Who Knows What?

Nobody likes to have their shortcomings pointed out. I suspect that’s why many people might find Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters a little uncomfortable. Nichols doesn’t pull any punches. Nor does he claim to be an expert on everything. What he does claim, however, is very important. He shows how America has taken a distinctly hostile attitude toward experts and specialists. Somewhere along the line hoi polloi began to mistake everyone has a right to their opinions for “everyone has the right to be an expert on what they express in those opinions.” This isn’t a new problem, but there’s no doubt that the Internet has exacerbated it. We’ve got people arrogant of their lack of training claiming alternative facts that are “just as good as” established facts. One of them resides in the White House. There’s no arrogance in claiming you have extensive, highly specialized training if you do. It’s a simple, non-alternative, fact.

A perfect book for our times, The Death of Expertise should be—must be—widely read. It’s not likely to change the minds of those who’ve already decided that with the Internet giving them a voice they’ve become the gurus of a new generation of the “Know Nothing Party.” The rest of us, however, should read and ponder. Nichols doesn’t shield himself in his ivory tower—he admits there’s plenty that he doesn’t know. He’s not shy, however, in saying he’s an expert on what he does know. I remember when facts used to stand for something. Winning at Trivial Pursuit was a matter of pride. Now everyone’s a contestant on Jeopardy and Alex Trebek has taken the express train home. All answers are right, for all people are experts. Seems like we have a surplus economy in arrogance these days. And that surplus just keeps growing.

An area where Nichols isn’t an expert is religious studies. He wouldn’t claim he is. I did find it interesting, however, that when he wants to make some of his strongest points he quotes C. S. Lewis. Any evangelicals out there should read The Screwtape Letters again and check what Nichols says. Lewis would not have been a Trump supporter. Not by a long shot. And he uses the word “ass” in his books, even when he’s not referring to literal donkeys. He may have been onto something. We have an anti-expert president who has appointed anti-experts at the head of major government agencies. He anti-expertly launches missiles at Syria illegally. C. S. Lewis was an expert Anglican. 45 may be an expert of the sort Lewis wasn’t afraid to name. We need to be educated. Read Nichols and give our nation a fighting chance. There’s always more to learn.

5 responses to “Who Knows What?

  1. The internet makes everything so fast, and commercial pressure forces media to print first and fact-check later. In the past couple of years, with Brexit & Trump, this has felt like a deliberate strategy with political campaigns based on bubbles of fiction and idealism.

    Most experts, in contrast, tend to be very cautious in their pronouncements. “The more I know, the more I don’t know.” And uncertainty is not seductive.

    I feel also that governments’ and companies’ misuse of experts and statistics to support whatever policies they pursue has led to a general distrust of experts.

    And sadly the mainstream media is so much under the control of super rich billionaires that often the internet is the only place to find the truth of current events – although separating fact from alt-fact is a challenge.

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    • Quite so. Nichols doesn’t offer any simple solutions. You’re quite right that the speed of publication is a big part of the equation. Most people aren’t aware of how to check out if anyone knows what they claim to know. No doubt governments have abused “expert” authority as well. It’s a complex problem, it seems.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If you haven’t yet, read Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project which is about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s explanation of the limitations of human judgement and decision-making. I think their work helps explain why expertise is under attack.

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