The Death of Expertise ~ by Tom Nichols x2

I read this twice this month. The first time I was so depressed at reading the middle three chapters but then the end picked up. During the middle I felt like it was all lost and this was the funeral, the wake, the end of expertise as we know it and I could certainly see Nichols’ point. But the last couple chapters were less dirge-like, less angry expert-academic and in some way a different tone.

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters
by Tom Nichols
2017 / 252 pages
read by Sean Pratt 8h 40m
rating: 8.5 / history and cultur

The book is based on an essay he wrote for The Federalist back in 2015. (He’s a Republican turned Democrat for Trump.) The book is almost more important now with a madman in office and another election coming up. There are a lot of voters out there who simply won’t listen to experts in a whole lot of areas and Trump himself seems to be one of them. There is very little really new information in the book since 2015 – a bit from 2016 maybe. It’s very well researched and sourced. Even Michiko Kakutani commented on that in the NY Times.

This may be the original article from which the book was expanded:

Nichols starts out with a Preface to the 2017 book and then goes to the Introduction to the 2015 book. He lays out the reasons for writing it and what he’ll cover. There may be some padding to the book as a whole.

Chapters 1 and 2 are a lot of background. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 cover specific areas like in Chapter 3 and how experts are no longer respected in colleges with “entitled” kids (although he never does use that word. – I still have some problems with some of the material in this chapter.

Then there’s Chapter 4 covering the internet and Googling for knowledge. There’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect which describes the confident ignorance folks are proud of they’re quite smart. And Confirmation bias which has the Googler focused on sources which agree with him. Finally of course there are the conspiracy theories out there in the unchecked world with Qanon exploding into elected offices.

And Chapter 5 with the lazy journalists and those who would deceive them. Experts who are not experts. You can’t trust anyone anymore and what is to be done about that? Fox News, talk radio and Facebook. Journalism as entertainment.

Finally in Chapter 6 we get to the problem of when the experts are wrong as they often are – seriously wrong. Wrong about diets, about science, about lots of things – often about small things but sometimes about really important things – like the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I do wonder what his thinking is now with the Coronavirus and all the experts weighing in on that one but the president who knows he knows better, making the decisions which have cost so many lives. And he admits that although science can give us certain answers, it can’t decide things like how and when to open school this is a and question which depend on values for answers. How many lives is the economy worth?

Good book – I’m glad I read it twice because although Nichols did his job well enough, I was so put out by what I thought of as his really negative attitude toward the situation I wasn’t tuned in to what I caught on the second reading.

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5 Responses to The Death of Expertise ~ by Tom Nichols x2

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I’ve got this book too, and I keep meaning to read it…


  2. Keith says:

    Becky, thanks. This is why the veracity of data and process to obtain and study it is so important. But, there is also an age old adage, the more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know. True experts have improved on what we know over the ages and, right now, things in the technology side are changing so rapidly, it is hard to stay on top. But, I will add, expert is an overused term, just like superstar.

    What frustrates me is people like the incumbent president, who proudly say they do not read or study things, who tell people their gut is smarter than scientists’ brains, can be so believed by so many. The number of lies and inane statements made by this president are breathtakingly high, so taking him at his word, is a fool’s errand.

    He was briefed by intelligence people in January of the pandemic risk, even though it was not on our shores yet. Instead of being the leader we needed and alerting us, asking Congress, states and hospitals to look into preparation, he whiffed at the ball on the tee. What he failed to understand, pandemics do not care what your name is, what party you belong, where you live – they spread exponentially, not arithmetically.

    So, we should always question why do you say that, where did you get your information, what did they base that on? Right now, we have Americans who still think COVID-19 is hoax largely because of this president’s calling it such and downplaying and misinforming.. And, now we have 187,000 dead and counting.

    Sorry for the diatribe. Experts are not perfect, but certainly non-experts aren’t either. Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    • This book was written before the covid thing but he does cover the anit-vaxxers and AIDS. I know very well about the “hoaxers” because I moved from Tulare County in California (a very Red state and proud) to North Dakota (home of my ancestors, my mom and kids – and I lived here as a kid).

      I totally agree with you about that male person in the White House. The trouble is he appeals to a lot of folks like himself who simply don’t have his money or his ego. (Well otoh, some think they’re so smart they know more than those who have studied the subjects for decades.) And that’s what the book is about too – it’s just a wee bit dated and a wee bit flat.


      • Keith says:

        Thanks. The book sounds interesting. Today, the ability to find an answer on the web is confused with expertise. What people don’t realize is, the must confirm the source and context, because the answer they find might be opinion or incorrect. I detest “smug” as some try to force their opinion on you as fact. When the president says “everybody knows,” that should be a clue to dig further. Keith


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