The Death of Expertise
Tom Nichols, Oxford University Press, 2017
Tom Nichols’ voice crackles through the Skype call, and our interview begins. I am eager to discuss his recent book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (2017), an exciting topic written by an expert in his own right. Professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and five-time Jeopardy! champion, Nichols’s previous work include Winning the World: Lessons for America’s Future from the Cold War (2002) and Tactical Nuclear Weapons and NATO (2012). What caused this jump from Sovietologist to social commentator? Observation, Nichols says, and a simple rant—originally published in The Federalist—that went viral. When Oxford University Press contacted him to write a book about it, he saw it as an opportunity to really flesh out the argument. I am grateful he did.
For an expert, hearing that a quick Google search is tantamount to the years of research, experimentation and work they endured to receive their qualifications is insulting. Moreover, engaging with someone who boasts such easily-accessed knowledge is all the more frustrating; the expert could not only poke holes in the layperson’s argument, but also fill them with well-established knowledge. Of course, experts do not know everything, and perhaps they too are guilty of self-delusion. It is with mutual frustration and resentment that these two sides battle.
Who is culpable for the death of expertise? First, and most prominent throughout the book, is the public. From a young age, the media swaddles us with the tale of the underdog standing before a board of pompous ‘official experts’, delivering a winning speech that will change the course of history. The music swells with off-screen applause and credits roll. In the book, Nichols calls this romanticism on its bluff, how ‘these images empower a certain kind of satisfying social fantasy: we denigrate the stuffy professor or the nerdy scientist, believing that ordinary people can out-perform them with grit and ingenuity.’ They are not enemies we must combat, yet we too often find ourselves defending knowledge we do not possess, and regard listening with an open mind a sign of weakness.
Nichols does not think the public is unintelligent, but where we falter is when we cannot handle the possibility of being wrong, and respond with unwarranted hostility. When an expert says, ‘you’re wrong’, many of us believe the expert is undermining the knowledge we have gained from our independent research—however biased and misled it may be. The quarrels continue with neither side deeming the other’s argument worth hearing.
This pertains to one of two key phenomena Nichols cites. The Dunning-Krueger effect, named after the authors of a groundbreaking 1999 study, states, ‘the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb.’ This study found more pugnacious individuals lacked metacognition—objective awareness of one’s own performance. Without metacognition, we cannot recognise our shortcomings; we are tone-deaf singers belting all the wrong notes, but in our heads we sound like Freddie Mercury.
The second phenomenon is a familiar foe: confirmation bias. When you accept only information that confirms your suspicions, and dismiss anything to the contrary, that’s confirmation bias at work. It is a survival mechanism in which ‘your intellect, operating on limited or erroneous information, is…trying to minimise any risk to your life, no matter how small.’ Instead of focusing on the possibility you might survive a predator attack, it’s better to expect death and run away at the slightest sign of a threat. However, without this immediate threat in modern society, confirmation bias is easily exploited. For example, in The Mismeasure of Man, evolutionary biologist Stephen Gould tells the tales of researchers involved in craniometry. Paul Broca measured corpses’ brains to determine whether brain size corresponded to intelligence. His studies proved white males were the most intelligent demographic; and such studies received unwarranted approbation:
Broca’s conclusions were the shared assumptions of most successful white males at the time…They began with conclusions, peered through their facts, and came back in a circle to the same conclusions.
Of course, this is an example of an expert unconsciously manipulating his results to prove a point. Where Nichols believes confirmation bias is most problematic is among the public. If a major finding is proven wrong, the expert is exposed as a fraud. Already wary of experts’ advice and findings, we now have proof justifying our suspicions. Meanwhile, the myriad times experts were correct slip through the cracks of collective memory.
This scepticism is not unfounded. In the latter half of the book, Nichols provides a comprehensive view into how and why experts fail. In theory, experts have a duty to provide the public with advice; in turn, the public trusts them to deliver accurate information. While most studies undergo an intense vetting and critique process, known as peer review, the system is not air-tight. ‘In some cases,’ Nichols writes, ‘the whole enterprise can turn into back-scratching, score-settling, favoritism, and all the other petty behavior to which human beings are prone.’ A few studies leak through with groundbreaking findings that may not be true, often putting lives at risk. Expertise demands trust, and when it goes wrong, the public feels betrayed. Like a child catching his mother slipping a pound underneath his pillow instead of a glittering tooth fairy, the public cries, ‘if this is true, what other lies are we being fed?’.
Before turning to the public once again, Nichols draws an important parallel. Experts are still humans, and they too can be deluded about the limits of their knowledge:
One of the most common errors experts make is to assume that because they are smarter than most people about certain things, they are smarter than everyone about everything. They see their expert knowledge as a license to hold court about anything.
The inability to confess, ‘I don’t know’ is not exclusive to the public. However, this is perhaps where our resentment lies; the expert boasts superior knowledge in one subject, so we assume they are haughty know-it-alls. Acknowledging that we are all guilty of this creates more realistic expectations of experts.
Even the highest offices in a nation, which once demanded due respect, play a game of Chinese Whispers every day. Experts are employed to weigh in on major policy decisions, but they may find their advice distorted; policymakers may use statistics for their personal agendas, cite the study, and completely misconstrue what the expert was originally saying. When these motions push against the public’s will or wellbeing, blame falls on the expert. We can find examples of this miscommunication, with the expert as the bullet-riddled messenger, in our daily lives.
The anti-vaccination movement is one such example. Despite hard evidence that vaccinations are not linked to causing autism, scores of individuals still refused to vaccinate their children. Experts were framed as disconnected from the people; no matter how irrefutable their evidence, their arguments fell flat. Nichols calls it ‘peacockery. It’s ‘“look at how in tune with the plight of the average man I am” … They hadn’t thought through what would happen if they actually got their way.’ This raises the interesting concept that populism, the ideology behind many of these movements, ultimately reinforces elitism. Nichols clarifies in our interview, ‘there’s no real experience in the modern world of populism being a successful means of doing anything, whether it’s governing the country or delivering the mail or keeping the lights on.’ The populists reign, they disappoint, and experts shake their heads.
In the same breath, those campaigning for the death of expertise will discredit pollsters using expert-acquired statistics to reinforce their arguments. It is not uncommon to hear, ‘The polls said…’ Look carefully; you will see they did not. They predicted an outcome. Humans have always sought concrete answers to what will happen next. Now that we have the ability to calculate results through surveys and statistical methods, we expect more accurate predictions. Unfortunately, pollsters are still dealing with the same subject the oracles and cunning folk dealt with centuries ago: fickle, stubborn human beings. We change our opinions daily, and tell surveyors and pollsters what they want to hear. Is it any wonder polls on controversial issues yield such skewed results?
On a simpler scale, we even castigate meteorologists for being unreliable. Did it rain when there was a good chance of clear skies? That does not mean meteorologists are always wrong. Although there’s an 80% chance of sun, there’s still a 20% chance it will rain. There was no definite yes or no in that prediction, and yet we often construe it as a written guarantee of future results.
Experts are humanised when we acknowledge such complications. In our interview, I ask Nichols if experts participating in televised debates – the sort found on FOX News and BBC’s HARDTalk – could demonstrate to the public that there is a human behind the research. He disagrees. Although appearing on television may bring an expert down from a pedestal, it also lowers experts to the level of their provocateur. Screaming matches make for great television, and many hosts will bait their guests with invasive, immature jabs. If the expert takes the bait, their professional image is undermined for an audience of millions. Nichols adds, ‘I don’t think outreach means jumping into a mud-wrestling match.’ Professionalism must supersede any emotional combat.
Toward the end of the book, Nichols directs his argument to the reader. Whether or not the public is solely responsible for the death of expertise, we do have a responsibility to stay informed, be patient, and treat discussions as just that: an open forum in which to learn, not an opportunity to pontificate what we think we know.
On the first point, Nichols initially comments on how uninformed the public is, and it’s true: many people exist without politics touching their daily lives. Of course, assuming one is absolved from political responsibility is flippant, as politics affects everything including one’s freedom to ignore it. Unfortunately, this dismissal leads to a shameful lack of political knowledge. The public does too little ‘to remedy the gap between their own knowledge and the level of information required to participate in an advanced democracy.’ In Western nations, the word ‘democracy’ is tossed around as a synonym for freedom and our superiority over whichever nation we’re invading this year. The media often does not help, of course. Indeed, ‘the whole exercise of staying informed has become a kind of post-modern exercise in irony and cynicism, with words like ‘truth’ and ‘information’ meaning whatever people want them to mean.’ What Nichols means is, due to the pluralistic nature of the Internet – how we can find an article on anything and subscribe to sources that agree with our biases – staying ‘informed’ means very little. It becomes a buzzword, connoting that one has read an article on a certain topic and formed a highly subjective opinion on the matter.
Despite the surfeit of contradictory information that surrounds us on a daily basis, staying informed is not futile. A particularly enlightening section of Death of Expertise is its four-point guide to media scrutiny. First, be humble. It is not foolish to assume that the author of an article knows more about a subject than you do; rather, it allows you to listen to their piece and determine at the end whether they are right or wrong. Second, be ecumenical. Try to read sources from other countries, from ideologies that disagree with you, or from alternative perspectives.
Third, be discriminating. Do not take the word of a blog entry on The Telegraph, Breitbart or Everyday Feminism as gospel. ‘Websites that are outlets for political movements, or other, even worse enterprises that cater specifically to zealots or fools,’ are not the places to go for accurate information even if they agree with you. And fourth, do not be cynical; do not let yourself succumb to the ‘all experts are liars’ maxim.
One area in which the book falters is its chapter on higher education. Nichols argues that university recruitment has become so highly commodified that the actual experience of university is more like a vacation than an intellectual challenge. College students all too often become arrogant to the point where they believe they know more than the experts entrusted—and paid—to educate them. Here, Nichols leans slightly too far into the chasm of millennial-scapegoating. Of course, these claims that the current generation of college students is more spoiled than before are grounded in experience, but again the question arises whether this is a new phenomenon. In 1919, Bertrand Russell wrote of Norbert Weiner, at the time a Cambridge student, ‘The youth has been flattered, and thinks himself God Almighty— there is a perpetual contest between him and me as to which is to do the teaching.’ Russell felt that his expertise was being called into question by a proud youth, a sentiment shared among professors nowadays when students use classroom time to pontificate instead of learn. They forget ‘the admission to college is the beginning, not the end, of education, and that respecting a person’s opinion does not mean granting equal respect to that person’s knowledge’, as Nichols explains.
Nichols also takes issue with the current trend of addressing professors by first name and being able to email them directly, as it lowers students’ respect for them. ‘Email,’ he writes, ‘is a great equalizer, and it makes students comfortable with the idea of messages to teachers as communication with a customer service department.’ Despite the Internet’s propensity to equalize communication through voiceless text, we can, and do, still address superiors formally. However, while it may increase familiarity, it allows us the ability to establish a good rapport with the expert who will assess our performance.
In our interview, Nichols identified an important factor that ties this chaos together: social resentment. We make demands of experts in any field that we would never make of ourselves: to predict the future, discover cures to fatal diseases, gauge the morale of an entire nation, determine the health benefits of food, ensure the quality of products we use daily—the list is endless. And yet we still love exposing them, exclaiming, ‘Ha! You may have a PhD, but you don’t know everything!’ From grade school onward, resentment for intellectuals arises in terms such as Smart Alec and Teacher’s Pet—petty labels for those who demonstrate competence in academic subjects. It does not mean they are superior, nor does it imply they think so either. Rather than celebrating their abilities, we shame them. As Nichols laments, ‘people take a great pleasure in that because they don’t like being told that their view is not worth as much as anybody else’s.’ And that is not true; one person’s excellence is not intended to silence another’s.
Wherever the blame may fall, our biggest issue nowadays is that we prefer to accuse rather than negotiate. We admonish professionals for being unqualified, disconnected, and privileged, and refuse to acknowledge how large a part their research plays in our everyday lives. Although their responsibility is to keep the public informed, we too must understand even the most intelligent among us have limits. That does not render their qualifications useless—they still have something important to say, and it is our duty to listen.
As the interview comes to an end, Nichols remarks how astonished he was that The Death of Expertise has received international recognition. Although it focuses on the American public, it reflects what may be a global trend. Indeed, it will also be translated into seven languages. If nothing else, this is a sign that the world wants to understand what has happened, and hopes it is not too late to resurrect some respect for expertise.