The Death of Expertise

I just finished a book called The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols in which he brings up a compelling argument of the consequences of a post-internet era where all the information you can want or need is readily available, whether factual or not. But that’s not his only case. He also brings up several points, namely, found during the 20th and 21st century, that leads to this divide between political parties, in turn, leading to the division between lay people, experts, policymakers, educational institutions, news stations, and the list goes on.

Although he brings up a wide variety of cases, most of which I could not dedicate enough time here to address, even if I could, I do not believe I, ironically, have enough expertise to make an informed enough opinion on them.

Anyways, one thing I did find very fascinating about this book was actually how closely it relates to the book I previously finished: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and funny enough, Nichols does give him a brief mention, suggesting that Nichols, too, is familiar with Haidt’s work.

Although Nichols has several messages inside his book, I think the core message that Nichols is trying to convey can be summarized like this: Don’t be so quick to criticize a complex system and the people who run it, especially if it’s working, for the most part.

To begin, I don’t think that Nichols is a social conservative, at least, his book doesn’t give off that tone. That means he’s okay with challenging social norms, to an extent. But I do think he is an intellectual conservative (if there is such a thing), which I concluded this because of his extreme rational mode of thinking through problems (being a professor), as well as addressing the complexity of problems in that there’s usually no “easy solution” contrary to what many politicians and activists will suggest in today’s political debates. He’s rationalist first, then from that spawns a realistic view of the world rather than a simplified view.

Here, I want to give a quick example, and I, by no means, am trying to denigrate anyone, but why do you think Donald Trump won his presidency in 2016? Of course, this is a hypothetical question. If you’re on the left, you would probably mention, at least partly, in your argument that it was because poorly educated Americans were “tricked” into believing or even by willful ignorance, that America’s major political and social issues could be solved by standing behind a single slogan: Make America Great Again or, by uniting the country through nationalistic-like ways.

I mean, you hear it all the time, and even Trump himself said “I love the poorly educated” suggesting that he was the poorly educated man’s vote. So, could you go as far as to suggest Trump won because people were “too stupid” to know better?

If you ask a hard-leaning liberal, they’d probably say yes. If the word “stupid” wasn’t part of their explanation, then pick another derogatory term: fascist, racist, bigot, Nazi, homophobe, you choose.

What this did was it took an already divided America (politically that is) and gave them “evidence” to back up their (the liberals) already suspecting claims that they stand on the intellectual upper hand, therefore, by reason alone, could conclude the liberals must also hold the upper moral hand. Of course, I’m over-generalizing and don’t take what I’m saying as infallible facts, because I’m not.

The Republicans, in turn, the conservatives, believe that the well-being of the group must take precedence over the well-being of others. We need to stay loyal to our own country.

One way you could quickly see how this mode of thinking could be considered beneficial is think of your own family. If you or one of your own family members are sick or struggling, you’ll help your family first, then, once the well-being of your family is stable, you then will try to help others, again, generally speaking. Family first, others second.

Extend that boundary to the whole country in that the whole country is “your family”, you can see where this pride of group preservation becomes valuable.

Obviously, I’m not a political expert, and I’m just expanding, to the best of my ability, what Haidt and Nichols touch on in their books, but this is an important discussion.

You might say, isn’t this divide good, similar to the three branches of government, they provide each other checks and balances? I would answer, yes, it is good, but left unchecked, it begins to allow agendas, political or personal, to seep into science. This produces modified or, in some cases, completely false data that then allows certain policies to be made, or programs to be funded. It becomes a dangerous game of “who’s right?” that ultimately just causes skepticism between experts and the people who were supposed to trust them.

Again, there are multiple factors that go into this issue, such as sometimes experts just being wrong with no agenda behind them, and maybe out of sheer arrogance (unwilling to admit he/she is wrong).

Of course, there will be inevitable error within scientific research, that’s why we have researchers. They continuously build on and correct past knowledge thought to be true. And it’s okay when experts get things wrong, for the most part, Nichols argues. He says, the experts are there to error correct each others work, and most of the mistakes found in “scientific research” were found by scientists and experts, themselves!

But what happens when data was intentionally falsified in order to reach a desired, yet untrue, conclusion? You get something like the the anti-vaxxers campaign. This story is , in Nichols opinion, is yet another example where it’s just another reason to “not trust experts”.

The Lancet, a scientific, peer-review medical journal, produced back in the 90s, a paper that supposedly linked autism to vaccination. Obviously, something this big would make headlines in newspapers, journals, magazines, and so forth. But people already have a mild distrust of these publications, these “experts”, anyways, so they’ll take it with skepticism, like they should.

But what happens when celebrities, such as Jim Carrey, who have millions of loyal followers, start voicing their “expert opinions”, albeit, false ones at that?

They’ll say, “I read it somewhere” or give a whole slew of naive, but, seemingly, logical reasoning. But even when they’re proven wrong, they’ll still argue that “They have a right to choose what they believe”. See below.


And it’s not like they didn’t have evidence to back up their claims, because for a brief period of time, there was “scientific proof”. But like Haidt mentions, intuition come first, reasoning second. When a group holds a shared intuition, this “binds then blinds”. This means, once they “know what they want to believe”, no amount of contradictory reason or evidence will convince them otherwise. In other terms, once they’ve “binded” themselves to their beliefs, they are “blinded” by everything else that doesn’t stay within in their belief system, so to speak.

Let me lay out one more situation in which there was no falsified data, but rather, the wrong scientific conclusions were made.

In the mid 20th century, it was “discovered” that eggs were bad for and could potentially be dangerous to your health, namely because of the fat and cholesterol found inside of them. So doctors suggested to not eat them. Were they wrong? At the time of discovery, they were right. It is true too much fat and cholesterol can be detrimental to your well-being.

But, if you lived just a bit longer, it was then discovered that eggs, particularly, the type cholesterol found in eggs, could be beneficial to your overall health. Ah, so were the doctors wrong to make the bold claim of fat and cholesterol being unhealthy, in turn, claiming eggs, too, were unhealthy? Yes and no. But people don’t remember the that Scientists and Doctors themselves were the ones who discovered the original claim was wrong, but rather, they got it wrong in the first place.

But say you never read or even lived long enough to see the new results published, were you wrong to cut eggs out of your diet? See, that’s a hard question, and it’s also relative, in a sense, because at one level of analysis, you were right, but at another, you were, indeed, wrong.

Overall, like I said, the whole issue of the “Death of Expertise” is such a complex issue, one of which comes from a wide variety of factors, but, like Nichol’s suggests, the main factor seems to be from what I mentioned at the beginning of the post:  Don’t be so quick to criticize a complex system and the people in it, especially if it’s working.

And maybe, sometimes it’s best to let the experts be the one who criticizes other experts, but again, not always, and who’s to say you can’t be an expert yourself if you read and learn enough? What if political agendas get too involved, and no one is there to criticize the experts?

Then, how do we know when we should criticize? I guess we don’t, or maybe we do?

thanks for reading,