Book Review: The Death of Expertise

I’d like to recommend to you a book you probably don’t want to read or even think you need to read. In all likelihood, it’s a book you probably think other people need to read, especially if you graduated from college. It’s a book about knowledge and information, arguments and dialogue, citizenship and democracy. It’s a book about the relationship between experts and citizens written by professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, Tom Nichols, and the title gives away the thesis of the book: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.

expertiseIn this straightforward book filled with colorful examples, Nichols argues convincingly that society increasingly relates to experts as technicians rather than as those most qualified to make judgments on matters in their field of knowledge. In other words, we’re skeptical of authorities and have a high self-regard when it comes to our own knowledge of complex issues. For instance, we have no problem going to the doctor to have a broken bone set, but we don’t trust our doctor’s ability to diagnosis, to give sound advice regarding our diet, or to provide a needed medication schedule. Nichols wrote the book to make the case that this proud skepticism of experts is bad for everyone and is undermining democratic society.

What does he mean by “expert?” Nichols defines an expert as someone who possesses considerably more skill or knowledge of a subject than the rest of us. Additionally, an expert in a particular field is one who has received formal training or education, demonstrates a high level of talent or aptitude, has experience over time, and has been evaluated by his or her peers so as to be recognized in the field. Notice then, an expert is not (usually) someone who is self-taught and self-appointed but one who has community credentials.

The Argument

The first chapter gives us this definition and narrates how we got where we are and why it’s a problem. The story he tells focuses on the shift from agrarianism to the Industrial Age. Agrarian societies were filled with people who had to have a little knowledge about a lot of different areas of life, but the rise of industrialization brought a rise in specialization, which made the gap between experts and ordinary citizens much greater. The populist spirit of America already had a tenuous relationship to establish authorities, but the American ideal of the omnicompetent common man served as the foundation to the American Dream. So with the rise of specialization grew the rise of hostility to experts, and with the death of expertise comes the demise of democracy.

In perhaps the most important chapter of the book, Nichols points the finger at us in chapter two by suggesting specialization isn’t the biggest reason for the death of expertise. With a number of humorous illustrations and findings from studies, he discusses confirmation bias, the tendency to believe what we want to believe and to only look for information that confirms what we believe. He also explores what psychologists call the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” the dumber a person is the more difficulty he has in recognizing his incompetence. Though we all tend to overestimate ourselves, studies have shown that those who have the least understanding of an issue often have the highest levels of confidence in making a judgment on the matter. Similarly, those who have no idea how to make a logical argument cannot realize when they’re failing to make a logical argument. The chapter also includes a fascinating examination of wives’ tales, superstition, and conspiracy theories. As someone who has been friends with a number of conspiracy theorists and wrestled considerably with how to understand and reason with them, Nichols’ insights here resonated. He roots the appeal of conspiracy theories to our sense of personal heroism, narcissism, powerlessness, and fear. He ends the chapter discussing the difference between stereotypes (negative value pre-judgments) and generalizations (probabilistic statements based on observational facts), which are necessary not only in scientific research but also for ordinary life.

Chapters three through five examine a number of the contributing factors to the death of expertise: the increase in those who attend college, the Internet, and the new journalism.

Nichols argues that in the pursuit of universal college education, college degrees have been watered down as higher education institutions have adopted a consumer-oriented college experience to an expanding market of college attendees, leading to a higher percentage of the population feeling they have arrived at knowledge rather than being equipped to be lifelong learners who are still not experts in much of anything.

In his chapter on the impact of the Internet, Nichols makes the argument most readers expect when they see the title of the book. The World Wide Web gives everyone access to endless information, inflating our sense that we understand complex issues while we lack context and the filters necessary to organize information on a subject properly. Nichols notes Pommer’s law: “the Internet can only change a person’s mind from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.” It gives the fool a platform to disseminate bad information that can never go away once posted, and it eliminates the distance between experts and ordinary individuals giving the illusion that everyone’s opinion on a matter is equally valid.

Chapter five on the new journalism shows that even though there’s more news than ever before, we’re less informed on the substantive issues of the day than those in previous generations. Technology has collided with capitalism, and now journalism is driven by website clicks and ad revenue. This means there’s less substantive reporting, less clarity, and more entertainment in news than ever before. Lower barriers to reporting means news travels faster, but it also means editors no longer curate content and standards fall. Citizens can interact with the news immediately via Twitter, phone, or webpage comments, but this displaces the role of experts. All of this contributes to the illusion of being informed. Additionally, the politicization of the news has led to dramatic distrust on the right and left of each side’s respective trusted news agency.

Thus far, it might sound like Nichols’ book suggests experts are never wrong, but chapter six explains that while that’s not the case, we still need to trust in experts. Yes, experts make mistakes. Sometimes they commit fraud, make judgments outside their area of expertise, or foolishly predict the future rather than explaining the present. But even with those mistakes, they’re vital to every aspect of society every day. Nichols also makes an important argument experts need to heed. On matters outside their area of expertise, studies have shown that experts fared no better than laypersons. Actors aren’t qualified to speak to medical issues like vaccines. Doctors shouldn’t act as foreign policy experts. Scientists shouldn’t venture to speak authoritatively on philosophy or religion.

Solutions and Problems

The last chapter offers some ways forward to our struggling republic, but honestly, he doesn’t offer much hope. Most of what he offers here is an education on what we should expect of experts and the difference between a republic and pure democracy. Very little addresses the devastating criticisms he levies in chapter 2 regarding confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and narcissism. Perhaps related to his inability to offer helpful solutions, my biggest critique of the book relates to the story he tells in chapter one on how we got here. Nichols says almost nothing about why trust in our society has eroded or, for many oppressed or marginalized groups, why it hasn’t ever existed in the first place. There’s no attention to power dynamics whatsoever, and so he fails to address or wrestle with those who have good reason to suspect the system and its experts are biased to protect their own place of power.

Overall, Nichols makes a compelling and sobering case about the problems with hostility to experts that should encourage any reader to be more humble, less reactive against ideas with which we disagree, and more realistic about what we can expect from civic leaders and the experts that advise them. I highly recommend this book to all. However, I suspect those most resistant to this recommendation probably need it most.

Twitter Guidelines

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me how to use Twitter, so I sent him some thoughts and a basic philosophy I have developed over the past 10 years that guides how I utilize it as a tool and seek to avoid some of the dangers and negative ways the platform can act back upon us.

Widely used new technologies provide obvious benefits, but they also change and shape us. Many people fear these changes and, seeing negative effects, swear off the new technology altogether. Over time, I’ve been convinced it’s more important to think carefully about the technology, the habits of use we form, and how to use the technology wisely. If you haven’t read Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family, I strongly recommend it. You can read my review of it here.

In the spirit of wisdom and along the lines of Crouch’s book, it’s important to ask how we should and shouldn’t use social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For now, I’d like to focus on Twitter, which I’ve used for 7 years out of its 12-year existence. Some of my advice can transfer to other platforms and some is unique to the features of Twitter.

Like with all social media and new technology generally, it’s important to think carefully about our purposes for using Twitter, the practices fitting to those aims, and the rules that should govern our use. Here’s my approach.

My Purposes

Before becoming a user and creating a Twitter handle, I spent time learning about how it works by watching others. Eventually, I decided that out of the many reasons a person might use Twitter, I would stick to these five.

First, I use Twitter to be exposed to people (academics, pastors, thinkers, leaders, etc.), information (local and national news, events, etc.), and content (articles, ideas, books, etc.) that I find helpful or that I probably wouldn’t easily come across otherwise. Because users share content and link to other users, Twitter makes it possible to see people and content I wouldn’t know to look for.

Second, I use Twitter to capture live responses to mass events like conferences, presidential debates, or unfolding situations (like a mass shooting or sporting event). Hashtags and trends make it possible to get crowd reactions, insights, and perspectives really quickly.

Third, I use Twitter to interact and dialogue with people I don’t have a chance to talk to in person. This is perhaps one of the top reasons I use Twitter, though this is also one of the more challenging or dangerous ways to engage. Because of how Twitter works, anyone can comment on any tweet and talk back to or tag any other user. This gives unknowns a lot of access to famous, credentialed, or accomplished individuals. As a pastor, I’ve benefitted a lot from interactions with scholars, pastors, and leaders who were gracious enough to respond to my questions, challenges, or rejoinders.

Fourth, I use Twitter to persuade and inform others. I do this in a number of ways. Most of my original tweets (that is, my tweets that are not responding to the tweets of others) aim to direct people to helpful resources, articles, and ideas that I hope will alter what other people believe and think. I often tweet quotes from books I’m reading, or I’ll tweet thoughts I have as a result of my reading.

Fifth, I use Twitter to laugh and be amazed. Because Twitter is filled with people, it’s filled with humor and wonder. I follow some people just because they’re funny and other accounts that somehow demonstrate the awesomeness of our world.

My Practices

With these purposes in mind, here are a few practices I have developed.


Every Twitter user must start with the matter of who to follow. I generally only follow people I know personally, people I’ve engaged in conversation on Twitter that appear helpful, people who have a proven record of helpful content and interaction, and experts in the fields that interest me or are important to my work.

I also limit the number of people I follow to a manageable level. I regularly review and trim down who I am following because my timeline can become overwhelming with too many people. I seriously don’t understand how a person can follow more than several hundred users. I suspect those who follow more than that are doing so only to try to gain followers back, and they probably curate whom actually shows up in their timeline. Many Twitter users evidently use Twitter to become famous, and so they adopt many practices aimed at growing a larger following. It’s one thing to have a large following because of the content you are producing. It’s another to use Twitter to have a following. The difference is evident in the practices users adopt. More on this below.


Because Twitter allows for rapid interaction with people who are often strangers, the platform regularly devolves into insults, sarcasm, proud self-congratulation, tribal protectionism, and other forms of unloving communication. The platform provides little accountability and often rewards those who exacerbate controversy and cloud issues rather than bringing light to conversations. So I regularly talk to a friend of mine who is also on Twitter to see what he thinks about how I’m interacting with others. In other words, I have a Twitter accountability partner to help me see when I’m not interacting well with others.


Because Twitter is a public platform that anyone can access (and here I’m speaking about non-protected accounts), I do not post pictures of my children. My wife and I seek to limit how many digital pictures of our children end up online because we are uncertain how they will feel when they’re adults about their lives being documented for anyone to see.

My Rules

Twitter is an amazing platform, but there are many dangers. Oddly enough, many users publicly lament its problems, threatening to deactivate their account. I suppose that’s because we all see how dysfunctional and unhelpful it can be. It certainly does encourage vices like vanity, anger, envy, and prideful self-promotion. So here are a few rules I have for myself that I aim to keep. I’d encourage you to adopt them as well.

1. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Love must govern how I listen to the tweets of others. I need to listen charitably to try to understand people, assuming the best. Usually, when Twitter isn’t working well it’s because people fail to show grace to one another. Tweets can only be 240 characters, putting a limit on how effectively a person can flesh out an idea. So I have to avoid reacting, work hard to press in for understanding, and give people the benefit of the doubt.

Furthermore, instead of sarcasm and dismissal, I try to engage people respectfully. Sometimes love involves putting things in a pointed and sharp way, but the aim must be the good of my neighbor and not victory over them.

2. Follow people and organizations outside of my tribe and with whom I probably disagree.

One of the dangers of social media platforms is ideological siloing. This is especially dangerous for Facebook users, but it’s possible on Twitter as well if you don’t take steps to follow a variety of people.

3. Don’t virtue signal or twitter shame.

I’ve resolved not to tweet to display to the world my own sense of superiority. This includes commenting on issues simply to show everyone which side of an issue I’m on so I will be recognized as belonging to the “good” side. It’s fine to weigh in on and speak to issues I believe are important and just, but if I’m not doing anything to contribute to the issue, I’m most likely just posturing and signaling. This danger seems to grow the more followers a user acquires.

The flip side of virtue signaling is twitter shaming. I refuse to quote tweet others simply to run them through the mud because of some terrible thing they’ve said or done. This rule is a bit tricky because part of dialoguing with people or debating ideas involves showing the problems with their ideas or actions. Sometimes there’s a fine line between twitter shaming and highlighting a problem, but if I do the latter, I aim to interact with the idea and not trash someone to elevate myself.

4. Don’t subtweet.

Subtweeting involves tweeting in reference to a particular user or a tweet without direct mention, typically in a dismissive or mocking way. This is another form of virtue signaling because it refuses to bring the person you disagree with into the conversation in order to debate. It’s an obvious way to criticize another to show your own goodness. It’s smug and not helpful.

5. Don’t humblebrag.

A humblebrag is an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud. If someone compliments me or my work, the humble response is to reply, “thank you.” But to retweet the compliment or to quote tweet it with a “thank you” or any other reply is to broadcast to all my followers what someone else has said about me. This is blatant self-promotion and the very opposite of humility, even if I say I’m humbled that they would say such a thing.

6. Don’t name drop or use Twitter to have private conversations.

Mentioning other Twitter users in my tweets should only happen to engage the person in conversation or to promote them or link others to them. I won’t use Twitter to show all my followers that I know someone, am excited to see them in person soon, or had a great time with them. Furthermore, if I want to have a conversation exclusively with a few people, then I contact them using the message function, via text, or through some other messaging platform.

7. Don’t buy followers and don’t follow people just to get them to follow me.

Since my purpose in using Twitter does not include gaining a following in order to be influential, I follow people because I value the content they produce or link to. There are many strategies users employ to gain followers, to be important, and to establish a large platform that avoid the difficult work of actually providing value. This celebrity culture actually leads to some of the worst aspects of Twitter, and I’m pretty sure that if I go that route, I’ll lose my soul.

8. Block trolls and spam.

I regularly get followed by a fake, anonymous, or smutty account. Sometimes, I’ll come across a user who starts trolling or repeatedly engaging in bad faith. In many of these situations, I block them. However, this rule also requires caution because it is very easy to label as trolls those with whom we disagree or dislike. Just because someone presses us on a point or highlights uncomfortable realities doesn’t mean they are only trying to provoke in bad faith. It’s possible to provoke in good faith, and so I am careful not to block people simply because they make me angry. That said, any anonymous account that engages in any provocation I usually block simply because they have no skin in the game, and thus, no accountability.


I really value Twitter for what it can do to connect me with people, to expose me to helpful ideas, to disseminate my ideas, and to provide an opportunity for dialogue and debate. But I have to be careful to regularly review why I use the platform so that I don’t wander into malformative habits. Many of my rules are aimed at helping me avoid self-promotion, self-righteousness, and self-importance because Twitter can very easily play to my pride.

I’m sure some of you have thought about this too, and I’d love to hear how you approach using the platform.