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