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.
In 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 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.