When I was in college, I was encouraged to read and to read broadly. I have tried to follow that advice. “Readers are leaders,” goes one saying. Most of the people who have influenced me and whom I respect the most have been readers, so maybe there is something to that. The reviews on this site are for books that I have personally read, were a help to me, and I recommend (sometimes with caveats) to you. I hope they will encourage you to start reading (if you don’t tend to) or read more and more broadly (if you already do).
- Author: Tom Nichols
- 238 pages
- Hardback, 2017
- Amazon, Thriftbooks, Alibris
Tom Nichols writes with concern about “the emergence of a positive hostility” (p. 20) toward established knowledge, specialized knowledge, or experts. According to Nichols, this attitude among the general populace has risen alongside
- The growing scope and complexity of information, especially within the political sphere (pp. 18-19; 43);
- The explosion of accessible (and mostly useless) information on the internet (pp. 107-108); and
- The retreat of “experts” into the world of academia, “[abandoning] their duty to engage with the public” (p. 5).
Nichols argues that “a modern society cannot function without… a reliance on experts, professionals, and intellectuals” (p. 14), terms he uses interchangeably.
“Specialized knowledge is inherent in every occupation, and so here I will use the words “professionals,” “intellectuals,” and “experts” interchangeably, in the broader sense of people who have mastered particular skills or bodies of knowledge and who practice those skills or use that knowledge as their main occupation in life.”p. 29
So why has our society grown to not only distrust experts, but to spurn them?
The average American citizen lacks a positive self-awareness (“metacognition”) which allows us to honestly evaluate our own knowledge and skills, and also too often suffers from confirmation bias, which “refers to the tendency to look for information that only confirms what we believe… and to dismiss data that challenge what we already accept as truth” (p. 47). There is also a kind of “peer pressure” to appear well-informed and intelligent which causes people to “fake it” when topics are raised for discussion.
“People skim headlines or articles and share them on social media, but they do not read them. Nonetheless, because people want to be perceived by others as intelligent and well informed, they fake it as best they can.”p. 66
The lack of self-awareness and the presence of confirmation bias also explains the ease with which many Americans latch on to conspiracy theories (pp. 54-61).
“…conspiracy theories are deeply attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and who have no patience for less dramatic explanations… [and] every expert who contradicts the theory is ipso facto part of the conspiracy.”p. 58, 60
Nichols explains that the above-mentioned attitudes have not been dissuaded by either American colleges and universities, by social media and the internet (especially Google), or by the “New” journalism. Of the former, Nichols describes convincingly that
“College is no longer a time devoted to learning and personal maturation; instead, the stampede of young Americans into college and the consequent competition for their tuition dollars have produced a consumer-oriented experience in which students learn, above all else, that the customer is always right.”pp. 70-71
What Nichols exposes in his chapter on “Higher Education” is shocking. However, Nichols reserves his most cynical and severe criticism for the Internet.
“…the Internet… allows people to mimic intellectual accomplishment by indulging in an illusion of expertise provided by a limitless supply of facts.”
“Some of the smartest people on earth have a significant presence on the Internet. Some of the stupidest people on the same planet, however, reside just one click away on the next page or hyperlink.”
“…the Internet is weakening the ability of laypeople and scholars alike to do basic research, a skill that would help everyone to navigate this wilderness of bad data.”pp.106, 108, 109
Many Americans are under the impression that because they have searched something on the Internet they have, therefore, researched it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“People do not do “research” so much as they “search for pretty pages online to provide answers they like with the least amount of effort and in the shortest time.”
“Accessing the Internet can actually make people dumber than if they had never engaged a subject at all.”p. 111, 119
Mr. Nichols does not negate the positive value of the Internet, but warns that the glut of information is adding to the chaos of bad information, not helping the average web-connected person know what is actually true.
Neither is Nichols Pollyanna about experts. He recognizes that experts do get things wrong (see Chapter 6). But there are reasons why we shouldn’t hold all experts to a standard of perfection, so that when experts get something wrong, we turn on all experts.
“Experts and professionals, just as people in other endeavors, assume that their previous successes and achievements are evidence of their superior knowledge, and they push the boundaries rather than say the three words every expert hates to say: ‘I don’t know.'”p. 189
Nichols’ conclusion places weight on citizens,
“Laypeople must take more responsibility for their own knowledge, or lack of it: it is no excuse to claim that the world is too complicated and there are too many sources of information, and then to lament that policy is in the hands of faceless experts who disdain the public’s views.”p. 207
and experts, especially intellectuals.
“The public is poorly served if the only people talking about a new medical treatment are doctors who have a hard time translating their knowledge into basic English… or journalists who have no scientific background [and] cannot evaluate complicated scientific claims.”p. 205
The message of The Death of Expertise is just what we as laypeople and experts need to hear. We all know the skepticism of all media that comes from exposure to media bias. We are all uncertain about the contradictory claims of doctors and medical experts. Yet Nichols’ book provides guidance for how we should be more suspicious of our own “knowledge,” more thoughtful about where we are getting our information, and more humble about the fact that we can’t know and understand everything that is going on in our world today.
Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash