The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters
“The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols is a timely piece to the ongoing information endemic, especially in America. Quoting Issac Asimov:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just a good as your knowledge.”
The book describes the author’s view of why experts are so important in a democracy and the relationship between expertise the public. And it also goes on to decry the ongoing decay in this relationship, where citizens are increasingly losing trust in experts, and experts are increasingly finding it difficult to communicate with their audience.
The author explains his own view of the many reasons behind this divide. Most significantly: Our innate incapability to think rationally. The world is complex and dramatic, yet our own brains tend to think in a more intuitive, direct, and emotional fashion. We love simple facts and jump to premature conclusions. We’re naturally not good at discerning our own ignorance and stupidity. It’s a phenomenon dubbed the “Dunning-Kruger” effect. We’re often over-confident in ourselves and hold dear our world views, to the point of denying facts we find inconvenient.
It has undoubtedly always been the case. But our ways of thinking has been fundamental to why we may reject the other opinions, and it’s exacerbated by recent trends.
Higher education, for instance, has been one of the targets of the author. The author argues that colleges are slowly developing into a commercial product more than a sanctuary of passing on knowledge and critical thinking. Colleges are more of an expensive “experience,” which caters to the “customers.” So much so that they avoid provoking students with uncomfortable ideas or even unsatisfactory GPAs. This creates a generation of youngsters who cannot deal with real-life situations, including accepting facts or opinions they find “offensive.”
The widespread of the Internet has not brought information for the mass, but also overconfidence and arrogance. “Let Me Google That For You” has become a catchphrase for the Internet users who compare the hours-long “research” online to years of expertise training and work experience. The fact is misinformation and deliberate fake information. Conspiracy theories are so prevalent on the Internet that you can almost always find some rabbit hole for misleading or completely fake theories and keep reinforcing them.
Modern-day journalism, to attract customers, is also increasingly becoming biased and divisive, thanks to the audience. Journalists themselves always reported misleading information due to the lack of expertise. But the growing trend of commercial journalism has suffered the same fate as the Internet: it caters to the audience’s worst desires that create a feedback loop. The industry itself is undermining professionalism and turning journalism into entertainment.
Experts, more often than not, are also wrong. Experts are also human and are not immune to making human mistakes. There’s negligence, prejudice, and conflict of interest in all industries. Experts should be responsible for their own words and actions, but the misconception that “experts should always be right, or else they can never be trusted” is detrimental to our relationship with experts as well.
The author argues that expertise is crucial in a democracy, but we’re now in an epistemological crisis. We need to urgently reconcile the relationships between citizens, experts, and decision-makers.
It’s been a good read with the book. It’s a wake-up call to the anti-intellectualism prevalent in American society. But the author did not give an (in my opinion) satisfactory answer to how to solve the problems of “The death of expertise.” He admits that experts make mistakes, and the public should put the experts in check, but also concludes that “experts are more often right than the public.” I’d not be satisfied with the notion that we should accept the facts passed on by experts.
Like some comments from GoodReads, the book (somewhat ironically) falls short on providing concrete, authoritative sources to confirm some of the trends are happening. It lacks the intellectual rigor to actually back the problems with researches, statistics, and convincing sources, making it more of a long rant than careful analysis of the problems.
Also, some reviewer point out the author may have missed the fact of some of the underlying structural problems in society, like “the corporatization of media and neoliberalism in general.” Instead, it focuses most fire on the public for being increasingly partisan and prejudiced.
In all, I believe this book serves as an interesting read and a great wake-up call for the public about the problems. It has excellent anecdotal stories and critiques of the problem. But it doesn’t serve as a rigorous analysis for our issues at hand. Nor does it serve well in suggesting what can be done about them.