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The Death of Expertise

Tom Nichols


I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. – page 13

The immediate response from most people when confronted with the death of expertise is to blame the Internet. Professionals, especially, tend to point to the Internet as the culprit when faced with clients and customers who think they know better. As we’ll see, that’s not entirely wrong, but it is also too simple an explanation. Attacks on established knowledge have a long pedigree, and the Internet is only the most recent tool in a recurring problem that in the past misused television, radio, the printing press, and other innovations the same way.

some of us, as indelicate as it might be to say it, are not intelligent enough to know when we’re wrong, no matter how good our intentions. Just as we are not all equally able to carry a tune or draw a straight line, many people simply cannot recognize the gaps in their own knowledge or understand their own inability to construct a logical argument

Not only is the Internet making many of us dumber, it’s making us meaner: alone behind their keyboards, people argue rather than discuss, and insult rather than listen.

Experts have a responsibility to educate. Voters have a responsibility to learn.

1. Experts and Citizens

In the early 1970s, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein issued a dictum, often quoted since, that “specialization is for insects.” Truly capable human beings, he wrote, should be able to do almost anything from changing a diaper to commanding a warship. It is a noble sentiment that celebrates human adaptability and resilience, but it’s wrong.

Thucydides, for example, described the democratic Athenians of the fifth century b.c. as a restless people “addicted to innovation,” and centuries later, St. Paul found that the Athenians “spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”

In the case of vaccines, for example, low rates of participation in child vaccination programs are actually not a problem among small-town mothers with little schooling. Those mothers have to accept vaccinations for their kids because of the requirements in the public schools. The parents more likely to resist vaccines, as it turns out, are found among educated San Francisco suburbanites in Marin County. While these mothers and fathers are not doctors, they are educated just enough to believe they have the background to challenge established medical science. Thus, in a counterintuitive irony, educated parents are actually making worse decisions than those with far less schooling, and they are putting everyone’s children at risk

Americans no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to disrespect. To correct another is to insult. And to refuse to acknowledge all views as worthy of consideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be closed-minded. June 15, 2017 2. How Conversation Became Exhausting Notice, too, how this bias almost never works in the other direction. Few of us are certain of being the exception in a good way. We’ll buy a lottery ticket, fantasize about it for a moment, and then put it in our pocket and forget about it. No one heads to a car dealership or a realtor with tomorrow’s Powerball number

2. How Conversation Became Exhausting

More important and more relevant to the death of expertise, however, is that conspiracy theories are deeply attractive to people who have a hard time making sense of a complicated world and who have no patience for less dramatic explanations. Such theories also appeal to a strong streak of narcissism: there are people who would choose to believe in complicated nonsense rather than accept that their own circumstances are incomprehensible, the result of issues beyond their intellectual capacity to understand, or even their own fault.

Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give context and meaning to events that frighten them

Arguing at length with a conspiracy theorist is not only fruitless but sometimes dangerous, and I do not recommend it

3. Higher Education: The Customer Is Always Right

The idea that adolescents should first think about why they want to go to college at all, find schools that might best suit their abilities, apply only to those schools, and then visit the ones to which they’re accepted is now alien to many parents and their children

admission to college is the beginning, not the end, of education and that respecting a person’s opinion does not mean granting equal respect to that person’s knowledge

Art history majors always take the cheap shots here, even though many people don’t realize that a lot of art history majors go on to some pretty lucrative careers

4. Let Me Google That for You: How Unlimited Information Is Making Us Dumber

Some of the smartest people on earth have a significant presence on the Internet. Some of the stupidest people on the same planet, however, reside just one click away on the next page or hyperlink

Those medieval naysayers weren’t entirely wrong. The printing press was used to mass-produce Bibles, to teach people to read, and eventually to empower the literacy that drives so much of human freedom. Of course, it also enabled the dissemination of insanity like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, taught people to confuse words with facts, and supported the creation of totalitarian propaganda that undermined that same human freedom. The Internet is the printing press at the speed of fiber optics.

The anti-vaccine agitators can always find a renegade researcher or random ‘study’ to back them up. This is erudition in the age of cyberspace: You surf until you reach the conclusion you’re after. You click your way to validation, confusing the presence of a website with the plausibility of an argument.”

This kind of Internet grazing—mistakenly called “research” by laypeople—makes interactions between experts and professionals arduous Sam Culiver and Kelly doing “research”

This is a kind of electronic version of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which the least competent people surfing the web are the least likely to realize that they’re not learning anything.

It’s difficult enough to argue with one person who has gotten something wrong; it’s quite another to try to reason with someone as they gather pretty websites as “evidence” and marshal legions of anonymous, like-minded social media friends with equally uninformed views for support. Meanwhile, scholars and professionals who insist on logic, foundational knowledge, and basic rules about sources risk condemnation by twenty-first-century online users as nothing more than elitists who do not understand the miracles of the Information Age.

5. The “New” New Journalism, and Lots of It

Experts face a vexing challenge: there’s more news available, and yet people seem less informed, a trend that goes back at least a quarter century. Paradoxically, it is a problem that is worsening rather than dissipating. Not only do people know less about the world around them, they are less interested in it, despite the availability of more information than ever before.