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Tom Nichols and the death of expertise; or, experts and the rest of us (Part 1 of 2)

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols Oxford University Press [2017], 252 pp.

I got a little carried away on this one. I hope readers who plow through it find something of interest and merit. Thanks for bearing with me.

Our collective inability or unwillingness to distinguish reputable authorities and reliable sources of news and information from knaves, charlatans, and Orwellian propagandists is notorious and by many indications metastasizing. Indifference to truth and facts infects the highest levels of government and business and oozes down from there to spread through the body politic. Unless, maybe, the plague starts with "we the people" and is drawn up to leadership levels in government and the private sector alike as ambitious sorts climb and claw their way to power. We take up sides across chasms of cultural divide and prowl the internet for "facts" that are in our accord with our disposition. The social fabric gets shredded.

Cultural divisions are fodder for thoughtful commentary, agitated bloviation, learned discourse, and gusts of windbaggery transmitted via pen, word processor, television broadcast, and Twitter feed by a staggering array of intellectuals and experts, pundits and bloggers, scholars, hacks, and demagogues. The line between informed analysis and infected cant or gibberish that spreads the contagion is not always clear. Sorting it all out would be a challenge at the best of times. These are not the best of times.

Tom Nichols plunges into these murky waters with The Death of Expertise, a cri de coeur "about the relationship between experts and citizens in a democracy, why that relationship is collapsing, and what all of us, citizens and experts, can do about it" (p. 6). Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School, and a former aide in the US Senate. A conservative who joined the Republican Party in 1978, Nichols came out as a Never Trump Republican during the 2016 campaign. In an opinion column that appeared in USA Today earlier this year, he declared that he now considers himself a Republican in exile who believes the GOP has no future unless it loses in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential elections, purges the New Know-Nothings who presently dominate the party, and remakes itself.

The book grew out of an essay of the same title published in The Federalist in 2014. The opening paragraphs of the essay give a sense of Nichols' perspective and style:

I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.

I never thought those were particularly controversial statements. As it turns out, they’re plenty controversial. Today, any assertion of expertise produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious "appeals to authority," sure signs of dreadful "elitism," and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a "real" democracy. I fear we are witnessing the "death of expertise": a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

Nichols uses the words "professionals," "intellectuals," and "experts" interchangeably

in the broader sense of people who have mastered particular skills and bodies of knowledge as their main occupation in life…. Put another way, experts are the people who know considerably more on a subject than the rest of us, and those to whom we turn when we need advice, education, or solutions in a particular area of human knowledge (p. 29).

The issues that concern him are familiar features of the American landscape in the 21st century. His book's contribution lies in its lucid, well-documented summary and analysis of his subject, with copious endnotes and a useful index.

Nichols does not shy away from strong claims, as when he asserts that the death of expertise is "fundamentally a rejection of science and dispassionate rationality, which are the foundations of modern civilization" (p. 5). He holds that the belief that the democratic principle of equality means my opinion as good as that of anyone else is not uncommon and counters that presumption without mincing words:

Having equal rights does not mean having equal talents, equal abilities, or equal knowledge. It assuredly does not mean that "everyone's opinion about anything is as good as anyone else's." And yet, this is now enshrined as the credo of a number of people despite being obvious nonsense.

When people do seek out "experts" they turn to those who are readily accessible at the University of Google and who already agree with their views. Information that conflicts with what they believe is unwelcome and dismissed as "fake news." The principle of honorable disagreement between women and men of good faith is a quaint remnant of a bygone, perhaps mythical era. "We no longer have principled and informed arguments…. People don't just believe dumb things; they actively resist learning rather than let go of those beliefs" (pp. x, xi).

What kinds of "dumb things" does he have in mind? The usual suspects are trotted out, and you do not have to crawl under many rocks to find them. Conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and celebrity endorsement of quackery are as American as jazz, zombie movies, and March Madness. Barack Obama is a secret Muslim born in Africa. Voter fraud is rampant. Vaccines cause autism. The attacks of September 2001 were a false-flag operation. Climate change remains an open question if not an outright hoax perpetrated by liberals, socialists, and radical environmentalists pursuing an agenda of one-world government maintained by UN black helicopters. Or something.

The death of expertise matters because it threatens to undermine democracy. The complexity of modern life and the size and complexity of government necessitate a social division of labor and a reliance on experts, professionals, and intellectuals within their respective realms. This is nothing new and not just an American phenomenon. Fifty years ago, writing on the subject of the events of May 1968, French intellectual Raymond Aron spoke of the voluntary self-discipline and cooperation essential to the functioning of modern society with its need for production, for organization, for a technical hierarchy, the need for a techno-bureaucracy, &c. Chafe as we might about deferring to experts, we kind of need them.

American distrust of intellectual authority is not something that suddenly appeared on the scene in the 21st-century. Nichols makes passing mention of this and offers pithy quotes from science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov and Alexis de Tocqueville. From Tocqueville: "In most of the operations of the mind, each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding" (quoted on p. 17). Nichols, Asimov, and Tocqueville have plenty of company. The charge that anti-intellectualism is deeply rooted in American culture is itself deeply rooted in American intellectual culture. Likewise, the conviction that American intellectual culture is un-American, or at any rate antithetical to traditional American values, is just as deeply rooted in certain quarters that style themselves conservative and claim to represent the real America.

Nichols distinguishes between healthy skepticism about experts and active resentment of them because they are experts. I'm not sure how far he is willing to go in terms of what he would deem healthy skepticism. He can be touchy about laypeople with the temerity to weigh in on his areas of expertise, such as arms control and foreign policy. As with much else, the line between healthy skepticism and unjustified rejection of expert opinion, and where one crosses over into the other, is not hard and fast. Reasonable people might come to different conclusions in particular cases.

Nichols makes another round-up of usual suspects when he assesses cause, responsibility, and blame for the demise of expertise. Higher education, the internet, Facebook, Google, and journalism all get their place on the docket and are found guilty, guilty, guilty. I am being a little glib here, so I want to be clear that I share Nichols' concerns and agree with much of what he says, albeit with caveats here and there, some more substantial than others, about which I will have more to say at the end of the second part of this essay.

The chapter on higher education is liberally sprinkled with buzzwords and phrases like culture of affirmation, self-actualization, safe spaces, and sense of entitlement. This may sound like Nichols is setting up a by-the-numbers attack from the right on an academic establishment dominated by liberal elites, but that is not at all what he is up to.

College at its best, says Nichols, "should produce students with a reasonable background in a subject, a willingness to continue learning for the rest of their lives, and an ability to assume roles as capable citizens" (p. 73). Nothing exceptional here. I think more in terms of an impulse, at its best a passion, to continue learning rather than mere willingness, but that is just me, and at any rate the distinction matters little for his purposes.

Nichols contends that what today's students get is a far cry from college at its best. College is a commodity where students are consumers of a "client-centered experience" delivered in a culture of affirmation and self-actualization that forbids confronting children with failure. Grades are meant to raise self-esteem rather than spur achievement. Students believe that their failure to get an A is evidence of poor instruction by the teacher (Nichols has had students tell him this). Astoundingly, this attitude is said to be shared and encouraged by college administrators. It is no wonder that students come away with a sense of entitlement, unfounded self-confidence, and neither the knowledge and skill that form expertise nor the ability to recognize it in others.

These problems are compounded by the common wisdom that everyone needs to attend college to "get ahead" (encouraged by admissions officers who see students as a source of tuition) and an educational system that churns out students who are unprepared for a higher education, in need of remedial courses, and in many cases would be better served by trade school. The net result is that college attendance is not a guarantee that people know what they are talking about.

For the record, Nichols does not take up for-profit colleges, which he considers to be "largely only factories for debt" and excludes from his definition of "higher education." I have no quarrel with him on this point.

I wonder if Nichols goes overboard at times. Is the state of higher education really this bad? Maybe it is. And maybe it only seems so because of anecdotal evidence from the deluge of reports about excesses, absurdities, and nuttiness that undeniably occur and make for great headlines. Be that as it may, much of what he says strikes me as plausible, with only the extent of it perhaps open to question. Of course, my judgment about this is based on anecdotal evidence garnered mostly by way of scattershot reading rather than systematic study or first-hand experience. How much weight would Nichols give it? I am after all no expert.

Nichols gives an idea of what he expects from students with an anecdote about a former teacher for whom he has a high regard. Father James Schall at Georgetown University "would shock his political philosophy students" at the first class meeting by handing out an essay he wrote titled "What a Student Owes His Teacher." This excerpt is quoted by Nichols:

The first obligation, particularly operative during the first few weeks of a new semester, is a moderately good will toward the teacher, trust, a confidence that is willing to admit to oneself that the teacher has probably been through the matter, and, unlike the student, knows where it all leads. I do not want here to neglect the dangers of the ideological professor, of course, the one who imposes his mind on what is. But to be a student requires a certain modicum of humility.

Thus, the student owes the teacher trust, docility, effort, thinking. (p. 87)

It so happens that earlier this year I put some time in with French sociologist, historian, and political commentator Raymond Aron (1905–1983), first by way of Tony Judt's book The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century, then Aron's The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of a Student Revolt, where he reflects on the events of May 1968, when French students and some professors occupied French universities and general strikes threatened to bring down the government. Aron, who today might labeled a man of the center-right, makes a number of observations about the French system of higher education in the 1960s that are in line with Nichols' critique of the American system some fifty years later, albeit with a slightly different slant.

For instance, Aron speaks of the student-teacher relationship in terms of "the reciprocal tolerance of the teaching staff and the voluntary discipline of the students," which he asserts is the university's only moral foundation (The Elusive Revolution, p. 37). This sense of reciprocity in the relationship between teachers and students gets short shrift from Nichols. A teacher should be able to expect good will, respect, and serious intellectual effort from students. But it cuts both ways. The book could have benefited from more attention to what teachers owe students.

Like Nichols, Aron is critical of a university system that churns out more teachers than the market can absorb and accepts too many students who would be well-advised to attend trade school instead. As for the accusation that professors have an ideological agenda, Aron made a distinction between "exposing all the various doctrines" associated with a subject and "imposing one single doctrine and rejecting all the others":

I agree that even the teaching of the history of art could reveal some vague political implications if one looked hard enough for them. There are always political implications in the teaching of sociology, without any doubt at all. But everyone is perfectly well aware of the difference between exposing all the various doctrines as objectively as possible, and setting out the arguments for and against them; and imposing one single doctrine and rejecting all the others…. We are probably all guilty of partiality in various ways, but as long as everyone was in agreement about the need to observe the ethic of the liberal university, almost everyone felt obliged to resist temptations towards partiality. (pp. 56, 57)

Each of us comes to any subject from a distinct perspective and point of view. We can acknowledge that a teacher's point of view will flavor the presentation to students and still presume that most teachers act in good faith, accept the ethic of the liberal university, and feel obliged to resist temptations toward partiality. What has become of the ethic of the liberal university is another topic worth pondering. Perhaps we will take this up at another time.

Nichols devotes separate chapters to the internet and journalism. This makes sense insofar as it breaks them down into more manageable chunks. However, there is a lot of entanglement and overlap because the internet and social media vie with traditional print publication and television news as avenues for news dissemination. Even at NPR newscasters cannot remind listeners too often that we can check out their Twitter feeds. The internet gives us free access to more journals, periodicals, and ostensible news sites than we could ever skim, much less read, and easy subscription to many others, much of it of questionable validity and dubious provenance. Moreover, the fusing of entertainment, news, punditry, and citizen participation is, says Nichols, "a chaotic mess that does not so much inform people as it creates the illusion of being informed" (p. 143).

How can people be more resistant to facts and knowledge in a world where they are constantly barraged with facts and knowledge? The short answer where journalism is concerned—in an explanation that could be applied to many modern innovations—is that technology collided with capitalism and gave people what they wanted, even when it wasn't good for them. (pp. 138, 139)

One given to reflection and a healthy skepticism might ponder how much it is a matter of capitalism giving people what they want and how much is driven by capitalism's incentives for business to generate new wants and desires as today's luxuries are converted into tomorrow's necessities, &c., while more mundane necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, and health care suffer benign neglect or worse. Here, as elsewhere, Nichols touches on themes that merit further thought and discussion.

When it comes to the internet, Nichols invokes Sturgeon's Law, which holds that "ninety percent of everything is crap." By the bye, Sturgeon's Law, also known as Sturgeon's Revelation, is the brainchild of science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who threw it out in a talk given at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1953. Sturgeon was defending science fiction against highbrow critics who blithely dismissed the genre as without literary merit. As recollected by James Gunn (Sturgeon's Law), Sturgeon said:

When people talk about the mystery novel, they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. When they talk about the western, they say there's The Way West and Shane. But when they talk about science fiction, they call it "that Buck Rogers stuff," and they say "ninety percent of science fiction is crud."

Well, they're right. Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud, and it's the ten percent that isn't crud that is important. And the ten percent of science fiction that isn't crud is as good as or better than anything being written anywhere.

I find it interesting and a little amusing that Nichols calls on science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon, major figures in their field, for ideas or comments supporting his arguments. Now Asimov also had a Ph.D. in chemistry and wrote many essays and books about science for a popular audience. I do not mean to brand him or Sturgeon as "mere" science fiction writers. I read them both with pleasure many years ago when science fiction nurtured my sense of wonder and love of reading. They do not, though, qualify as experts on the subjects for which Nichols enlists their opinions in support of points he wishes to make. From this it appears that intelligent, thoughtful people who are not experts may nonetheless be able to make relevant contributions to the discussion, a theme to which I will return at the end.

The point here is not to bash the internet. It is a wonderful resource that I would not want to be without. The references listed at the end of this article (Part 2) would have been exceedingly difficult to compile and consult without the internet, if it could be done at all. The darker side is that a boatload of information readily and easily available is crud, misinformation, or deliberate disinformation. Confirming its validity or the reliability of the source can be far from easy, requiring a lot more research, digging, and fact checking than many of us are willing or able to invest in it. As a consequence, even conscientious individuals can be led astray.

The problem is exacerbated by confirmation bias, a tendency to look for information that confirms what we already believe, and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a psychological principle documented by Cornell psychologist David Dunning and his then-grad student Justin Kruger:

…people who are ignorant or unskilled in a given domain tend to believe they are much more competent than they are. Thus bad drivers believe they're good drivers, the humorless think they know what's funny, and people who've never held public office think they'd make a terrific president. (William Poundstone, The Dunning-Kruger President)

As my old college chum Clay Carruth used to say, there's not a doubt in their military minds.

As for journalism, journalists make mistakes just like everyone else. So do experts, of which more anon. Nichols claims it happens more frequently today because journalists, especially young journalists, are often less knowledgeable than their predecessors typically were. He acknowledges, in defense of today's practitioners of the journalistic arts, that they are put in an impossible situation by the demands of a marketplace dominated by a merciless 24/7 news cycle that has no tolerance for the time and research required to provide in-depth analysis and coverage of complicated subjects.

The internet and social media play into the relentless cycle and into transforming news from what was once ostensibly a public service into a consumer product or a propaganda tool to advance an agenda. So does Fox News. There is no getting around the "revolutionary change" represented by Fox when it came on the scene in 1996 and "made the news faster, slicker, and with the addition of news readers who were actually beauty queens, prettier" than it was in the heyday of Harry Reasoner and Walter Cronkite. "Fox put the last nail in the coffin of the news broadcast as a nominally apolitical view of the day's events" (p. 153).

Another error journalists make is misuse of the Fairness Doctrine and the principle of "equal time." On its face the Fairness Doctrine is unobjectionable. What could be more fair and ethical than to present both sides of an issue? Problems arise, and the public debate is skewed, when a fringe belief is presented alongside the consensus viewpoint of those with expertise on the subject at hand as if these were simply two opinions of equal weight and validity being offered for the reader or listener to choose between them.

In the interest of full disclosure, I note that Nichols calls out Vox, one of my go-to resources, on three separate occasions for journalism that left something to be desired (pp. 135, 171). Vox acknowledged and corrected the errors cited by Nichols, as should be expected of any reputable publication. Still, the examples serve as a good reminder that we should not rely on any single source of news and information. And in any case a healthy skepticism is always warranted, whatever the source.

I leave to readers to make what they will of the fact that Nichols himself has from time to time been consulted by Vox journalists and quoted in articles for the site, most recently for an interview where he was queried about the prospect of John Bolton as the new national security adviser. I take it that he does not consider Vox to be totally discredited by its occasional errors and lapses.

Whoa, Nelly, the less charitable among us might bellow along about here, and maybe not for the first time. Nichols' area of expertise is social science and public policy. Is he, by his own standards, permitted to present himself as an authority on higher education, the internet, and journalism? To his credit, in the chapter on journalism he acknowledges his lack of expertise in that field. Then he proceeds to forge ahead undeterred.

Those less charitably disposed might also question his description of the antivaccination movement's Jenny McCarthy as "a Playboy pinup who says she studied it all deeply at the 'University of Google'" (pp. 190, 191). It has been a long time since I studied logic, but this bears a suspicious resemblance to the classic argumentum ad hominem fallacy, where an attack on the character or conduct of a person is substituted for reasoned argumentation. The implication is that a Playboy pinup could not possibly have the background and intellect to acquire expertise in the subject. I am being a little bit of a wise guy here, because I think this is a relatively minor matter, a harmless enough dig that can be too easy to pass up even when we should know better. I have been guilty of this kind of thing myself, and probably will again sooner or later. It does not invalidate Nichols' point that McCarthy, the well-intentioned mother of a child diagnosed with autism, is a public spokesperson on a subject about which she is not just wrong but also ignores the scientific consensus, based on a wealth of research, that vaccines are not the cause of autism. It is only fair to call Nichols out on this point because he does not disguise his own disdain for people who do not follow or even know the rules of logical argument, which rather frown on the ad hominem technique. I do so more in the spirit of good-natured ribbing than serious objection. Nonetheless, it's fair to note.

Experts get things wrong too. And the consequences can be bad. The thalidomide story and the Challenger explosion are two egregious examples among a fair sampling offered by Nichols. Sometimes expert error comes from ordinary individual failings and human error, sometimes from errors or limitations inherent in the field, and sometimes from bad actors and misconduct. Nichols reminds readers that science is not a conclusion, and it is not certainty, but, rather, a process that "subjects itself to constant testing by a set of careful rules under which theories can only be displaced by better theories" (p. 176). Experts cannot guarantee outcomes or promise they will never make mistakes. "They can only promise to institute rules and methods that reduce the chance of such mistakes and to make those errors far less often than a layperson might" (p. 177).

I suspect that at least some people engaged in philosophy of science, another subject I have not studied in a long, long time, would peg the formulations of the preceding paragraph a tad naïve and simplistic. For our purposes here they are good enough, the point being that science has rules and methods for testing theories that reduce the chance of mistakes and an ethic that calls for uncovering and correcting mistakes and misconduct when they do happen.

The issue of replicability that troubles social science, psychology, and health care research is of relevance in this context but far beyond any area of expertise I might claim. I note only that some in the field consider it a crisis, while others hold that it is more of a problem than a crisis, and efforts are being made to address it. On this topic I recommend Steven Novella's piece at Science-Based Medicine and Ed Yong at The Atlantic. They make for interesting, if sometimes challenging, reading.

There is also the not inconsequential matter of distinction between "hard" sciences, the physical sciences such as chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy, and the "soft" sciences that interpret human behavior, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and the like. We think of the expertise of a physicist in ways that are a little from different from how we think of the expertise of a political scientist dealing in public affairs. Nichols tends to use "expert" as an all-purpose terms without getting into distinctions. My instinct is that they matter at least to some degree, but getting into them here could lead us far afield, and I have rambled enough already.

Experts can also go wrong when they try to move from explanation to prediction and when they weigh in on subjects outside their field of expertise, mistakes to which Nichols acknowledges that he himself has fallen prey. The eminent linguist Noam Chomsky makes for a good example, and an easy target, as an intellectual who is not shy about venturing outside the field where he is an authority to weigh in on political issues about which he is not well versed and presumably should remain silent. Intelligent people with expertise in a particular subject often think they are more knowledgeable about other, unrelated subjects than they really are. Maybe this is another effect Dunning and Kruger could study.

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