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 http://thefederalist.com/2014/01/17/t…

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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