Michael M. Rosen
May 30, 2017
he experts are terrible,” proclaimed Donald Trump at a 2016 Wisconsin campaign rally, “Look at the mess we're in with all these experts that we have…I mean, these guys don't know what they're doing!” Trump’s comments both reflected and fueled an ongoing antagonistic trend in American public life toward experts, professionals, and intellectuals. Its spike in recent years has severely corroded our communal dialogue.
Tom Nichols, a Naval War College professor of national security affairs, contends In The Death of Expertise that the issue “is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of positive hostility to such knowledge,” which poses “a threat to the material and civic well-being of citizens in a democracy.” While skepticism of received wisdom or controversial studies is perfectly natural, he argues, it turns “dangerous when it becomes a shared characteristic among entire societies.” His book attempts both to sound the alarm and to show the firemen how to douse the flames.
But first, how do we distinguish between experts and laypeople? The line cannot always be sharply drawn, but Nichols tries. Experts are:
people who have mastered particular skills or bodies of knowledge and who practice those skills or use that knowledge as their main occupation in life…Put another way, experts are the people who know considerably more on a subject than the rest of us, and are those to whom we turn when we need advice, education, or solutions in a particular area of human knowledge.
Our dwindling faith in these professionals takes several forms. Confirmation bias—our strong inclination to emphasize and accept data that support our preexisting view, and discount evidence that calls it into question—is a powerful source of anti-expert sentiment. Superstitions, conspiracy theories, and irrational fears flow from our gut senses reinforced by selective evidence and, in turn, inhibit our dispassionate analysis of relevant data. “The simple tools of common sense,” the author avers, “can betray us and make us susceptible to errors both great and small.”
Nichols also faults the Internet for impoverishing our civic discourse. While it’s “a magnificent repository of knowledge,…it’s also the source and enabler of a spreading epidemic of misinformation. Not only is the Internet making many of us dumber,” he posits, “it’s making us meaner: alone, behind their keyboards, people argue rather than discuss, and insult rather than listen.”
The sheer amount of wrongness on the Internet—be it mistakenly presented or maliciously planted—deadens our senses and undermines the very notion of truth. But Nichols also tackles tougher cases like Wikipedia, which replaces expertise with “collective knowledge.” Yet Wikipedia, he finds, actually represents “a good lesson in the limits of the Internet-driven replacement of expertise.” While it provides fast, convenient access to billions of uncontroversial facts, names, figures, and events, it does a poor job reporting complex or controversial trends, opinions, or conflicts.
Nichols muses that “to reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.” In this regard, his critique of broader American society tracks the recent backlash against “snowflakes”—the overly sensitive, easily offended, tenderly fragile college students who are incapable of entertaining concepts remotely challenging to their worldview. Indeed, Nichols is equally as withering in his indictment of American higher education grandees for indulging students “both materially and intellectually, reinforcing some of the worst tenancies in students who have not yet learned self-discipline.” Further, they market their products as “multiyear vacation packages,” and indulge a corrosive culture of extreme grade inflation.
Journalism’s deterioration has also contributed to the crisis. As the media have become shallower, more segmented, more partisan, and more pandering, news consumers have become more cynical and narrow-minded. “They do not seek information so much as confirmation,” Nichols asserts, “and when they receive information they do not like, they will gravitate to sources they prefer because they believe others are mistaken or even lying.” To overcome these proclivities, which the cater-to-everybody approach of cable TV and social-media news curators have supercharged, he enjoins news consumers to be “humbler,” “ecumenical,” “less cynical,” and “a lot more discriminating.”
But recognizing that the public isn’t entirely to blame, Nichols also offers counsel to his fellow experts. When appearing on newscasts, experts should “know when to say no,” as tempting as they may find the network green room’s comforts and promises. Too often experts speak out of turn and improperly inflate their expertise’s scope. Noam Chomsky may be among the world’s foremost linguists, but his inane foreign policy pronouncements lack professional training or knowledge. The same goes for Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow and the science of gynecological treatments.
Other experts unconvincingly extend their educated understanding into far less-informed predictions—those Kremlinologists who boldly foresaw the Soviet Union’s renewed vigor on the verge of its total collapse, for instance. “Predictions,” Nichols writes, “like cross-expertise transgressions, are catnip to experts.”
Worse, some experts get sloppy with sources (whether fabricating or plagiarizing them), falsify data, or flat-out lie. Ultimately, even honest experts “cannot guarantee outcomes” but instead “can only promise to institute rules and methods that reduce the chance of such mistakes and to make those errors far less often than a layperson might.”
But how exactly can a responsible public coexist with well-meaning experts? Here, Nichols exhorts fruitful collaboration. Experts must come across as humble and accountable, frankly acknowledging when they’re wrong, and adopting transparency mechanisms so their work’s accuracy can be properly evaluated. The public must appreciate that experts are not policy-makers: they “can only propose; elected leaders dispose.” Everyday Americans must also evince their own humility and nurture the self-awareness to recognize when deference to professionals is wise. We must also shoulder the responsibilities of mature citizenship and cultivate “the kind of civic virtue that keeps [us] involved in the running of [our] own country.”
The Death of Expertise doesn’t always demonstrate with hard data the trends it describes vividly. The steady decline of public faith in experts jibes with our experience and seems inarguable, but more specific evidence showing it would have been welcome. Nevertheless, Nichols’s analysis of these crippling trends is a welcome, if unsettling, exposition of a critical challenge. “The United States,” he asserts, “is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance.” Extracting our polity from this maelstrom will require strenuous effort indeed.