Thoughts and Perspectives

AJP’s take on Tom Nichols’s “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters”

My copy of Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters arrived earlier this week. I started the book late last night, and a few hours later, I finished and can say that The Death of Expertise is an extremely interesting, important, and timely book. The Death of Expertise is full of specific human examples.

According to George Lakoff’s The Political Mind, direct examples (in contrast to evidence for systemic causation) that can illustrate causation are much more effective for conservative readers, so hopefully this book will gain an audience among those more prone to perpetuate the death of experts. (I wonder if we should have predicted the death of experts after “the death of the author”? Although, this poststructuralist method for reading texts remains useful and one I use in my work on films.) 

Nichols, in short, provides a brief History, informed by psychology and political science, of what he argues is a new phenomenon whereby people in the United States are not just regularly wrong or ignorant but “proud of not knowing things” and are “aggressively wrong.” Such a “philosophy of life” has potentially deadly consequences, not to mention the stress and frustration this causes, and will cause the United States to fall more and more behind other countries. This History explores how the nature of information–it’s creation, publication, and delivery–matters and how it has changed overtime. 

Anyone who is an expert–a term Nichols fortunately does not tie to credentialization–will personally relate to the frustration of being an actual, real-life expert, being right, and yet having uninformed masses, guided by confirmation bias, unable and unwilling to see evidence scream how wrong you are. They will simply guess or perpetuate “fake news.” 

And Nichols is actually critical, saying that too many students go to college today and says that sometimes college graduates are the worst at thinking they know everything and have a right to disagree with experts.) 

Little frustrates me or makes me sad more than when people (especially voters) believe things that are simply wrong and easily known to be wrong and when people mistrust experts and the hard work it takes to become one. The Death of Expertise explores such dynamics by looking at what it means to be an expert vs. a citizen in a republic, what it means to just go to college vs. actually learning and being challenged, what it means to live in a society where Google houses answers to everything written by a society of journalists (professional and non-professional) who lack expertise in the topics they report about, what it means that people generally no longer do (or know how to do) true research, what it means when experts themselves are wrong, what it means to say “I don’t know,” and what it means that social media has made conversations much more difficult (or impossible). 

The Death of Expertise does what good books do as possible and provides some possible solutions. For example, he calls on society to use experts and respect experts and to allow them to be human, to know and expect that they will occasionally make tragic mistakes. He calls on academia, particularly public intellectuals, to communicate more effectively with the general public. He also calls for more careful, considerate use of the word “expert,” saying the word loses value when there are “yard care experts” and “carpet cleaning experts,” for example. Here I’m reminded of Michael C. C. Adams’s reservations about the overuse of the word “war” in his The Best War Ever: America and World War II but also Virginia Woolf’s warning that “when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die.”

Overall, I agree with the analysis and discussion in The Death of Expertise. Nichols’s chapter on colleges was the only one that I regularly found myself having ideas of disagreement. For example, I do not think that email and Facebook and other such technologies are “great equalizers.” If anything, being somewhat “equalized” in those ways is helpful for the learning process, especially when looking to adult learning theory. Technology has made more and better learning possible in countless ways that I have written about elsewhere. I also think that, provided the correct learning environment and freed from the pressures of capitalism, the more people with a college education, the better. Additionally, I do not fully accept the notion that some people simply don’t belong in college. Such a theory of knowledge goes against research–some people can change and improve their academic skills. However, I do agree with The Death of Expertise‘s statement that student evaluations are problematic and that “college is supposed to be uncomfortable.”  

On a more global scale, The Death of Expertise does not explore class, race, or sex (namely, patriarchy), for example. This concerns me, or it is at least something readers should be aware of. I am reminded of Koritha Mitchell’s research and public scholarship addressing the low, low standards for White people in the United States. I am reminded too of research from countless scholars and fields that looks at the role of patriarchy and the dangerous “father is always right” mentality. Media outlets and conservative politicians exploit people without access to money and resources to be more informed. If you can’t afford to see an expert because of capitalism and racism and sexism, we’re talking about a different problem concerning the death of expertise than if we’re talking about the changing nature of society aided by computers.

Of course, not every book can explore every topic. This 250-page book would have to be another few hundred pages to add more layers to the analysis! The Death of Expertise has potential to start more important conversations, to let people know they are not alone, and to let people know the nature of knowledge and learning is important and deserves on-going attention. You can find an excerpt from his book here.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda 

10 replies »

  1. Thank you so much for opening this discussion. You have given me too much to think about to post a comment just yet. I have also been thinking about the disconnect between our educational system and politicians and will comment soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The discussion about college educations does bring to mind our present political situation, simply because education figures powerfully in it. Trump and his people do not know the definition of “fact.” To them, that word denotes something that is mutable (easily changed), and is defined by the person using that word, so what is a “fact” to them, clearly differs from person to person. But also, logic seems to elude them.

    Relevant to the above: doctors keep changing their minds about what to do to avoid disease and stay healthy. Recommendations change almost monthly with new research. But lost in this relevation is the fact that doctors are very prone to making declarations on untested data, e.g. observations. Since most of medical research is purely observational now, suggestions will change. However, doctors will continue to use the terms “risk,” “lead to,” and even “cause” about studies that were not randomized controlled experiments, for even the simplest of associations. So the ordinary person is going to think that these doctors are telling us “facts” when they are not, and that facts change with every study. The distinction between what is a fact and an untested theory gets totally lost, even in those who have bachelor’s degrees. It takes a lot of science education beyond the bachelor’s to recognize the difference, to even bother to ask questions about the source of the material used.

    Another very relevant aside here. Several years ago there was a lot of talk amongst Democrats after an election where they had lost the majority in the Senate. There was some idea that maybe they just did not listen to the uneducated. In fact one person mentioned in a discussion about Hilary Clinton’s campaign that she surrounded herself with people from the “same class,” with multiple meanings to that word. Many of her advisors and managers came from the same classes she took in college. Oh, what a revealing statement that was! Her team lacked people who could understand the uneducated voter. This discovery raises some really interesting ideas about the American society.

    Now back to the central problem. With the election of Trump, we may be seeing the costs of not educating our citizens because college teaches us things we do not typically learn fully in high school, no matter how good the high school is. It teaches us how to analyze, as well as how to string together a logical statement/paragraph/report. I remember getting the beginnings of these processes in high school, but I had to learn in college how to tear apart ideas and analyze them word by word just to keep up my grades. You get the start of that process in Freshman English, along with a good poetry class, and other literature, like Shakespeare and hip-hop. The same process is applied in all courses later, no matter the major.

    So we cannot attribute these poor thinking skills to bad K-12 schools. Our political demands have outstripped the education system. I used to wonder to myself why can’t we just educate our kids better in high school and be able to keep college education for a few. That would keep down education expenses. Doing that might prevent accidents like Trump, because we would have an educated electorate. This is why our founding fathers, right from the start, funded the print media, so that news and analysis would be freely available to ALL voters. Obviously, that priority disappeared many, many years ago. I wonder if they just changed priorities when the bill to create a public school system (or public libraries in some states) was proposed? So shouldn’t we fund public higher education now?

    More and more politicians are coming from the college-educated world. Most from law school. Very few come right out of high school. But if our political system has created its own highly competitive world of the educated elite, our representatives are just going to get farther and farther away from the uneducated voter. This then can lead to what the GOP didn’t want but is willing to dance around–a naked Emperor–just to survive in that disconnected world.

    But there is more to this than politics. If the political world demands college-level thinking skills, so does most of the rest of the world. These politicians do not realize that. Although manufacturing jobs want specialized STEM skills, ALL jobs paying more than $6/hr are demanding that we be able to think analytically and logically. The employers of middle and upper class brackets, and even those willing to pay only the highly competitive minimum digital wage (about $0.01/min as found at Mechanical Turk) already tend to fall in that basket, with a few antiquated exceptions like certain real estate moguls.The uneducated politicians, and it seems, even the educated ones, do not realize how much their occupational continuance depends upon being able to think analytically and logically.

    Thus, we can conclude that readily available, free public education should be extended to the college level. I used to think that community colleges could fill the bill, but most of the professions they prepare students for are either more college elsewhere (which won’t necessarily lead to employment) or simple service fields, which do not have jobs for all the people needing them. Did you know that for all the new jobs Texas Republicans claim responsibility for creating, the majority are low or minimum wage service jobs? Did you know that the largest employer in Texas is WalMart?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just a few thoughts:

      Re: doctors changing their mind. One of the things “The Death of Expertise” talks about is that sometimes it’s best for the general public to NOT know exactly what doctors are discovering and researching because it is still “unstable knowledge.” I think sometimes we take different reports or studies too seriously. Then, on the other hand, I’m on 13 medications (!) – these are all medications I need, but sometimes I worry about this because what will be the long term consequences of such medications. Long term consequences for individuals, for “future generations,” etc, etc.

      HRC and almost all politicians need to do a better job of reaching and understanding all different types of voters. I think they are scared of educated voters (even though they surround themselves with people who are more educated). Things in society would be so much better if “free” college was available. Community colleges, that I see, are increasingly emphasizing technical jobs instead of academics (by which I mean, the liberal arts, sciences, etc that teach critical thinking) – technical jobs are the very jobs that will be replaced by computers and robots the quickest. Which brings us back to issues of pay, politics, Trump, the future, and everything else.

      Walmart is one of the places I boycott for its horrible track record – it’s one of the places that helps its employees apply for food stamps/etc because they don’t pay workers enough while making billions in profits for people at the very top. So very frustrating!

      Liked by 1 person

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