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  • Dan Connors

The Death of Expertise, aka let's string up the scientists!

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters

Tom Nichols

This book was written in 2017, but it has amazing relevance for 2020. The Covid-19 epidemic has been a double tragedy- one of sickness and death, and another one of misinformation and distrust of doctors and public health professionals. Watching the debates rage on about simple public health precautions like smaller crowds, hand washing, and mask wearing, one wonders how this could possibly happen.

The campaign against established knowledge has been going on for decades and doesn't appear to be abating any time soon. It may have started with Vietnam and Watergate in the 70's when experts were caught lying. Or it may have started later with the rise of the internet and cable news, when folks discovered that you didn't have to use facts to get ratings. In any case, Tom Nichols presents a comprehensive and disturbing case about the pickle we're in.

Nichols starts the book with a study of American attitudes toward a possible war in Ukraine with Russia. Many people had strong opinions, some of which included bombs and war. But only 1 in 6 of the people had any idea where Ukraine was or knew much about it.

How can you form strong opinions about something if you know very little about it? That's the world we live in, where feelings trump facts and everybody thinks they're as smart as the experts. Not only are people less knowledgeable about the world they live in, they are willfully ignorant and not open to new information that might inform their views. They don't know and don't care.

Two forces are at work. There's the Dunning-Kruger effect, which makes people who know just a little bit about something feel wildly overconfident. They learn something new, but they have no idea where that fits in the big picture, and think they have all they need. They remain unaware of all the things that they don't know, and that ignorance becomes dangerous. The second force is confirmation bias, which makes all of us look for information that confirms what we already believe, while ignoring anything that contradicts it.

People have always been a bit short-sighted, which is why we have experts to help us see the bigger picture. But now we don't trust the experts. Experts fulfill a central role in democracy of advising leaders and decision makers. Those leaders then go to the public and point out the reasons for what they did. But now neither the leaders nor the public believes the experts, and that spells disaster.

Nichols explains that experts are essential because the world is too big and complex for us to grasp it. We need a division of labor. One group studies economics, another the environment, another housing policy and so on. When a problem arises somewhere, (like a pandemic, for instance), we have a bank of knowledge and solutions to turn to, rather than starting from scratch.

The author singles out three institutions that are making the death of expertise much worse.

1- Higher Education. As a professor himself, the author speaks of how universities are turning into diploma mills with pretty dorms and fun activities, while actual learning and critical thinking suffer by comparison. Grade inflation has made "A" the most common grade, and teachers are afraid to push their students too hard. The power has shifted, so that the students and their parents are in charge because of their hefty tuition payments, and today's campuses are full of sheltered, intolerant, and dogmatic students.

According to this author, there are too many colleges teaching students who don't belong there intellectual junk food, and many of the majors are not adequately preparing the students for the job market. Of course, that's easy for him to say, having already graduated from college. But he has a point.

2- The Internet. Nichols introduces Sturgeon's Law, which says that 90% of what you read is crap, and applies that to the ever expanding internet. There are over one billion websites, and with no requirements to start one, the information that most of them contain is worse than worthless. It's worse, because someone reading them might think they're actually learning something, when some of what they "learn" is actually dangerously wrong.

He covers things like Wikipedia, Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, how money and popularity skew search results, and the Big Sort, where algorithms point us to things we already know and believe.

The internet is so vast and full of stuff, that it's easy to google things and feel like an expert. Except you're not, unless you know how to judge the validity of what you find out there. Amassing data is worthless unless you know how to make sense of it. That requires expertise.

3- Journalism. The news business has been transformed into a punditry and entertainment business. Niche news, as pioneered by Fox News, tailors its stories for specific audiences. Form is more important than content and outrage is more enticing than complexity. Many of the pundits and talking heads on the news don't qualify as experts. They are media personalities and know how to engage an audience, but their expertise is limited.

The old journalism let the experts drive the stories, but now the public drives what they want to see on the news, and the news delivers. Veteran journalists are leaving the profession and being replaced by Twitter-savvy youngsters who crave clicks over Pulitzers.

So we've got schools that don't challenge thought, a vast electronic library that guides us into bubbles of alternate reality, and a news industry that tells us what we want to hear. No wonder we think we're all experts. At least that's what this book is trying to say.

The author devotes one chapter to when the experts are wrong. They mess up on occasion, and ordinary people have been able to catch it. Of course it's healthy to be skeptical of experts, because they aren't perfect. Nichols points out the egg scare, when experts told us not to eat eggs, then changed their mind and said they were good to eat. Scientists can get things wrong at first as they learn how they work. They build models that attempt to be accurate, but no model is 100% foolproof and none of them can be relied on for predicting the future.

The main times that experts get themselves into trouble is when they go too far. They stretch their expertise from one area they know into a similar one they don't know, and assume things work the same. They get cocky and start giving out predictions, because the public and press love predictions, as they take uncertainty off the table. And the worst of them are lured by money, fame, and power to outright lie and tailor their findings to suit a desired outcome.

No one likes to admit they don't know. Watching Jimmy Kimmel interview people on the street and expose their ignorance on basic questions is both funny and embarrassing. Experts are especially afraid to admit they don't know, because they could lose their status or job by professing too much ignorance.

The book covers Phillip Tetlock, author of a famous study of predictions and pundits that showed most predictions were no better than those anybody could make. Monkeys throwing darts could do just as well. There are too many unknowns coupled with bias and blind spots that keep us from looking forward. Experts who are "hedgehogs", and know one topic very deeply do worse outside of their field, and those who are "foxes" and able to integrate many fields perform better when it comes to predictions. But no one gets it right.

Our world is too big and too complex for any of us to try to be an expert on all of it. Few people understand the tax code, but everybody has opinions, most based on faulty assumptions. Few people understand how germs and viruses are transmitted and dealt with by the body, but everyone has an opinion on what works and doesn't work- experts be damned.

This book covers an important topic for the age of Coronavirus, global warming, and anti-science rhetoric. The veracity and certainty with which many discount expert opinions has been perplexing. Nichols calls what we're in a death spiral, where less belief in the system erodes the system further and makes it less deserving of trust, which provokes even more skepticism.

The only way out of it is for people to rediscover humility and critical thought, and for experts rediscover their limitations. He claims that only a major disaster such as a war or economic collapse will shake the system to the point where people find a need to trust experts again, while experts work to deserve that trust. I hope that he's wrong, and one day we just wake up from this bad dream.

Until then I'll just remember the Dunning-Kruger effect, and temper my confidence with the reality that there is so much that all of us don't know.

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