Over one hundred years ago, Andrew Carnegie established Carnegie Corporation of New York and gave it the mission to “promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding among the people of the United States.” But what if a significant portion of that people is uninterested in knowledge and disdains understanding?
That’s exactly what Tom Nichols argues in his book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. A professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, an expert on Russia and nuclear weapons, and a prolific tweeter, Nichols finds himself often frustrated in his interactions with nonexperts. His conversations with other professionals, in his own field and beyond, confirmed that a larger trend was afoot. Beyond the long-standing American tradition of a general dislike and distrust of intellectual elites, he concludes that the situation has become much more acute. “We do not have a healthy skepticism about experts: instead, we actively resent them, with many people assuming that experts are wrong simply by virtue of being experts.”
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters
Tom Nichols | Oxford University Press | 2017 | 252 pp. | ISBN: 978-0-19-046941-2 | More about this book
As a result, analytical shortcomings such as confirmation bias, common logical fallacies, and conspiratorial thinking are becoming more pernicious and — even worse — for many a point of pride. “The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance,” Nichols writes. Though he develops the problem of deepening ignorance at length, Nichols warns against calling anyone stupid, a “judgmental, harsh word” that he says we should all swear off using. Nonetheless, he is unrelenting in his criticism of the “low level of foundational knowledge among Americans, about the narcissism and bias that prevents them from learning, about a college industry that affirms ignorance rather than cures it, about media who think their job is to entertain, and about journalists who are too lazy or too inexperienced to get their stories right.”
Experts acquire specialized knowledge through training and experience; their analysis must meet the standards of the field and is subject to peer scrutiny. Disagreement among experts and, inevitably, identifying occasions of expert error are part of this rigorous process. When functioning correctly, expertise plays an essential part in helping policymakers and communities understand and craft solutions to complex problems. Yet, for society to benefit from expertise, people must accept that experts do actually know more about their field than others do, and they must give experts the benefit of the doubt that — generally — they are acting in good faith.
While Nichols challenges many of the ways in which experts and their fields are unfairly or inaccurately disparaged, neither does he let them off the hook. When experts go outside the lanes of their own knowledge, give in to the temptation of making black-and-white predictions, or become snobby and distant, they undercut their own credibility and relevance. Experts need to be held accountable, but in ways that are realistic and grounded in an appropriate understanding of their role in society.
The pull-no-punches approach is not meant to be simply entertaining but purposefully provocative.… Nichols seems to dare the reader to be offended by his sharply worded assessments, proving his point.
Nichols makes his case in a style that is witty and often distinctly snarky. He has mastered the art of crafting zingers that make the trends he describes sound as ludicrous as they are problematic. One of my personal favorites: “Unfortunately, people thinking they’re smart because they searched the Internet is like thinking they’re good swimmers because they got wet walking through a rainstorm.” It’s hard not to laugh at the image while simultaneously cringing at the severity of the message.
Strongly Held Beliefs A movement against child vaccination has led to measles outbreaks around the country this past year. In New York’s Rockland County, nurses wait for patients following a measles outbreak in the area, which led to a countywide ban on unvaccinated minors in public places. (Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)
The pull-no-punches approach is not meant to be simply entertaining but purposefully provocative. A core theme is that people are losing the ability to engage in constructive conversation with those they disagree with because they prefer to “insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.” Nichols seems to dare the reader to be offended by his sharply worded assessments, proving his point. Even if the critical tone is warranted, it makes me question whether he expects the book to be read broadly by the general public, who — by the logic of his own argument — should be one of his main audiences if his goal is to spur societal change.
As Nichols describes his frustration and explains the dynamics at play, the reader may feel a sense of vindication: Yes, I’ve seen and experienced these things and it’s infuriating! But the sword cuts both ways, and it’s hard to avoid doing a little self-analyzing as well. I kept trying to measure to what degree I am also guilty of doing exactly what he describes. Was my decision on which college to attend possibly swayed by “experience-oriented” marketing, such as UC Irvine’s promotion of its beautiful campus, including the Middle Earth–themed student housing complex? When I debate someone on this or that new policy, have I sometimes done so with unjustified confidence? Did I simply “walk through a rainstorm” of Internet scrolling, searching for confirmation of what I already knew I wanted to believe?
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Next, I would do an analysis of my analysis, wondering whether I was falling prey to another well-studied psychological phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger Effect — the almost universal tendency of each of us to rate ourselves above average on almost anything. It can be a bit mentally exhausting, but a reader who completely avoids such soul-searching has also missed the point. No one is perfect or immune to these tendencies. By identifying these widespread flaws, their underlying dynamics, and how to guard against them, including through rebuilding a healthy relationship with expertise, Nichols challenges all of us to do better.
That is not to say that everyone gets the same grade by Nichols’s rubric. In fact, he repeatedly stresses that just as knowledge and expertise are not evenly distributed, when it comes to these failings, some people are more “aggressively wrong” than others. Firm convictions held in defiance of all scientific evidence to the contrary are becoming ever more prevalent. He cites, for example, the anti-vaccine movement (causing vulnerabilities that have contributed to the biggest measles outbreak in the U.S. in 25 years) and the growing number of Americans who believe that the earth is flat. Yet in spite of such clear-cut, extreme examples, “Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s,” hindering society’s ability to self-correct based on facts.
That is not to say that everyone gets the same grade by Nichols’s rubric. In fact, he repeatedly stresses that just as knowledge and expertise are not evenly distributed, when it comes to these failings, some people are more “aggressively wrong” than others.
Beyond subjecting myself to a personal inquisition and becoming quite disheartened by the systemic underpinnings of the problem, I also thought a lot about this book in terms of its implications for Carnegie Corporation of New York and its mission. Much of our strategy is based on training the next generation of experts in our priority areas, connecting expertise to policymakers, as well as supporting and sharing expert knowledge with the public, including through the media. If the relationships between the public, experts, and policymakers are fundamentally fracturing in the way Nichols describes, the very foundation on which our mission lies is compromised.
Yet just as Nichols’s book shows he hasn’t given up hope, neither has Carnegie Corporation of New York, where I work in the International Program. We continue to believe in the importance of building knowledge and bringing people together in constructive ways to address major challenges for our nation and the world. In doing so through our grantmaking, we have partnered and will continue to partner with many inspiring people and organizations.
I had a few qualms with the book, and there were sometimes complicating factors that I thought Nichols didn’t sufficiently engage with. For example, the ongoing American struggle to create a respectful and inclusive culture of diversity cannot be boiled down — and then dismissed — as nothing more than oversensitivity and an aggrieved sense of entitlement. I don’t doubt he would acknowledge this, and to be fair, “political correctness and its discontents” was not the focus of the book. That said, with his most important invocation, I absolutely concur: “Experts need to remember, always, that they are the servants and not the masters of a democratic society and a republican government. If citizens, however, are to be the masters, they must equip themselves not just with education, but with the kind of civic virtue that keeps them involved in the running of their own country.” With the 2020 presidential election coming up and all signs pointing to a nasty road ahead, on this point at the least, we should all be on the same page.