The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters
a book by Thomas M. Nichols
(our site's book review)
People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.
As Tom Nichols shows in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, a book about intellectual elites written for intellectual elites, this rejection of experts has occurred for many reasons, including the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement. And they seem not to be able to distinguish between real news and fake news.
The increasingly democratic dissemination of information has created citizens who seem not to be able to distinguish between real news and fake news
Tom Nichols is Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, an Adjunct Professor at the Harvard Extension School, and a former aide in the U.S. Senate. He is also the author of several works on foreign policy and international security affairs, including The Sacred Cause, No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security, Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War, and The Russian Presidency.
Nichols has deeper concerns than the current rejection of expertise and learning, noting that when ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy, or in the worst case, a combination of both. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters is not only an exploration of a dangerous phenomenon but also a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age. Democracy—an American Delusion.
We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom
"We live in a post-fact age, one that's dangerous for a whole host of reasons. Here is a book that not only acknowledges this reality, but takes it head on. Persuasive and well-written, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters is exactly the book needed for our times."—Ian Bremmer, President and Founder, Eurasia Group
Truth—rest in peace
People don't have a clue that they don't have a clue. The Founders understood that the electorate must be an informed electorate. The populace must understand enough to make the decisions to choose both smart experts (Knowers) and policymakers (Deciders) and understand the limits of each. Of course, as we all know, there's a catch. Smart policymakers don't get into presidential elections—neocons and oligarchs see to it that only those willing to enrich the rich get into important political races. See Lies, Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics, and Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era.
The Founders understood that the electorate must be an informed electorate
In the USA we have an ignorant electorate unknowingly supporting a greedy crew of oligarchs, which has created the dangerous world we live in now. Nichols is an expert who is frustrated that people no longer trust experts. But the book is missing the fact that people no longer trust anyone or anything at all, including each other, the media, even their own eyes. Enough fake news will do that—and we've had plenty. We're awash in confirmation bias, conspiracy theories, lazy reliance on simple facts from Google, Facebook and Twitter. We are raising spoiled brats who we send to dumbed-down, politically correct colleges—brats who are coddled by their teachers, cable news and parents. Brats who are know-nothing know-it-alls.
We're awash in confirmation bias, conspiracy theories, lazy reliance on simple facts from Google, Facebook and Twitter
None have noticed the death of journalism. Our citizens don't read, and they don't think, and they don't practice good critical thinking. They absorb infotainment and advertisements. They dutifully buy what our megacorporations tell them they need. We are raising sheep who we shear every four years as we get them to elect sell-outs who pretend to have their best interests at heart but the truth is quite the opposite.
We are raising sheep who we shear every four years as we get them to elect sell-outs who pretend to have their best interests at heart but the truth is quite the opposite
Nichols is short on solutions except to try to get us to listen to the experts who are worth listening to—whoever they are. Liberals have been addicted to experts as solutions for decades. Tax the public to fund bureaucracies full of experts because as we all know, government is the answer. Or so the liberals erroneously think. But government has clearly shown itself to be the problem more than the answer. Social engineering was—for the most part—the curse of the 20th century. They engineered communism, fascism, socialism and free market welfare states that quickly degenerated into oligarchical feeding frenzies where the rich get richer and everyone else gets the shaft. We're not especially impressed with any of these.
If we've been paying attention, we realize government is not the answer. And social engineering is not the answer. What does that leave? Us, flailing around in the dark of pretend democracy with a pretend free press and that has the pseudo-opportunity of pretend social mobility. See Democracy—an American Delusion, Freedom of the Press—an American Delusion, and Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power.
The ladder of social mobility seems to be rigged!
We need to quit looking to social engineering superheroes and rely on local community efforts instead
Taking any wealth from an oligarch (e.g., progressive taxation) is like trying to take a banana from a 900 pound gorilla
The author makes many interesting points, notably about people using the Internet to gain knowledge on matters and ignoring the experts. Examples like the anti-vaccine crowd are totally on point. But wisdom seekers have used the Internet extensively for knowledge and research on a wide range of subjects and found it very useful. We are smart enough to separate the biased propaganda and raving polemics from the legitimate sources of information. An example of where the author is off course is history. The textbooks being published for educating the public are pushing conventional wisdom and establishment propaganda that are a poor way to understand history, since there is more ass covering than truth. And the "experts" that teach these subjects are often limited to spouting the textbook propaganda, although some liberal colleges have some professors who avoid the propaganda and teach more honest versions of history. On the Internet, one can find books and ebooks with more accurate portrayals of history, such as The Concise Untold History of the United States.
The author's advice falls on its face when you search for experts about various subjects like history or parenting—there's a big chance the experts you'll find are not as expert as one would hope
But even though there's a big chance the experts you'll find are not as expert as one would hope in subjects like history and parenting, true expert knowledge and wisdom does exist, but the public will be hard pressed to distinquish the gold from the fools gold, the real science from the fake science. The above link is the most accurate history you'll find, and it's the account the powers-that-be would rather you didn't find, since some of it paints a poor picture of U.S. imperialism and empire building.
As far as parenting goes, the majority of the books you'll encounter in school or online employ an erroneous goal in their methods and strategies: obedience. All the so-called experts who employ this (e.g., fundamentalists and behaviorists) are wrong. They even have "proof" that their behaviorist, reward-and-punishment methods work best—statistical, scientific proof. But there's a catch. What is the main criterion used to gauge the effectiveness of their methods? You guessed it: whether the child is obedient! This is childcare knowledge MINUS childcare wisdom. Where IS the parenting knowledge that is scientifically proven and includes both childcare knowledge and childcare wisdom and wouldn't even dream of using something as misguided and naive as obedience as a goal? All over this website. See The Big Answer, Authoritative and Democratic Parenting Programs, Discipline That Works, P.E.T. Parent Effectiveness Training, and Beyond Discipline.
Obedience is a fine goal for dog training, but a foolish goal for parenting methods
This website has some of the best expertise on parenting and lifestyles anywhere, including information found nowhere else. There are no experts that will give you better advice—the author's advice falls on its face once again. See Acceptable Parenting Methods for good advice. But many popular methods are in the Unacceptable Parenting Methods category. The worst method of all is Dare to Discipline, which advises child abuse—a.k.a. authoritarian discipline—which is not surprising since the author, James Dobson, is a popular right-wing Christian minister. Since 90% of Americans spank their children, this Biblically centered method is obviously being followed a lot, and, yes, the Bible really does advise beating your kids with rods: Prov 23:13: "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die."
If this is where you go for parenting wisdom (which it contains very little of), then you will never do well at parenting; there are great parenting books, so why not consult them instead? (Holy books are for spiritual inspiration, NOT parenting wisdom!)
What all this adds up to is that many people accept the conventional wisdom as truth and expert, even though often this "truth" only represents the currently accepted ideas which have been accepted because the pressure groups that pushed these ideas to the forefront were stronger than any other. We tend to look deeper into issues of importance, and see no reason to tow the party line and buy the popular dogma. Conformity for conformity's sake is merely the failure to think for oneself. It is also what authoritarianism is all about. Authority, obedience, conformity—are you starting to see a pattern here? These are the missing aspects of Nichols' book. But they are NOT missing from this website.
We surely don’t need authoritarianism’s absolutes to simply be accepted on faith like in the old days where we were supposed to soak info up like a sponge; so we have to take Nichols with a grain of salt; many 'experts' are right, many are wrong, and many others are lying (they've sold out for $)
The author chides us for not heeding the advice of the experts. But which experts should we believe? It seems every major issue today has groups of experts that have conflicting views on the matter. Each set of experts has impressive credentials. Military academies and ivy league colleges will have history professors but the latter will spout some true history while the former will spout the rightwing party line—hardly a way to gain wisdom! All will have good credentials, but so what? "Experts," or legends in their own minds?
Experts that push a political agenda are paid whores, for the most part
Major issues become policy issues that are politicized. Typically the liberals favor one approach and the conservatives another, often opposite approach. Each side has an army of experts who argue for their position. These issues usually wind up in political gridlock much to the frustration of citizens. We have a dysfunctional federal government with its armies of elitists, bureaucrats and “experts.” The public has become very cynical of all of these, as well they should. Experts that push a political agenda are paid whores, for the most part. See Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market.
Science is the whorehouse of politicians, everyone has an agenda and everyone can be bought
In the book Nichols warns against the anti-intellectualism attitudes that are ingrained in segments of our population. And he discusses the misguided view that we are all equalitarian when it comes to our intellects. He provides a critique of college as a commodity and the student as the consumer, and he warns of internet charlatans and the gullible public. He chronicles the rise of partisan news media and the delivery of news as entertainment and infotainment. He also cautions against the over-reliance on experts. He discusses the consequences of a society that continues to degrade the benefits of intellectual debate by responding to every disagreement with tantrums.
He discusses the consequences of a society that continues to degrade the benefits of intellectual debate by responding to every disagreement with tantrums
The author says that those who are the least informed are actually the most confident that they are not ill-informed. We've all met the know-it-all who talks loudest and fastest, interrupts the most, and really has nothing to say. Those with knowledge get outshouted so they give up. We see these blowhards all the time on talk shows where it is obvious the guests were selected for their potential to disagree violently and dramatically—this will get more ratings and sell more toothpaste.
Those who are the least informed are actually the most confident that they are not ill-informed
Liberal colleges encourage over-protected and entitled college students to treat their professors more like a McDonalds drive-thru teller than a distinguished professor. The author really hates this and rants about it. (The worst aspect of this from our perspective is the political correctness agenda that allows our young to disrespect and interrupt the teachers when "their feelings get hurt" by microaggressions and other such nonsense, microaggressions being the ever-growing list of words and actions that students, faculty and administrators have deemed unacceptable and often punishable. Goodbye freedom of expression, hello thought police.)
Campuses used to be where ideas were freely shared and censorship was seen as oppression or '1984', but in 2017 we seem to be on the verge of the coming of the Thought Police
Nichols says that willful ignorance and intellectual laziness on the part of the electorate are washing away the foundation of our republican form of government. He also makes clear that while all votes are equal, all opinions are not. The temptation of the media to present all views, both informed and inane, as equal in the name of some misplaced populist egalitarianism does a great disservice to understanding complex issues. It's kind of a twisted version of political correctness. It's also a twisted version of the contrast between absolute values and relative values and it caters to the "all values are relative" crowd. See these relevant books: The War on Science: Who's Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America, A No-Fault Holocaust, and The New Know-Nothings: The Political Foes of the Scientific Study of Human Nature.
So what is wrong with inviting disrespect and interruptions from spoiled-brat students who disagree with something a professor or speaker says? It wrecks the experience for everyone, it elevates the naive uninformed to the level of the experts, no one learns anything, and it can lead to very bad things, such as violence. Protesters at Middlebury College shout down a speaker, then shamelessly attack him and a professor, like they were street thugs. There is NO excuse for this type of thing, no matter if "their delicate little feelings got hurt." Having watched a college speech from American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell (the "American Hitler") in the mid-1960s, we saw disagreement handled by raising one's hand, getting called on, and expressing an opinion—even passionately. No violence or even insults, in spite of Rockwell's provocateur style. At Middlebury, Vermont, controversial rightwing speaker Charles Murray was shouted down and never even got to speak. The students should have been suspended, but they were not since it might have "hurt their feelings." (Source: Protesters at Middlebury College shout down speaker, attack him and a professor, Eugene Volokh, Washington Post)
"Nothing, however, can overcome the toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism that Americans now wear like full suit of armor against the efforts of experts and professionals," says Nichols. Facts are not pancakes—there aren't two sides, like there are with issues and perspectives. Asimov said "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States—nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." Nichols says that real failures and abuses of power by military, medical, economic and political authorities account for a good deal of skepticism and cynicism toward claims of expertise. . . . "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."
Facts are not pancakes—there aren't two sides
"Now, in the US, we have a Secretary of Education with no prior experience in public education, not even through her children’s school attendance; a Secretary of Energy who was surprised to learn that the US Department of Energy doesn’t just deal with oil and gas leases but oversees the country’s nuclear arsenal; a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development with no experience in government or in housing policy; a President with no prior experience in government or governing; and an administration that is stifling information and demoting expertise on what seems to be an almost daily basis. . . . Students are learning that emotions and demonstrations matter more than ideas or logic, and that emotional outbursts can be used to cow faculty and sabotage rationality, complexity, and nuance. What’s lost is the chance to teach that life tends to blend good qualities with objectionable qualities—in people, in systems, in governments, in compromises. The emerging need for 'safe zones' and 'trigger warnings' can’t abide this complexity. . . . Anyone can be emotional, so anyone can beat an expert by merely acting out." (Source: Book Review: “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols , Kent Anderson, Scholarly Kitchen)
Nichols ". . . expresses a deep concern that “the average American” has base knowledge so low it has crashed through the floor of “uninformed”, passed “misinformed” on the way down, and is now plummeting to “aggressively wrong”. And this is playing out against a backdrop in which people don’t just believe “dumb things”, but actively resist any new information that might threaten these beliefs. . . . Nichols mourns the decay of our ability to have constructive, positive public debate. He reminds us that we are increasingly in a world where disagreement is seen as a personal insult. A world where argument means conflict rather than debate, and ad hominem is the rule rather than the exception." (Source: Book review: The Death of Expertise, Rod Lamberts, The Conversation)
Trump claimed during an interview that nobody really knows if climate change is real. An astounding statement by any elected official, but coming from the person who now occupies the Oval Office it is simply staggering
Trump's rejecton of climate science is like the swinging banjo in Deliverance—a warning of disaster ahead
"It seems that America is in the midst of fundamental rejection of facts. In December, President Trump claimed during an interview that “nobody really knows” if climate change is real. An astounding statement by any elected official, but coming from the person who now occupies the Oval Office it is simply staggering. . . . While social media connects people in ways never before possible, it also equalizes the playing field in the worst of ways —a layperson now enjoys the same platform as an accomplished statesperson, scientific expert, or thought leader. . . . Universities in many instances, according to Nichols, are nothing more than degree factories that confer a false sense of accomplishment and knowledge upon the graduating students." (Source: Book Review: The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols, Joshua Huminski, Diplomatic Courier)
A great—and greatly frustrating—wicked issue is the climate change issue. Discussions about it are crippled by interference from think tanks and PACs and corporatocracy greed and misinformation from phony "experts" and Big Oil and political sell-outs. These entities create polarization everywhere so that solutions will always be impossible and corporatocracy profits will never falter.
Trump: Global warming? Never heard of it! Sounds like fake news to me!
Political candidate Donald Trump, at a campaign rally in La Crosse, Wisconsin, responded to criticisms of his foreign policy proposals by declaring, “The experts are terrible. Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have. Look at the mess. Look at the Middle East. If our presidents and our politicians went on vacation for 365 days a year and went to the beach, we’d be in much better shape right now in the Middle East.”
If Obama had vacationed with Dubya Bush at the beach instead of bungling the whole Middle East thing, ISIS would never have evolved
The man had a point. If Obama had vacationed with—say—Dubya Bush for 365 days a year and went to the beach, he wouldn't have been available to so horribly bungle the whole Middle East thing that ISIS was formed, indisputably the worst foreign policy bungle in history. Trump knows he is no leader of men and no policy maker, so he often just plays or issues executive orders that are nothing more than statements of intent, rather than working on things, so he accomplishes little, and since most of his desired accomplishments would be bad for the U.S., all this is good. If only Dubya and Obama had not gotten in over their heads, and played golf rather than wrecking the economy, the safety of people everywhere, and our international relations, the 21st century wouldn't be the story of world wrecking and nation wrecking—including our own. Neither is any kind of expert at anything—except wrecking. At least our Tweeter-in-Chief Trump is an expert at Tweeting, self promotion, branding, and getting business deals done. If only nonexperts would fail to act, we'd all be better off. But by acting like a bull in a china shop and pursuing the fantasy that might makes right, Dubya and Obama proved that might—led by morons—makes stupid.
If Dubya and Obama had realized they were too dumb to run a country, the 21st century wouldn't be the story of world wrecking and nation wrecking—including our own
While pursuing the fantasy that might makes right, Dubya and Obama proved that might—led by morons—makes stupid
"The distrust of expertise is part of a revolt against elites that has characterized the global rise of populism. Many people blame experts for a whole host of recent crises, from the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to the inability to foresee the economic collapse in 2008. This attitude has gained substantial ground in the United States, where public trust in authority figures has hit a nadir. In 1964, American public trust in government peaked at 77 percent; by 2015, it had fallen to just 19 percent." (Source: When Every Opinion is as Good as Any Other: On “The Death of Expertise”, Nikita Lalwani, Sam Winter-Levy, Los Angeles Review of Books)
A real expert and phony expert are on a talk show as pundits. The phony is the loudest and he's quick to spew lies. The real expert is thoughtful and most polite. The viewers believe the phony who shrieks FAKE NEWS at his opponent. Some of those whose conclusions are the shakiest tend to shout the loudest, basing their arguments on spurious evidence.
The doomsday clock is currently set at 3 minutes to midnight; apparently Dubya and Obama were not very 'expert' at being leaders
Unless American citizens start defecating money, the debt has put us all in deep doo-doo; apparently the Congress and Fed Chairmen were not very 'expert' at their jobs