The Death of Expertise is a timely defense of expertise, professional credentials, intelligent discourse, and high standards. The book cites worrying trends in public rejection of medical expertise, policy expertise, the news media, and authoritative deference. Cable news, the internet broadly and social media specifically, parental failings, entitled students, and more are cited as perpetrators. It’s an engaging narrative that doesn’t help me feel confident in the future of America or its ability to solve real problems.
Be warned, the book can feel like a lecture, especially in audiobook form. You can take issue with various points throughout, although I find it hard to argue with the overall thesis. Thankfully, the author treats the failures in experts’ judgement honestly, while demonstrating the overriding value they provide. He lists notable exceptions to expert consensus throughout recent history, but demonstrates how these exceptions do unjustified damage to public trust.
I’m not really sure what to do with Nichols’ prognosis. The internet and social isolation have made the world one where the voters decide. Intermediating authorities hold ever less power, leaving any group that can rally behind a slogan, cause, or ideology the ability to bypass traditional power structures. You don’t like what medical experts say? You can find a group, usually virtually, that can agree with pretty much any medical notion you have. Are you unhappy with the way your favored political opinions are treated in the media? You can find niche figures that will tell you what you want to hear. This may feel good, but it cuts off any possible cooperative action at the knees. Additionally it creates opportunities for those who thrive on exploiting the prejudices and outrage of others, as we see from the highest levels of our government now.
Increased personal choice, comfort, and convenience have been changing every aspect of our lives. This steady march has now captured our intellects. We reject facts that we don’t like, ignore opinions we disagree with, and disparage voices that warn us of danger. The internet is wonderful in that it gives anyone a voice,1 but it has also removed any respect for real expertise or authority. People feel empowered and certain in their opinions on a subject after half an hour of Google skimming, but their knowledge is superficial at best. To respect actual experts and authorities is easier to do the more you learn that you don’t actually know.
This has been a bit of a ramble. I’m only a blogger after all. The bottom line for me is this. If expertise really is dead, or dying, the solution is hard and relies on all of us. It requires collective effort to reduce atomization and isolation, to replace willful ignorance with curiosity, and to trust one another. The alternative could be catastrophic. It’s a thought provoking book, and will encourage you to think a bit before assuming you know better, so I recommend it.
One of the most annoying rhetorical jabs Nichols falls back on is bashing bloggers. ↩