Sitting down to review Tom Nichols’ “The Death of Expertise” proved to be more difficult than I initially expected. Not due to any fault of the book or Nichol’s thesis, but from attempting to find a starting point—a hook if you will from which to begin—because there are simply too many from which to choose. Subtitled “The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters”, Nichols’ book could hardly be more timely.
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. This is despite the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that human activity is “extremely likely” to be responsible for driving the changes in our environment. This is despite the fact that among peer reviewed scientific papers more than 97% endorsed the principles of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).
Turning away from the hotly contested climate change issue, look to anti-genetically modified organism (GMO) campaigns. According to Pew Research “millennials” are more likely to believe that GMOs are bad for one’s health and that “organic” foods are better for you. This is despite the fact that 88% of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conclude that GMOs are safe to eat.
From where does this fundamental rejection of facts and expertise spring? This is the question that Nichol attempts to answer. In attempting to do this he is successful on some accounts and less so on others.
Nichols sees the genesis of this rejection of expertise and facts stemming from public discourse, higher education, the Google effect, journalism, and from experts themselves.
In the first instance conversation and disagreements now seem to go beyond basic disputes to outright hostility – it is no longer a matter of people disagreeing, now the opponent is stupid or wrong for having that opinion. It’s no longer an argument over principles, it’s an argument over the level of intelligence of the debater.
Taken together with the great equalizer of social media – disputes quickly spiral out of control, particularly when no social filter is applied online. 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.
The proliferation of higher education too is both a great equalizer, but also creates a false sense of knowledge. Nichols takes the higher education system to task for creating environments that are cushy to the point of luxury for students, detracting from the focus on education. He laments the creation of environments where the students run the campus, complaining about issues that make them uncomfortable, demanding “safe spaces”. 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.
Now laypeople have the world’s knowledge at their fingertips – again, a blessing and a curse. With the few taps of the finger or a request to Siri, any question is answerable, but often people only peruse the surface, scanning a page or a document, and certainly not looking at the sources. “I Googled it” is a common refrain when asked about the source of knowledge. Many consume their news and information from Facebook alone – an issue Nichols should have explored more.
Make no mistake about it, Facebook is a media company. Despite protestations to the contrary, the social media platform now competes alongside the likes of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC in the provision of news, breaking or otherwise. With its algorithms, it customizes content it believes a viewer would like to see or agree with leading to greater segregation of news sources and input. Added to the fact that fake news proliferated across Facebook and most people lack the ability to differentiate fake from real news, the implications of the social media giant’s dominance is truly concerning.
Turning deftly to journalism, Nichols highlights some concerning trends that have been apparent, if underappreciated. The pursuit of revenue dollars upended the model of journalism. Now it is all about “clicks” – what will get users to view content. It is no longer about high quality in-depth research stories, it is about “listicles” from BuzzFeed or short, punchy stories with attractive graphics. Traditional media outlets can’t compete without adapting to this new model. Journalists no longer have the opportunity to become experts, to become enmeshed in their subject area, and to learn the questions to ask. They are, above all, now content generators – it is about articles or content per day, not the piece that requires lengthy research efforts and in-depth analysis.
Experts too are to blame for the erosion of their prominence. Yes, experts do get things wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. Unfortunately, the mistakes get more attention than the accuracies or when the process corrects itself. When an untruth is released into the wild, it propagates like wildfire before it is captured and put down, if ever. With the permanence of the world-wide web, sometimes things like vaccine-linked autism never go away.
Nichols clearly identifies multiple sources of the erosion of the belief in experts and their prominence in today’s society. Where he falls short is on the assessment of the rejection of knowledge and facts. It seems to be more in vogue than ever to be uninformed, to be unengaged, to care about the world. It is a lament heard often that social media is turning the populace into vapid narcissist with at best a shallow knowledge of the world around them. Look at the number of “memes” on the Internet that circulate like wildfire with half-truths, complete inaccuracies, or outright lies, but look to at the extent at which they are shared, consumed, and promoted.
For every “Cosmos” by Neil Degrasse Tyson there are a dozen or more “Real Housewives” programs. “Duck Dynasty” and its ilk dominates television while informative programming like NOVA languishes on public television. Of course, this criticism is found during every period. Undoubtedly Roman elites complained about the stupidity of popular plays and comedies. But the Romans never had the interconnectivity society enjoys today.
So, why does it all matter? At its core an educated citizenry is necessary for democracy to survive and flourish. If individual citizens cannot make informed decisions or trust that those they elect are advised by educated and informed experts, then what is the point of a democracy?