The Death of Expertise addresses one of the most dangerous trends in modern America, one that threatens to swamp our democracy and our future. The United States has always had an anti-elitist tradition, a distrust of authority, and a reverence for the common man. There is a malignant difference today. People are not just ignorant and wary of expertise, they are belligerently ignorant and actively hostile to expertise. Tom Nichols takes a look at this dangerous trend to describe how it manifests, what might be making it worse, and what could be done to fight back on behalf of knowledge itself.
The author, Tom Nichols, is a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. In addition, he is a contributor to The Federalist, the magazine of the conservative Federalist Society. He’s also a Jeopardy champion so he is probably well-versed in general knowledge outside his area of expertise–a fox, not a hedgehog.
The book is often amusing as Nichols excels at snark. He appeals to that mean streak we like to pretend we don’t have. He’s not going to protect the tender ears of the ignorant. It’s safe to assume they won’t read his book in the first place, so why mince words? This means he won’t be persuading anyone to his opinion, but he will cheer and perhaps invigorate those who already agree. I think his assessment is correct. People who think headlines tell the entire story, who can’t be bothered to read to the end, who assume they know as much as climate scientists about climate change and as doctors about vaccines will not be reading a book about the war on expertise unless they thought the book was to cheer the war on.
Nichols does a good job of identifying the symptoms and the disease. He does sound like a crotchety old uncle ruining Thanksgiving dinner when he talks about KIDS NOWADAYS. He is highly critical of the devaluation and debasement of higher education. I agree, higher education produces less competent citizens, but then the reason people go to college has changed from getting an education to qualifying for a job. Education is not pursued for its own sake, it’s now a checkmark you need on a application. This is manifest in the widespread contempt for liberal arts.
I think he misidentifies the root cause, though. Conservatives are inclined to blame individuals while liberals like me are inclined to look systemically. He blames it on parents and students who feel entitled to A’s and a luxury spa education. I look back to when the big push to save education was to RUN IT LIKE A BUSINESS and the appointment of more business executives to be university regents that resulted in MBAs displacing academics in administration and governance. This resulted in devaluing labor, of course, with the growth of adjunct professors and the weakening of faculty senates. Money that should go to teaching goes to infrastructure that can be marketed, like fancy dorms and natatoriums (To be fair, Macalester’s Natatorium was called that back in my day, too.)
I enjoyed Nichols’The Death of Expertise. There were times I think he went awry. He is spectacularly wrong in writing about what happened at Missouri University–the protests that resulted in the university president’s resignation. Nichols describes students drawing a swastika on the wall in feces as a “juvenile incident” and says, “Exactly what Missouri’s flagship university was supposed to do, other than wash the wall, was unclear but the campus erupted anyway.” First, the University had a better sense of what to do than Nichols, because they called the police. Contrary to being the sole cause of the controversy, the feces incident was just the straw breaking a very burdened camel’s back. There had been a series of incidents that seemed to be escalating. University President Wolfe could not be bothered to meet with students which incited their anger. Is it confirmation bias when I note that he was never an educator, but a businessman in the computer industry before Mizzou hired him to “run it like a business.” But besides mischaracterizing the totality of what happened at Mizzou, Nichols obviously hopes people will not remember the pernicious lying articles published by The Federalist, that alleged that there was no such incident and that the entire thing was a hoax. That is something easily disproven if the “journalists” writing those Federalist lies had actually asked someone. After all, there was a police report.
Nichols wrote a chapter about junk reporting and how false information gets left up on the internet and spread all over, but failed to point out the lies from The Federalist. He would have been wise to leave out the entire Mizzou incident, because his presentation of the controversy while omitting The Federalist shameful demagoguery undercuts his credibility. Besides, including the controversy while excluding the malpractice of the magazine where he writes is just bad form.
Nichols does not let his political affiliation keep him from pointing out the toxic effects of talk radio such as practiced by Rush Limbaugh or the collapse of journalistic standards by cable television, including FOX News, or the conspiracist dangers of demagogues like Alex Jones. This is a good thing and I appreciate it. When it comes to people distrusting science, treating it as though it were as optional and unsupported as religion, he focuses on GMOs and vaccines. These are serious issues that have profound implications for all of us. Just this week, there is news of a spate of measles cases in Minneapolis which is getting too darn close to home.
Of course, the convenient thing about vaccines and GMOs is that he can focus on liberal propagators of bunkum and hoodoo like Robert Kennedy, Jr. and give the impression that it’s a liberal problem, though that particular brand of anti-science hoodoo is actually bipartisan. What is surprising is that he gives such short shrift to the far more consequential, well-funded, deliberate, and dubious anti-science crusade against acknowledging climate change. Nichols is not so silly as to leave it out completely, but it gets a paragraph or two–hardly enough for an issue that already costs lives, causes wars, and endangers life on earth. It is, however, a partisan issue and his folks are on the wrong side of science. I find it puzzling how so many people who are anti-science expect technology to save us…as though technology is divorced completely from science. He does not mention evolution either, not even in passing, which is just sad. That would be a great example of the longitudinal war on expertise and the shifting strategies and growing sophistication of the grifters who spread false “science”.
I care about this war on science. I will be at the March For Science tomorrow. I would not be surprised if Nichols also went to one near him. He’s no fan of the avatar of belligerent ignorance occupying the White House.
I think this is a good book, the level of snark delights me, though I realize it will not persuade anyone who is anti-knowledge. It brings together serious issues that I care about a lot and I agree with a lot of what Nichols argues, particularly in not ceding ground. People calling anti-vaxxer garbage the garbage that it is seems to be turning the tide. It would be great, too, if we could get reporters to understand that when an expert gets it wrong, they still probably got it less wrong than Joe Plumber would have. Also sometimes when reporters say experts got it wrong, they really didn’t. For example, polling on the election is widely panned as completely wrong, but was it? The results are well within the margin of error. Analysts read too much certainty into trends but were the polls actually wrong? For the most part, no, but most people do not understand probability which is why casinos make the big bucks.
Aside from just leaving out his wildly off base section on Missouri University, the other thing I wish Nichols would do is consider the deleterious effect of treating mission-based sectors “like a business.” It is not just people changing, it is not just technology. It is the MBA cancer spreading into academia and journalism. Great news organizations became great because there was a sense of mission. Great universities became great because there was a mission. Did the clerics and educators who founded Oxford University so long ago the date is lost to history chart their Return on Investment before welcoming Emo of Friesland? I googled that by the way.
Mission-based enterprises need to run away from the MBAs who want to run it like Acme Magnets. I hope Nichols will take that factor into consideration in the future even though it is antithetical to his ideology. After all, I am perfectly happy to agree with him that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is a numpty.
The Death of Expertise will be released May 1st. I was provided a e-galley by the publisher through NetGalley.