These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything.1
With that early quote Tom Nichols sets the tone for The Death of Expertise, a book about the collapse of relationships between experts and citizens2.
One of the first points that Nichols makes is that much of society is no longer okay with any type of disagreement3. He says that you used to be able to disagree without that fact not also meaning that you were disrespecting and insulting people. Instead you must accept all ideas as worthy of consideration no matter how fantastic or inane they are. He fears that the death of expertise is going to reverse the knowledge gains that society has made over the last number of decades4.
Part of this has to do with the Dunning-Kruger Effect56 and part of this is because misinformation and "alternative facts" push out reality. These events can often push out the narrative that experts are wrong, which is true, but they are much more likely to be right because of their expertise in their field78.
Another part of this valuing of any opinion now matter how ludicrous it is, is that we want to value relationships. Nichols highlighted research that showed an expert will let less capable people they're working with advocate for their obviously incorrect views in the name of social harmony9. This is a bad way to make decisions because we're letting in a bunch of bad information. It's far to easy for anyone to simply look something up on the internet and then think they understand the entire argument after an hour of searching10. In fact the simple act of searching, not even deeply reading, makes people think they've learned something about the subject at hand11.
From there Nichols looks at higher education and the trend for it to be less about academics and more about the experience, with the student being the consumer. In the midst of this he takes a critical view of safe spaces12, calling college not a passage into maturity but a delaying tactic for people to put off becoming adults. In a recent read of iGen, we saw this argument supported though iGen didn't cast it in as poor a light as Nichols does here.
When feelings mater more than rationality or facts education is a doomed enterprise. Emotion is an unassailable defence against expertise, a moat of anger and resentment in which reason and knowledge quickly drown.13
Nichols says that there are few truly safe spaces in the world and allowing students to create them at school through protest only reinforces the belief that they should never be challenged. It would seem that they'll be in for a rude awakening once they're not in school anymore. He also feels that learning takes patience and the ability to listen to opposing views that we may hate14. He feels that creating safe spaces makes it far to easy to skip wrestling with any idea we don't like15. For more down this line of inquiry read The 'Other Side' is not Dumb.
Next Nichols looks at how journalism has changed, going from a place that was started to inform you of the things you needed to know about in the world, to a quest for eyeballs and attention. He refers to news more like entertainment as producers spend more time asking what you want to hear instead of reporting what is important to know16. Given the 24-hour news cycle we're casting a wide ranging net for "experts" which often means that you simply have an opinion, not deep relevant experience backed by years of study17. His solution to this is to view news from both sides across a good cross-section of viewpoints.
Finally Nichols addresses the times that experts are wrong. He highlights that prediction is a problem for experts18 and that their job should be to simply tell us what happened and why it happened. Experts and science is supposed to explain not predict the future. This is because experts can have problems pulling in any data that's not in your narrow field19. We saw similar arguments in Range as it talked about superforecasters.
He also cautions experts here that their experience in one field does not transfer to any other field20.
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.21
He doesn't put the burden full on experts though, it's up to citizens to put some work in to understand what makes someone an expert22. If you don't know what qualifications to look for, and some basics about the language used in scientific terms, you're doing yourself a disservice.
Nichols concludes the book with some advice that we can take into our lives as we evaluate news. First, stop taking the easy way out when faced with complex problems23. Dig in and learn about both sides of the issue so that you can make an informed decision.
Second, a "balanced" debate often hides that the opinion is actually weighted heavily to one side in the scientific community. Think of this statistically representative climate debate where it's 3 people saying that climate change isn't a thing to 97 saying it is. Having one on one debates hides this type of imbalance in scientific opinion.
On one level The Death of Expertise sounds a bit like an expert whining that they've lost some status in society, but reading the book that way is much too simplistic. I think that Nichols makes excellent arguments about how much of society has lost it's mental rigour and instead goes for easy sound bites that agree with what they have to say.
If you're interested in some of the ways that experts are discounted so that you can try to stay informed then The Death of Expertise is a good book.
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The less you know the more confident you are in your knowledge ↩︎
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But only in their field, not in some other field that's unrelated. Think of actors suddenly being experts in health and pushing a line of products. They are acting experts, not experts on your health ↩︎
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