Book review: “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols

I picked this book up after I read an article on Medium about the prevalence of conspiracy theories these days. The article quotes Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise:

[Conspiracy] 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 fault.

I found the article very compelling, having witnessed a plethora of posts by close family members and friends hawking everything from anti-vaccination hype to the deep state. I usually refrain from arguing, because I don’t want to damage relationships, but is that the right response? Nichols’ book sounded like a good try, but it did sound a little dramatic. Nichols even begins his book with some reflection on it: “The death of expertise” is one of those phrases that grandly announces its own self-importance. It’s a title that risks alienating a lot of people before they even open the book.

To be quite honest, the first book that came to mind when I found a book on expertise was the economist Friedrich Hayek’s warning about a nation run by experts in The Road to Serfdom:

There is little question that almost every one of the technical ideals of our experts could be realized within a comparatively short time if to achieve them were made the sole aim of humanity. There is an infinite number of good things, which we all agree are highly desirable as well as possible, but of which we cannot hope to achieve more than a few within our lifetime, or which we can hope to achieve only very imperfectly. It is the frustration of his ambitions in his own field which makes the specialist revolt against the existing order. We all find it difficult to bear to see thing left undone which everybody must admit are both desirable and possible. [Think global warming, population control, etc]

In our predilections and interests we are all in some measure specialists. And we think that our personal order of values is not merely personal but that in a free discussion among rational people we would convince the others that ours is the right one. The lover of the countryside who wants above all that its traditional appearance should be preserved and that the blots already made by industry on its fair face should be removed, no less than the health enthusiast who wants all the picturesque but insanitary old cottages cleared away, or the motorist who wishes the country cut up by big motor roads, the efficiency fanatic who desires the maximum of specialization and mechanization no less than the idealist who for the development of personality wants to preserve as many independent craftsmen as possible, all know that their aim can be fully achieved only by planning. [How advocates for socialism can be present on either side of the aisle, and you have to be content with not imposing your views on everyone else].

Hayek made a very compelling case for intellectual humility with regards to knowledge, as well as acknowledging our own biases. We may think the world would be perfected, if only we could exercise the power to make it so. That is usually a delusion, and experts are particularly prone to it. So I will admit I was a little skeptical of Nichol’s argument.

But Nichols isn’t advocating that experts should be given all the strings of government. Not by any means. He makes clear that there is a difference between policymakers (the Deciders) and experts (the knowers). The two are separate for a reason. He acknowledges the Knowers can be so specialized, they don’t see the big picture. It’s there job to provide accurate information and informed opinion to the Deciders, who have pressures and responsibilities the experts don’t have. In fact– Nichols also quotes a similar passage from Hayek. I was afraid Nichols would already beat me to my points of commentary, because he seems to have read all the same books as me!

Respecting a person’s opinion does not mean granting equal respect to that person’s knowledge. Whether national missile defenses are a wise policy is still debatable. What hasn’t changed, however, is that the guesses of an experienced astrophysicist and a college sophomore are not equivalently good.

I see Nichol’s point. But at times, it rubbed me the wrong way. In fact, this passage comes from a moment in the book where I was the least sympathetic to Nichols’ argument. He is recounting the story of a renowned astrophysicist Robert Jastrow who was giving a lecture on the missile defense program. A college student disagreed with him. When the college student couldn’t get Jastrow to budge on his opinion, he shrugged his shoulders and said “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” Jastrow stopped him there: “No, no, no. My guesses are much, much better than yours.”

Nichols’ defense of expertise made me recall Chesterton’s defense of the Common Man against the Uncommon Man:

It is now the custom to say that most modern blunders have been due to the Common Man. And I should like to point out what appalling blunders have in fact been due to the Uncommon Man. It is easy enough to argue that the mob makes mistakes; but as a fact it never has a chance even to make mistakes until its superiors have used their superiority to make much worse mistakes. It is easy to weary of democracy and cry out for an intellectual aristocracy. But the trouble is that every intellectual aristocracy seems to have been utterly unintellectual. Anybody might guess beforehand that there would be blunders of the ignorant. What nobody could have guessed, what nobody could have dreamed of in a nightmare, what no morbid mortal imagination could ever have dared to imagine, was the mistakes of the well-informed.

If you would like a counter-balance to Nichols’ book, Chesterton’s Common Man is a good one. However, I don’t necessarily think Nichols would disagree. He has a whole chapter dedicated to the mistakes of experts and how they created a lot of these problems themselves. He argues a democracy depends on a trusting relationship between experts and the society they serve. And relationships are two-sided. We have got to stop the blame game if we want to work together effectively.

Playing off Nichols’ thesis that not all opinions are equal, there was one author that was in fact in agreement with Nichols: C. S. Lewis. Lewis’s famous Screwtape, a devil and senior bureaucrat in Hell, makes a point that I think many would do well to ponder (again, Nichols beat me to it and actually quotes this in his book):

No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says to its toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which a human being refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation.

De Tocqueville pointed out a similar thread in American democracy. It’s one of our weaknesses. We can usually live with it, but it gives us our own unique breed of problems. Nichols doesn’t end the book on a happy note either, as he doesn’t identify a tidy list of things to do fix the problem. He gives this troubling prediction: Tragically, I suspect that a possible solution will lie in a disaster as yet unforeseen. The book was written before The COVID-19 pandemic, and we are seeing battle lines drawn with experts on one side and representatives of the Common Man on the other. Will this result in more trust between experts and the public, or will it just make it worse?

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