Tom Nichols is a credentialed expert discussing The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters in his 2017 book. No irony here. This is a serious subject that relates directly to today’s world. If you’ve spent any time discussing current events lately you know this already. Civil discourse devolved into yelling matches at least eight to ten years ago.
Nichols covers a lot of ground explaining why this happened. He addresses social media, which is a prominent location of said yelling matches. But he also covers changes to university admission policies, as well as classroom and grading practices. Journalism is another topic, especially how expertise among those reporting news changed in the last 20 years.
Of course, with today’s pandemic world, Nichols’s coverage of the anti-vaccine movement and general medical and scientific expertise pushback is spot on. Nichols does address politics and foreign affairs, which are his own area of expertise. But this isn’t a book entirely about either. They are just one piece of the puzzle.
There are plenty of meaty ideas to absorb here. But wading around the opinionated curmudgeon is also required. Nichols strikes me as a tweed-wearing guy who hangs out in ivy-covered buildings. But perhaps that’s just his writing voice. After all, he’s an expert and we should trust him. Right?
Quotes to ponder
I enjoy the way Nichols uses language. For example, the idea of “restless questioning” really gets at the heart of people’s constant mistrust of authority. Especially if they are American.
“This kind of restless questioning of orthodoxy is celebrated and protected in a democratic culture.” p. 16
And Nichols doesn’t mince words when discussing people who don’t understand scientific methods of research. Heck, my granddaughter studied these ideas last year in fourth grade.
“Laypeople cannot expect experts never to be wrong; if they were capable of such accuracy, they wouldn’t need to do research and run experiments in the first place.” p. 176
This next quote hit home since I live in a district where our elected Representative to the U.S. Congress refuses to hold in-person, public town halls.
“This is a worst of all worlds, in which both democracy and expertise are corrupted because neither democratic leaders nor their expert advisors want to tangle with an ignorant electorate.” p. 225
And just because you Googled something for a couple of hours (or days) doesn’t mean you’ve got expertise equal to the person with tens of thousands of hours invested in a career and three advanced degrees.
“When resentful laypeople demand that all marks of achievement, including expertise, be leveled and equalized in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘fairness,’ there is no hope for either democracy or fairness.” p. 233
This isn’t a long book, but its content is dense. I needed to bite off small chunks, then step back and absorb them. So, the book generally reads a little slow.
But Nichols lays out his case methodically and clearly. Despite lacking expertise in any of the topics his discusses, I gained insights galore. He is professorial and sometimes adds a touch of judgment. Honestly, I couldn’t disagree with that. Arrogant ignorance is a frustrating part of life these days.
On the other hand, Nichols has a dry sense of humor, which he uses sparingly. But thankfully it lightens the mood a bit.
I recommend this book if you’ve ever encountered a troll on social media. Or if your next-door neighbor’s ideas baffle you. Everyone knows that someone, and Nichols puts their behavior in a broader context.
Pair with The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff, which also discusses social media in detail. Or try Quackery by Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen, for methods employing absolutely no scientific scrutiny.