om Nichols is worried. An educator of many years with much experience in public policy and discourse, he believes the modern world is witnessing the “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
According to Nichols, this phenomenon goes beyond the perennial mistrust of the masses for the eggheads that is as old as humanity itself. He argues that a combination of unique factors has combined with human failings to tempt more and more people to reject the very idea of expertise itself, rhetorically if not in practice.
In his account, this has led to some tragic and dangerous consequences, including the anti-vaccination movement, AIDS denialism, and angry populist voting around the world based not so much on a coherent alternative political worldview as a deep hatred of the elites and “experts” who run the modern world and who, they believe, have failed at their job.
Although Nichols formed his ideas before the rise of Donald Trump and the success of Brexit, he ties both to this self-same contempt among the democratic electorate in the West for wonks of any sort, right or left. Hence the public love of anyone who declares himself an “outsider” or “anti-establishment,” no matter how thin his résumé or fraudulent his pretensions.
Why is it that a world objectively better off in so many ways in no small part due to the work of now-despised experts is witnessing the emphatic rejection of the people who helped create it?
As Nichols shows in the opening and closing chapters of The Death of Expertise, human beings are prone to cognitive and psychological biases that make it difficult for them to admit they are wrong. These include not only “confirmation bias”—whereby we consume only information that confirms what we already believe—but also a phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. According to this effect, the less people actually know about a subject, the more they will insist they know what they’re talking about. Even worse, far too many people take simple disagreement to be a personal insult against their characters or values, which is why debates over seemingly innocent topics can become so heated. These problems apply to anyone regardless of education or politics, which should be a humbling thought for all of us.
But experts are also human beings, and as The Death of Expertise shows, their failings have played a role in their diminution. The book provides many cringe-worthy and sometimes amusing examples, such as the obsession of the Nobel laureate Linus Pauling with vitamin C as the panacea for everything, the exaggeration of the health hazards of eggs, and some truly embarrassing errors made by historians on issues such as “No Irish Need Apply” signs and the history of guns in the United States.
Still, while experts are human beings and will make mistakes, they are far more likely than you to be right. For every story of the amateur autodidact outwitting the educated establishment, there are far more in which the establishment got it right:
The same people who anxiously point back in history to the thalidomide disaster routinely pop dozens of drugs into their mouths, from aspirin to antihistamines, which are among the thousands and thousands of medications shown to be safe by decades of trials and tests conducted by experts. It rarely occurs to the skeptics that for every terrible mistake, there are countless successes that prolong their lives.
The modern world is therefore a victim of its own success—of modernity, of liberalism, and of capitalism. It is because of universal literacy, long dreamed of by modern thinkers and reformers, that many now scrounge the Internet in search of “proof” that experts are liars. It is thanks to the ideal of political equality that many now think themselves the equals—not just in rights but also in knowledge and understanding—of those who have spent their life in deep study. Finally, it is thanks to the complete success of the capitalist system in providing higher education and news to “customers” and “consumers” that students are told they are knowledgeable when they are not and are spared any real criticism or dangerous knowledge that might challenge their confirmation-bias bubble.
This is the key insight of The Death of Expertise, and it should unsettle anyone who believes in the crucial importance of virtue to the good working order of a democratic society. Nichols argues against those who claim politicians are at fault for problems. More than any expert or elite failure, the people demanded and got exactly what they wanted in terms of rights and personal treatment over the past few decades, to their and our detriment. They must take responsibility rather than blaming others.
Nichols speaks of how people in the West have come to confuse political equality with absolute equality in ability, and how this leads to the self-righteous idea that they do not need to pay some heed to those with greater knowledge on individual topics. We have been so successful at embedding the idea of political equality that we have utterly failed to cement the idea of human moral equality—the idea that human beings are equal in essential value in a manner unrelated to their genetic gifts or social station. It is a notion expressed in political documents such as the Declaration of Independence and in biblical propositions such as the creation of Man in God’s image. People need a sense of self-worth that is independent of the question of whether they are right or wrong on public policy or in any given discussion.
Nichols suggests to his lay readers that they must embrace certain core values in order to cope with the modern world—intellectual humility, trust, the aspiration to be a lifelong learner. These are the hallmarks of a good citizen, and The Death of Expertise is, ultimately, a necessary book that details the obligations of a self-governing citizenry to the proper functioning of a democratic society.