament Rush Limbaugh’s effect on political dialogue. Here the problems of talk radio are fairly contextualized alongside larger media problems. “There is a reasonable argument that talk radio in the 1980s and 1990s was a necessary antidote to television and print outlets that had become politically complacent, ideologically monotonous, and too self-regarding,” notes Nichols.
On the question of who killed expertise, Nichols finds conservatives and liberals equally suspect. This renders his book far more credible than issuances from many lesser polemics who have taken aim at the dumbening of America. There is a refreshing lack of hypocrisy in a book genuinely concerned with the political consequences of a bitterly divided America. As Nichols reminds us, the American system of government depends on the people surrendering power to others who are supposed to act on expert opinion, rather than surrender to dictates of the mob. Nichols re-frames Ben Franklin’s famous warning this way: “A republic, if you know what one is.”
Speaking of expert opinion, go ahead and trust me when I say there’s so much more to chew on in The Death of Expertise than can be gleaned from power browsing a book review in search of quick wins. One of the lessons of this book is, appropriately enough, that you should spend less time arguing on the Internet, and more time reading books. The more people log off and read this one, the better off we’ll all be.