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

Part 1 of this two-part essay and review of The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols was published on April 17, 2018.

Tom Nichols tells us in the introductory chapter that his book "is 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). His treatment of the first two elements is coherent and well-documented, his points on the whole well-taken. On the third, however, he promises more than is delivered:

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. Laypeople cannot do without experts, and they must accept this without rancor. Experts, likewise, must accept that their advice, which must seem obvious and right to them, will not always be taken in a democracy that may not value the same things they do. Otherwise, when democracy is understood as an unending demand for unearned respect for unfounded opinions, anything and everything becomes possible, including the end of democracy and republican government itself. (p. 238)

In short, he demands humility for experts, education, civic virtue, and proper deference to experts for laypeople. This is all well and good, but it does not get us very far. My pessimistic view is that many of us will nod our shaggy heads in agreement and not a doubt in our military minds that this critique applies to others, not to ourselves. What we can do concretely and specifically to get from where we are today to where he thinks we should be remains up in the air.

Raymond Aron went too far, and maybe he was deliberately overstating it for effect, when he said, "Men, and especially intellectuals, believe what they want to believe—me as well, perhaps—and are, in the final analysis impervious to arguments." I like to think that we are not always impervious to arguments that run counter to deeply held beliefs and convictions. Without question, though, we do tend to resist them. I am all in with Tom Nichols when he calls for education and civic virtue. But where does it get us when at the outset we face conflicting notions about just what constitutes civic virtue? How do we make Nichols' call more than an empty platitude?

The problems and issues that concern Nichols are nothing new. They have been with us at least as far back as history goes. Plato's dialogues document and examine the same mental errors, habits, and processes that lead to the kinds of false conclusions that agitate Nichols and me:

…people believing what they want or what they are predisposed to believe (confirmation bias); asserting whatever comes most readily to mind (availability bias); reversing their opinions about identical propositions based on the language in which the propositions are presented (framing); refusing to relinquish current opinions simply because these happen to be the opinions they currently possess (a cognitive version of loss aversion); making false inferences based on the size and representativeness of a sample of a broader population (representativeness heuristic); and judging new information based on salient current information (a version of anchoring). (Nick Romeo, Platonically Irrational)

These ballyhooed discoveries in the field of behavioral economics, "one of the major intellectual developments of the past 50 years," endowed by the techniques of experimental psychology with a patina of rigor and authenticity, couched in newfangled terminology and jargon, echo observations that have been articulated in a variety of guises by Plato, Aristotle, and a host of other thinkers within the Western intellectual tradition, giants on whose shoulders we stand, as my old philosophy professor Dr. Matsen liked to say. I have in mind the Western tradition here because that is the one with which I am most familiar. I would wager, say, the coffee beverage of choice, that similar observations can be found in other intellectual traditions.

Nichols' book has implications and raises further questions he does not get into. Maybe they have not occurred to him. Maybe he would dismiss them as inconsequential or the cavils of a blockhead. I do not bring this up to criticize Nichols for falling short because he fails to pursue his inquiry as far as he might. Rather, I want to suggest that his work points the way to a broader discussion.

One searches in vain for a sense that citizens might have a voice in public discourse or a role in the civic process other than to seek out experts, listen respectfully to them without rancor, and cast their votes for representatives who will decide what advice to heed and which policies to implement. This comes perilously close to an elitist presumption calling for ordinary citizens to genuflect before and pay obeisance to their betters, which is among the grudges nursed by Trump's base and plenty of their counterparts on the left. This is an exaggeration that is not fair to Nichols, but it is how he would be read by some individuals and groups whose ways of thinking he would like to influence for the better.

We are advised to seek information from a variety of sources, including sources whose perspective and opinions are at odds with our own, to vet our sources, to think critically about what we find there, and to subject our own opinions to critical examination. Who would object to this advice? Following it, people being what we are, is somewhat more complicated. Moreover, this guidance does not help much when experts disagree, which is not uncommon in the realms of social science and public policy, Nichols' own areas of expertise, and happens even in the "hard" sciences.

For example, economists Paul Krugman and Douglas Holtz-Eakin are men of distinction in their field. Krugman is professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics, and the 2008 recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics. Holtz-Eakin has been a professor at Columbia University and Syracuse University, chief economist of the president's council of economic advisers (2001–2002), and director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (2003–2005), and is now president of the American Action Forum, a center-right policy institute that promotes "innovative, free-market solutions to create a smaller, smarter government."

Who are we to take as the authority when they butt heads about what economic policies would be best for the country? (For examples, see this NPR interview with the Krugman and Holtz-Eakin on January 29, 2014, and Ezra Klein's interview with Krugman published on December 14, 2017). How do we decide who to believe about how best to address income inequality or the effects of the tax cuts on the economy, future tax revenues, and the federal deficit? It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of it will come down to our own predispositions, however much we attempt to subject that and expert opinion to critical examination.

Then there is the little matter of disinformation campaigns conducted by industry groups and free-market fundamentalists, such as those waged by the tobacco industry to discredit scientific research that links smoking and cancer and the fossil-fuel industry to cast doubt on the science about global warming and climate change. These operations are well-funded and slickly produced to give the appearance that they represent legitimate scientific dissent. Ferreting out what is honest dissent and what is malicious disinformation can be challenging.

Nichols aims for a balanced presentation that steers clear of partisanship. Unfortunately, this approach ignores partisan tactics and programs of the past fifty years that have encouraged distrust and resentment of experts and elites. He makes no mention of Ronald Reagan's maxim that government is the problem, period, and its corrosive effect on public policy. The same goes for the scorched-earth tactics pushed by Newt Gingrich and others on the right that deliberately fostered societal divisions from which they hoped to profit politically and economically. Impugning the character, motives, and patriotism of Democrats became standard operating procedure. This has been going on for decades. Yes, we get some of that garbage from Democrats and comrades further to the left. Denigration and calls for excommunication of "damn centrists" come from both sides. Nonetheless, I defer on this point to the work of Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and Thomas E. Mann, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the venerable Brookings Institution, who make the case that the Republican Party bears primary responsibility for the dysfunction that paralyzes our political system in their book It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (2012). For a concise presentation of their views, see Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann, How the GOP Prompted the Decay of Political Norms.

Concluding thoughts, ventured with no claim to expertise. The problems and issues taken up by Tom Nichols are nothing new or unique to present-day America. A tradition of anti-intellectualism is part of American heritage dating back to the colonial era. Flawed ways of thinking and judgment are as much a part of human being as taxes and death. It may well be that social conditions and technological innovations of the 21st century, the internet, social media, the 24/7 news cycle, &c., make for an environment where these practices and attitudes thrive and become more destructive of the social fabric and body politic than in the past. Or it may be that those same social conditions and technological innovations create a misperception that these problems are more pervasive than they are or than they were in the past. Either way, these are intractable problems that have been with us throughout human history. They have bedeviled our democracy from its inception. They admit of no easy remedy.

I happened on a relevant remark in a review of a book by Fintan O'Toole about George Bernard Shaw. Reviewer Simon Callow quotes O'Toole regarding today's

...all-purpose cynicism about ideas and institutions that is also strangely akin to gullibility. Instead of the Shavian ideal that all truths must be questioned and tested, there is the notion that there is no truth at all—and therefore lies don't much matter. (Simon Callow, Superman in Tweeds, The New York Review, April 19, 2018)

As I contemplated Nichols and hacked away at this piece I was struck by how often reading and study taken up for reasons unrelated to this project turned out to be relevant and shed light on it in some way or other. Raymond Aron is a ready example. Nick Romeo's essay on Plato and Callow's review with the O'Toole quote are others. I want to believe that there must be a place in public discourse about issues of the day for the kind of perspective acquired in this manner just as there is a place for disciplined study of a particular subject in which one acquires expertise. This line of thought is prompted by an obvious question that arises on a personal level but extends beyond that. Where does Nichols leave someone like me? Where does he leave others far more accomplished than I am? Is there no place for us in public debate about subjects where we are by Nichols' definition without expertise?

Albert Camus wrote an editorial titled "Democracy and Modesty" that was published April 30, 1947, in the French Resistance newspaper Combat, where he served as editor in chief from 1944–1947. Camus was writing in a divided France trying to remake itself socially, economically, and politically after the war with scars from the conflict still fresh. It was not America in 2018, but the divisions, the partisan rancor, and the self-righteousness exhibited on all sides strike us as dismally familiar today. Camus's thoughts about democracy, the notion of party, and the call for a dose of modesty are as timely now, and I fear as little likely to be heeded, as they were in 1947.

There may be no good political regime, but democracy is surely the least bad of the alternatives. Democracy is inseparable from the notion of party, but the notion of party can easily do without democracy. That happens when one party or group imagines itself to be in possession of the absolute truth. That is why the [French] Assembly and deputies of today need to ingest a dose of modesty.

After all, a democrat is a person who admits that his adversary may be right, who therefore allows him to speak, and who agrees to consider his arguments. When parties and people are so convinced by their own arguments that they are willing to resort to violence to silence those who disagree with them, democracy no longer exists. Modesty is therefore salutary in republics at all times.

Camus was not a philosopher by training or profession. Philosophical aspects of his writings drew criticism from Jean-Paul Sartre, his friend for a time, Aron, and others. Neither was he a political scientist. Nonetheless he made contributions on a wide range of issues, among them terrorism, political violence, suicide, and the death penalty. Our culture would be poorer, we would be poorer, if he had been relegated to the sidelines because he was not deemed to be an expert on these subjects.

I am as frustrated as Tom Nichols or anyone else by the wholesale rejection of unwelcome news and information as "fake news," by the denial of scientific consensus without scientific justification for that denial, by dismissal of experts as intellectual elitists, by the willful obtuseness of parties and people who imagine themselves alone to be in possession of truth. It can seem that voices most worth being heard, the ones we might profit from, are lost in the roar of bombast, cant, and blather when "democracy is understood as an unending demand for unearned respect for unfounded opinions." Alas, that horse is long out of the barn and disappeared over the hills.

Respect for experts does not preclude healthy skepticism and questioning in good faith. There is in democracy a place for citizens to speak out on issues of the day even when they are not experts on the subject at hand and, yes, even to voice respectful dissent from the views of those who are. This is more than just a right. It is a matter of integrity and civic duty to stand and be counted as best we can by way of whatever forums are open to us. It is a matter of intellectual honesty to take up our causes with a measure of modesty and humility, knowing it is always possible we are wrong. We answer those with whom we differ not by silencing them but by the strength of our example. It is what we have. It is what we can do.

Tom Nichols makes a valuable contribution to discussion that needs to be had about the state of our democracy. We need voices like his raising these issues in the public arena. I have tried to present his views with fairness. I wonder now if it would have been better to aim for a brief synopsis instead getting down in the weeds on individual issues as much as I did, not to mention the digressions to which I fall prey. On the other hand, the subject merits far more extensive treatment. The work is always incomplete, and ongoing. Keep the faith. References and Related Reading

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