The Death of Expertise

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This is an important book.

In The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Tom Nichols (professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a former aide in the Senate) argues that the United States “is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance” (ix). Of course, there is nothing new about ignorance or indifference. Most people (myself included) know little about almost everything. What’s new is the positive hostility we seem to have toward admitting our ignorance and listening to experts. “Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge,” Nichols writes, “and yet have been so resistant to learning anything” (2).

This is not a book long rant against ordinary rubes and common folk. Nichols is well aware that experts are part of the problem. His aim is to bridge the gap between experts and laypeople (xv). A functioning Republic depends on the former serving the latter and expects the latter to pay some deference to the former.

To act as if no one knows more than anyone else is not only silly, it’s also a serious mistake. Nichols cites a survey from a few years ago in which enthusiasm for military intervention in Ukraine was directly proportional to the person’s lack of knowledge about Ukraine. It seems that the dumber we are, the more confident we are in our own intellectual achievements. Nichols relays an incident where someone on Twitter was trying to do research about sarin gas. When the world’s expert on sarin gas offered to help, the original tweeter (a twit we might say) proceeded to angrily lecture that expert for acting like a know-it-all. The expert may not have known all, but in this case he knew exponentially more than some jerk online.

We’ve swallowed the lie that says if we believe in equal rights we must believe that all opinions have equal merit. Nichols also tells the story of an undergraduate student arguing with a renowned astrophysicist who was on campus to give a lecture about missile defense. After seeing that the famous scientist was not going to change his mind after hearing the arguments from a college sophomore, the student concluded in a harrumph, “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” At which point the astrophysicist quickly interjected, “No, no, no. My guesses are much, much better than yours” (82-83). There was nothing wrong with the student asking hard questions, or even getting into an argument. The problem was in assuming he had as much to offer on the subject after a few minutes reflection as the scientist did after decades of training and research.

It Is What It Is

Even if we don’t like experts, no one can seriously deny there are experts. That is to say, there will always be people who know considerably more than most people about a given subject, and usually this expertise is distinguished by years of education and experience (29-30). I’m not an expert in cars, medicine, home repair, microbiology, or animal husbandry. Like you (and everyone else), I’m an expert in virtually nothing, but I’m thankful that in almost every area of human inquiry someone is.

At present, I’m about four-fifths of the way through a PhD program in early modern history. By this point I know more about John Witherspoon than 99.99 percent of the world. This isn’t because I’m a genius. It’s because I’ve worked for several years to read everything I can by and about John Witherspoon. One of the things doctoral work has shown me is how little I actually know about most things. When you see what expertise looks like, you realize you don’t have it! Even now, after five years of reading about Reformed Orthodoxy and the Scottish Enlightenment and Evangelicalism and Old Princeton, I’m more aware of the gaps in my knowledge than I was when I started. Becoming an expert takes a long time and a lot of work. We should be thankful there are people who have made the effort to know more about sarin gas than the rest of us.

Again, Nichols makes clear that the problem is not that people are dumber than human beings used to be. We have more information than ever before. The problem is that we are more confident in our abilities and less willing to learn than previous generations—a lethal combination of militant arrogance and invincible ignorance. American colleges and universities have produced students who are undereducated and overly praised (77). We’ve mistaken critical thinking for relentless criticism. Which means we don’t engage with others “as iron sharpens iron,” but as an axe fells a tree. Public policy debates have devolved into shouting matches between equally uninformed persons duking it out with exchanges of contradiction, random factoids, and shaky sources (40). Too many online debates traffic in confirmation bias and conspiracy theories that are by definition nonfalsifiable. And when we aren’t pronouncing all the experts wrong, we are certain that anyone can be right. If the Declaration of Independence announced these truths to be self-evident, we now believe all truths are self-evident (x). Who needs experts when everything is obvious?

Way Forward

So what can be done about this problematic death of expertise? While Nichols doesn’t provide a 12-step plan to bridge the gap between experts and laypeople, he does offer helpful advice for both.

For experts: don’t drive outside your lane. We’ve come to disdain experts because so many of them pontificate on things about which they have no expertise—scientists thinking they understand religion, journalists thinking they know science, movie stars thinking they know everything. Stick to what you know.

By the same token, stop making predictions. If your career depends on making predictions, then at least make them more tentatively. It’s hard not to want to stone the experts when their prophecies about the future are so often demonstrably false.

As for the rest of us, Nichols gives a number of helpful suggestions: Be ecumenical—don’t get all your information from the one source that magically you always agree with. Be less cynical—most people are not out to get you. Be more discriminating—consider whether the source you’re reading has editors, is tied to a reputable institution, is transparent about its sources, and present facts that are testable and checkable. As Nichols puts it, “Conspiracy theorists and adherents of quack medicine will never believe anything that challenges their views, but most of us can do better” (168).

And finally, be humble. This goes for experts and laypeople. If you are an expert, use your knowledge as a servant not as a master. Pompous technocrats, bureaucrats, and professional haranguers are seldom popular. If you know stuff, use it to help others, not yourselves.

At the same time, all of us have good reason to assume we don’t know as much as we think we know. Let’s be humble enough to learn from others. When it comes to good ideas and good policies, facts are more important than feelings. This is not an excuse for being rude, but it is a summons not to confuse loud emotions with logical arguments. Political equality means every person should be treated the same in the eyes of the law. It does not mean that every opinion is equally important, trustworthy, or deserving of attention. A republic was not designed for the masses to make intricate decisions about complicated issues. From ending poverty to providing healthcare to combating terrorism, things are harder than they look. Let’s have the humility to admit as much. If the death of expertise—as a book and as a cultural conundrum—can lead to a little more modesty on all sides, then we’ll all have something for which to be thankful.

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