“The Death of Expertise” Review: Tom Nichols Makes Important Points
Donald Trump’s election should easily prove to all that the death of expertise is upon us. Some 62 million people voted for a former TV star with no political or military experiences who, throughout the campaign, attacked sources of knowledge, boasted that he somehow knew more than the generals, and viciously attacked important democratic institutions. But for those still in doubt, Nichols’ treatise outlines how the death of expertise has gripped society beyond just politics, in fields ranging from the medical profession to schooling.
Nichols begins by outlining the psychology behind the death of expertise. Reviewing scientific literature, he points out the human proclivity to confirm biases rather than challenge them and for the uninformed to be overly (and unduly) confident in their skills (the Dunning-Kruger effect). The psychological phenomenon each contribute to the other as individuals hold bizarre beliefs, seek out confirmation of them, and then, without having rigorously studied or analyzed information, consider themselves experts in any given field.
To that point — the supposed democratization of expertise — “The Death of Expertise” blames the American mindset and recent innovations in information technology. Americans have always stressed (rugged) individualism. Likely emerging from the American Revolution as revolutionaries rebelled against the British monarch and other elites in Parliament and gathering momentum through the constitutional guarantee of individual rights and the decades of progress that led to “manifest destiny,” American individualism has always called for shunning so-called experts and largely decrying the economic, professional, and cultural elite.
Today, the internet, as Nichols points out, has facilitated that perceived individualism. People believe that with a few clicks of the mouse and glances at top-ranked websites that they can become experts in any given field, from medical diagnosis to foreign affairs. Of course, that’s not possible, but believing it is reinvigorates the American beliefs that elites need not — should not — be trusted.
The Death of Expertise and Academics
In an interesting and counterintuitive chapter, Nichols argues that the death of expertise actually manifests itself in students at universities. These students act as consumers entitled to a college degree — a view that, according to Nichols, arises from the necessity of having a diploma for desirable employment and colleges desperately seeking tuition-paying students — and so view college as a living experience rather than a learning one. This leads college students to neglect studies and instead focus on the likes of “microaggressions” and other “triggering” events.
Education is further devalued as the sudden influx of students, many of whom are simply not prepared for the rigors of college, forces schools to lower the requirements needed for graduation. San Jose State University presents just one obvious and recent example. The university decided to scrap math placement tests and instead be thrust into classes for which they likely are not prepared. This hurts students who would benefit from remedial classes and also risks bringing the entire class down to the lowest common denominator. Such an example exemplifies the death of expertise: Rather than truly understanding a subject, students will find themselves overwhelmed and, if they complete courses and the degree, without a sound understanding of studied subjects.
Journalism and Politics and the Death of Expertise
Nichols goes on to criticize journalism, namely the 24/7 news that has divided the populace into ideological target audiences and online news sources that value quantity of output over its quality. News tailored to an ideology and worldview naturally hurts expertise and sanity as large population portions reside in an echo chamber, causing and exacerbating individual confirmation bias. Online news produces many errors and with the ease of social media virality, incorrect pieces (or, worse, fake news) tend to catch fire whereas the truth or followup corrections are lost in the internet’s void.
Social media, too, devalues experts as all have the equal opportunity to share (often incorrect) analysis and news with incredibly wide audiences. Everyone initially appears equal on the internet and a surprising tendency to trust random strangers leads many to ignorance. Take, for example, a recent Reddit post that claimed Senator John McCain completely and totally killed the Republican healthcare bill. The comment received 5000 upvotes and gold 8 times. Only problem? It’s completely false. The commenter fails to understand the vote that took place (a motion to consider the amendment to a reconciliation bill, not the amendment — let alone the bill — itself) and its aftermath: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell returned the bill to the calendar, from which he can pull it at any time. Healthcare is not dead — not by any means.
People willingly believed a cocksure Reddit commenter (who likely falls victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect) and believed his statements on budget reconciliation, an incredibly complex procedure few senators understand. Instead of searching for experts, Redditors turned to a stranger in a perfect example of expertise’s death.
The book concludes in a similar vein by discussing a true American tragedy: Voters shunning experts and instead voting for a charlatan who pointedly campaigned against all experts, ultimately to their detriment. Nichols urges voters to recognize the need for expertise and embrace experts for the benefits they bring. He also extolls experts to be available to the public, police themselves honestly and frequently, and help those seeking to understand a given subject. Both sides need to put in effort, but surely the brunt of the work should fall on those currently shunning experts.
The Death of Expertise Review Recommendation
Overall, while “The Death of Expertise” raises many interesting and valid points, it reads and feels more like a long-winded rant rather than an insightful treatise into why Americans abandoned experts and how experts can again claim respect.
The book reads this way because it originated from a Federalist post — it’s clear that Nichols struggled to expand his argument to fill a book. I would recommend reading “The Death of Expertise” as a starting point; in other words, treat this book as a syllabus. Use it to find topics of interest and then dig into the research. It’s a good starting point, but stopping after this book risks falling prey to your own confirmation biases: Reading the lengthy essay simply to agree with its premises rather than truly understand the dangers of which it warns.
“The Death of Expertise” review recommendation: 3 out of 5.
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