Review of “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It MattersThe Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I very much enjoyed “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols. (Is that enjoyment a case of “confirmation bias?”) Nichols is a center-right Republican who wrote a piece for the Federalist back in 2014 dealing with the same subject…

If you have witnessed, or worse yet, participated in a “discussion” on affairs of state via social media you likely understand Nichols subject matter without even reading the book. Have a reasoned discussion where even in the event of disagreement you can agree on a set of underlying “facts?” Not likely. More likely is that you will encounter someone with no knowledge of, or understanding, of the subject of the discussion. But that person will hold forth as someone with vast knowledge of the subject matter, even insulting those with differing viewpoints, often in harsh terms. There is more than a little irony when you have a “low information individual” decrying the participation of “low information voters” in the political system. Nichols nails that down pretty cleanly.

“In modern America, policy debates sound increasingly like fights between groups of ill-informed people who all manage to be wrong at the same time. Those political leaders who manage to be smarter than the public (and there seem to be fewer of those lately) wade into these donnybrooks and contradict their constituents at their own peril.
There are many examples of these brawls among what pundits and analysts gently refer to now as “low-information voters.” Whether about science or policy, however, they all share the same disturbing characteristic: a solipsistic and thin-skinned insistence that every opinion be treated as truth. Americans no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to disrespect. To correct another is to insult. And to refuse to acknowledge all views as worthy of consideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be closed-minded.”

Nichols, Tom. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (p. 25). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Of course the “death of expertise” is not limited to politics. Nichols skewers the people trying to offer guidance on medical matters, such as the anti-vaccine crowd. It is not just the advice, but more importantly that in todays atmosphere of “anti-intellectualism” that such advice is given credence by a pretty large group of Americans. Nichols drives home this point in his Federalist piece.

“This isn’t just about politics, which would be bad enough. No, it’s worse than that: the perverse effect of the death of expertise is that without real experts, everyone is an expert on everything. To take but one horrifying example, we live today in an advanced post-industrial country that is now fighting a resurgence of whooping cough — a scourge nearly eliminated a century ago — merely because otherwise intelligent people have been second-guessing their doctors and refusing to vaccinate their kids after reading stuff written by people who know exactly zip about medicine. (Yes, I mean people like Jenny McCarthy.)”

Nichols, Tom. The Death of Expertise The Federalist. January 17, 2014.

Nichols covers a lot of ground, and after reading the book you are likely to be substantially more pessimistic about the future. Before I read the book I looked at some of the reviews, some of which were critical of Nichols for not producing a more “scientific” look at the problems he identifies. I understood, but I think the book highlights issues that are corroding our democracy, and need to be talked about. Nichols is not putting forward empirical data, but rather a point of view. Without a doubt some of Nichols observations are not “politely” put forward, but they are, in many instances, from my perspective, absolutely correct. While my observation above about the tenor of social media “debates” is obviously anecdotal I do not believe that the nasty and tribal nature of the dialogue online can be denied. Nichols brings forward many observations that highlight the rejection of rationality in political discourse.

“Public debate over almost everything devolves into trench warfare, in which the most important goal is to establish that the other person is wrong. Sensible differences of opinion deteriorate into a bad high school debate in which the objective is to win and facts are deployed like checkers on a board—none of this rises to the level of chess—mostly to knock out other facts. Like the customer in Monty Python’s legendary “Argument Clinic” sketch, we find ourselves merely gainsaying whatever the other person said last. (“This isn’t an argument,” the angry customer tells the professional arguer. “Yes, it is,” he responds. “No, it isn’t! It’s just contradiction!” “No, it isn’t.” “Yes, it is!”)”

Nichols, Tom. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (p. 41). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

“All of this interaction is doing little to loosen the attachment of laypeople to misinformation. In fact, the problem may be worse than we think. When confronted by hard evidence that they’re wrong, some people will simply double-down on their original assertion rather than accept their error. This is the “backfire effect,” in which people redouble their efforts to keep their own internal narrative consistent, no matter how clear the indications that they’re wrong.”

Nichols, Tom. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (p. 131). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Nichols believes that the “death of expertise” has marginalized so called experts, giving rise to a tower of babel on important issues. While he takes pains to qualify his desire for “experts” to be given the deference and respect that their expertise warrants, and acknowledges that the experts have proven disastrously wrong on many occasions his presentation can be grating, and at times come off as more of a rant. Despite that mild criticism I think he makes some prescient points, and brings some “reason” to the discussion.

Maybe past discussions were this acrimonious, and we are all just exaggerating the “death of expertise” and the aversion to rationality in politics. I think not, but anti-intellectualism has always been a strong strain in American life. Although Nichols covers expert errors the disastrous results in Vietnam and the epic mistake made in invading Iraq have contributed greatly to popular distrust of “experts.”

The Iraq war, for me, highlights the role tribalism plays in the positions that people take. I have many friends that supported the war in the strongest of terms, even after the disaster was apparent. Without any knowledge of the region, the history, or the religious issues involved I received many lectures from these people about the war being the “right thing to do,” and impugning the patriotism of those who opposed it. Many of those same people now support President Trump, and have, within the warm confines of the Trump criticism of President Bush and the Iraq invasion, changed their position on the war. Many have expressed shock at, and blamed President Obama for, the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq, forgetting that they laughed off the potential for Iran expanding its regional influence as a result of the U.S. invasion. As long as tribalism trumps rationality those discussions are difficult, and in many cases simply not worth having.

Nichols expanded the original federalist article to create this book, and though you may take issue with how he presents, and with some of the arguments he makes, I recommend the book. Nichols not only brings forward some interesting concepts, but does so in a very entertaining fashion. I have to say that while I disagree with many of his social media observations I follow his twitter feed @radiofreetom and enjoy that very much as well.

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The Seabrook Finance Report May 2018

At the May 7, 2018 meeting I presented the Board of Selectmen with a financial report in advance of the budget season, pulling together Seabrook’s disparate financial data into one report. As part of that report I have also submitted the 2017 water report, as well as the 2017 sewer report. Those reports highlight the growing amount of the “tax subsidy” flowing from taxpayers to ratepayers. The 2017 report on the ambulance revolving fund, as well as two additional reports (Appendix A and B) are also below. I have included an executive summary, which is also reprinted in full below.

Seabrook Financial Report
Executive Summary

The report submitted today will commence the conversation, and help to clarify some of the underlying issues, on Seabrook’s financial future. The financial data was compiled with the assistance of Carrie Fowler, our Finance Manager, and Angie Silva, our Assessor. 
The report looks at what factors go into setting our municipal tax rate, with the data showing us where we get our tax dollars, and where those tax dollars go. The report shows us the trend lines involved, with the goal of assisting our policy makers on the Board of Selectmen and the Budget Committee.

What are some of the important trends shown in the report? We see that the total dollars raised through taxation by the Town of Seabrook, in the measured period, (2014-2017) have grown by slightly over $2 million, a rate of growth of less than 2%. That makes it difficult to make the case that Seabrook has a “spending” problem. The report shows the impact that the drop in NextEra tax revenue has had, and how that drop has fundamentally changed the percentages paid by the different classes of taxpayers. In 2016, for the first time since the Seabrook Station opened, the “residential” class of taxpayers paid more in taxes than NextEra. That trend line has accelerated since then. As this trend continues it will present major policy challenges for the Town. Another trend that the report highlights is the importance of the commercial/industrial/other utility category, which has grown in the measured period by over $2 million, bringing that number to over $9 million annually. This category will likely pass NextEra as a tax contributor in the next three to five years, and shows that the idea that Seabrook could do without this tax class is misplaced. The new growth numbers are examined, and show that $2 million in new tax revenues have been derived in the measured period, and that “new growth” has been vital, financially, to Seabrook.

The report also examines where our tax dollars are going. It shows that the “town” portion of the overall dollars raised has declined slightly, with the local school portion rising correspondingly. It would appear, based on that trend, that the schools will pass the Town, budget wise, within three years. The four year increase in the total tax levy for the Town is $322,711, which is a rate of increase of less than 1/2 of a percent a year. The report looks at some of the reasons for that number, including the history of the “unexpended fund balance,” which was driven to over $9 million in 2016, allowing the Board to strategically deploy some of those resources to hold down the tax levy. The drop in NextEra payments is also reflected in that number. It is further evidence that the issues facing us have less to do with a “spending” problem than with a “redistribution” of the relative tax burden.

As we look at some of the key numbers in the report each measured year looks at “local revenues,” and points out that the dollars raised through “local revenues” reduces the need for money to be raised through taxation. Appended to the main report are the two 2017 reports detailing the subsidy from taxpayers to the sewer fund, and the water fund. These two reports show that the subsidy amounts to over $1.8 million without the inclusion of capital. If capital is included that number will exceed $2 million. Operationally that is 8.2% of the operating (non-capital) budget, and a major issue facing us going forward.

The report looks at employee health care costs, which have been relatively stable over the course of the measured period, albeit at a major percentage of the overall budget. Those costs are over 15% of our operating budget, and the report looks at what a reduction in that number would mean for Seabrook’s budget. The report looks at this number in combination with the above mentioned water and sewer subsidy, recognizing that in combination those two items constitute 23% of the operating budget, and growing. The problem that creates, budget wise, is obvious. These two items are crowding out other necessary spending, and if the trajectory continues the strain will only become more substantial. The report looks at the 2017 tax rate, and determines that without a water and sewer subsidy the tax rate increase would have gone from the actual 9.9% to 2%.

The policy issues facing the governing body and the Budget Committee are discussed in general terms. What are they?

Should services be maintained at current levels?

If services are to be maintained should they be delivered in the same fashion?

If service cuts are to be made where should they come from?

Should steps be taken to end the subsidy from taxpayers to water and sewer ratepayers?

How should we deal with the trend of lower overall payments from NextEra?

This report is not the end, but rather the beginning of the many policy issues facing Seabrook. Hopefully it will provide some tools for our policy makers as this process begins.

Seabrook Finance Report Executive Summary

Seabrook Financial Report 2018

Seabrook Finance Report Appendix A

Seabrook Finance Report Appendix B

Seabrook Finance Report Appendix Ambulance

Seabrook Finance Report Appendix Water

Seabrook Finance Report Appendix Sewer

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Methuen Democratic Breakfast 2018

Great turnout at the 2018 Methuen Democratic Town Committee breakfast, where over 300 Democrats gathered to hear candidates speak, recognize Christine Metzmaekers as Democrat of the Year, and conduct a straw poll for some of the exciting races we have coming up later this year. Congrats to Christine, a great Democrat who really deserved the recognition. Thanks to our Chair Jessica Finocchiaro for all of her hard work in putting it together. Thanks to all the Committee members who worked so hard to make the breakfast a success. The poll results are below. Thanks to all the candidates who took the time to attend the breakfast and offer all of us some perspective on their candidacies.

GOVERNOR (choose one):
4___Stephen Golub
***140___Jay Gonzalez
119___Bob Massie

3___Peter Lin-Marcus
14___Louis Marino
***152___Quentin Palfrey
64___Jimmy Tingle

SECRETARY of State (choose one):
***131___Bill Galvin (I)
129___Josh Zakim

U.S. SENATE (choose one):
17___Robert Mancini
5___Ronald Reden
***252___Elizabeth Warren (I)

0___Jeffrey Ballinger
14___Alexandra Chandler
16___Beej Das
75___Rufus Gifford
0___Leonard Golder
77___Dan Koh
25___Barbara L’Italien
24___Patrick Littlefield
2___Bopha Malone
8___Juana Matias
0___Keith St. John
***115___Lori Trahan

***261___Eileen Duff (I)
29___Nicholas Torresi

5___Stephen Battle
***252___Diana DiZoglio
8___Adele Martino

***197___Lisa Ferry
69___Christina Minicucci

***203___Paul Iannuccillo (I)
12___Michael Fielding
14___Francisco Paulino
21___Alexcy Vega

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Mayor James Jajuga State of the City Address

On Tuesday April 24, 2018 Mayor James P. Jajuga gave his first State of the City Address as Mayor, at Mann’s Orchard. The video of his remarks is below.

The Eagle Tribune coverage of Mayor Jajuga’s speech.

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Seabrook Fire Receives Equipment Donation from Chartwell

The Seabrook Board of Selectmen voted to accept an very generous equipment donation from Chartwell, the owners of Rockingham Village, who donated two Lucus Cor automatic CPR machines worth over $15,000 each, along with a new radio box system that will vastly improve information flowing to the Department upon the sounding of an alarm. The entire donation totaled over $82,000 and the Board of Selectmen expressed their appreciation to Chartwell for this very generous donation to Seabrook Fire. Congrats to Chief William Edwards for all of his work on this project.

Seabrook Firefighters Nate Mawson and Christopher Perry

Media coverage of the Chartwell Donation

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Seabrook Elementary School Unveils Mosaics for Anniversary Celebration

On Friday April 20, 2018 the Seabrook Elementary School unveiled four Mosaics that students and Artist Lizz Van Saun created to help celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Town of Seabrook. What a great program it was, with wonderful music and the unveiling of the four mosaics. Thanks to the School Board, Principal Stephanie Lafreniere, Assistant Principal Mark Dangora, and Music Teacher Katrina O’Brien for a wonderful event. Members of the Historical Commission, the Anniversary Committee, and the Board of Selectmen were on hand to enjoy the mosaics, and the entire program.

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RIP Seabrook Police Officer Jim Cawley

Seabrook lost a terrific person who impacted our community for many years as a Police Officer, Jim Cawley. Jim was a terrific person who we lost far too soon. Officer Jim Cawley was brought home to Seabrook, and his procession passed Seabrook Town Hall, the Seabrook Fire Department, and the Seabrook DPW. That procession had throngs of his friends and co-workers standing out of respect, and affection for Jim personally. Thanks to Fire Chief William Edwards, DPW Manager John Starkey, and Police Chief Gallagher and Lt. Kevin Gelineau for bringing Jim home in such a nice way. The Seabrook Board of Selectmen joined in making this statement to the media on Officer Cawley.

“Today’s display of respect and affection for him is indicative of the esteem in which he was held by his fellow police officers, firefighters and the many town workers who knew and admired him,”

Media on the passing of Officer Cawley

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