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 culture
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.
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.