I recently watched a livestream video of a panel discussion entitled “What Happened to the Public Intellectual?”. Although the panelists were all very smart, I came away thinking this was another vapid topic such as those referred to in the Simon and Garfunkel song “The Dangling Conversation,” Paul Simon’s portrait of a faded marriage.
Yes, we speak of things that matter
With words that must be said
“Can analysis be worthwhile?”
“Is the theater really dead?”
The panel discussion might have been more interesting and timely if it had not chosen such a narrow and celebrity-oriented topic—a mistake not made by Tom Nichols, author of the recent book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Nichols 2017b).1
The problem isn’t merely that public intellectuals are disappearing. We could (and can) live with that. Much more worrying is the growing view that expert knowledge in general is of little value and has no role in our democracy. If you need evidence that expertise is falling out of favor, consider the following examples:
- Voters recently elected a real estate developer with no prior government experience as president of the United States. He campaigned against “elites” and repeatedly claimed “Only I can fix it” (Jackson 2016).
- The new president went on to appoint a number of people to high positions in the administration who had little or no experience relevant their posts. The Secretary of State is the former CEO of a large oil corporation, and the highest science position in the Department of Agriculture was awarded to a former conservative radio talk-show host with no science degrees—unless you count a BA in political science (Nichols 2017a).
- Many parents, often from affluent areas, reject the Centers for Disease Control recommendations for child immunizations. In 2016, 26 percent of school children were not vaccinated in Ashland, Oregon, because their parents claimed a non-medical exemption (“Ashland Oregon Vaccine Statistics” 2017), and this past summer, Minnesota experienced the “worst measles outbreak in decades” (Sun 2017).
- Since the 1990s, faith in many established institutions has been very low. According to Gallup, faith in the medical system, which 74 percent of Americans rated “great deal/quite a lot” in 1977, has hovered between 35 and 40 percent in recent years. Similarly, faith in television news, which was in the mid-30 percent level through the 1990s and the early 2000s, has dropped to the low 20s, briefly hitting 18 percent in 2014 (Gallup N.d.).
- Scientists in particular get little respect these days. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll of U.S. adults and of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) found wide gaps in the opinions of these two groups. For example, there was a jaw-dropping 51 percent difference in the views of American adults and AAAS members on the safety of genetically modified foods (GMOs), with 89 percent of AAAS members indicating that GMOs were safe. Similarly, the Pew study found that 87 percent of scientists agreed with the statement, “Climate change is mostly due to human activity,” compared with only 50 percent of U.S. adults (Funk and Rainie 2015). Another Pew poll released in October 2016 found that only 15 percent of conservative Republicans and 39 percent of Americans overall believed climate scientists could be trusted “a lot” to give accurate information about the causes of climate change (Funk and Kennedy 2016).
Critical thinking involves questioning authority, but when it comes to many important decisions, do we really want to go it alone? I don’t know about you, but I like knowing that my gastroenterologist has advanced degrees and lots of experience. I’d rather not have to ask my neighbor to perform my colonoscopy. In addition, although it is clearly out of fashion with many Americans, I’d prefer that the people in my government have expertise in their fields.
How did this fervor of anti-intellectualism come about? In his clearly written and well-reasoned book, Nichols points to three primary culprits: higher education, the Internet, and journalism.
Nichol’s critique of higher education hits some familiar notes: the popularity of safe spaces—he believes college should not be a safe space when it comes to ideas and speech—the prevailing attitude that feelings are more important than thought, and the paradox of students turning the tables on their professors, often schooling their elders. An example of this last phenomenon occurred in 2016 when a group of students at Yale petitioned the English Department to eliminate its Major English Poets class because it involved too many white European males. Nichols takes the story from here:
“We have spoken,” they said in the petition. “We are speaking. Pay attention.” As a professor in an elite school once said to me, “Some days, I feel less like a teacher and more like a clerk at an expensive boutique.” (Nichols 2017b, 82)
But Nichols also cites some problems that have been given less attention lately, including grade inflation and the view that everyone is entitled to and capable of a college education. At the root of many of these problems is a commodification of higher education, with colleges engaged in expensive marketing campaigns to compete for the government-guaranteed loan money that fuels the whole machine. “Each spring and summer, the highways fill with children and their parents on road trips to visit schools not to which they have been accepted but to which they are considering applying” (Nichols 2017b, 79). In order to keep the clients happy, schools are focused on protecting students’ feelings and making college a good experience at the expense of rigor and critical thinking.
In his attack on the Internet, Nichols cites Sturgeon’s Law, introduced by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who was stung by literary critics who said most of the sci-fi they encountered was of poor quality. Sturgeon replied, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”
Sturgeon’s Law certainly applies to the Internet. Indeed, Nichols suggests 90 percent may be lowballing the level of crap. The Internet offers tremendous convenience, but the sheer volume of data makes it much harder for non-experts to find the non-crap. Professionals who are well trained in their fields benefit from the convenience of not having to schlep to the library to do research, but average users—your everyday Googlers—are generally unable to judge the quality of the information they uncover. So the Internet gives the appearance of being a great democratizing force, and people who fall under its sway soon think they are experts because they found a great article on Wikipedia. Worse yet, Nichols suggests there’s a special strain of Internet Dunning-Kruger effect, in which “the least competent people surfing the web are the least likely to realize that they are learning nothing” (119). The illusion of Internet-derived knowledge is no substitution for information literacy and the hard-fought credentials of scholars and scientists.
Nichols also points out that the Internet has made us meaner. The lack of social connection combined with instantaneous communication leads people to dig in and defend their preconceived notions rather than listen to different viewpoints. Email and social media posts—to say nothing of the comments—are not the best media for increasing understanding.
Finally, Nichols turns to journalism for a particularly harsh indictment. Many people praise the explosion of news sources we have at our disposal today. More is better, right? Unfortunately, no. Once again, Sturgeon’s Law applies. In particular, the development of a huge market for news-as-entertainment has created a decades-long attack on established knowledge. Nichols begins his account with the early expansion of AM talk radio and in particular the success of Rush Limbaugh in the 1980s. Limbaugh provided a rougher alternative to the eggheads on the Sunday morning television political shows, and by taking callers, adding lots of humor, and staying on the air for three hours a day he was able to build an enormous following. Throughout his career Limbaugh has slammed established knowledge, and in 2011 he called the government, academia, science, and the media the “four corners of deceit” (Nichols 2017b, 148).
As one might expect, Nichols also faults twenty-four–hour cable news. With many hours of airtime to fill, CNN and the networks that followed it resorted to filling the time with editorial programing and pundit debates. He credits Roger Ailes of Fox News with taking news-as-entertainment concept to its logical conclusion, but CNN and MSNBC engage in the same kind of political sporting contests. Nichols points out that all three of these networks have fine news operations, but they frequently blur the line between hard news and opinion. Furthermore, when partisan commentary is presented on a news station, it has the effect of diluting the information value and authority of the network. Every news story—left or right—can be challenged on the basis that it comes from a source with an agenda. Entertainment news brings in ratings and advertising dollars, but it substantially diminishes the authority of the source and does nothing to increase public understanding.
Near the end of The Death of Expertise, Nichols deals with the problem of experts who make mistakes. It happens. The introduction of “New Coke” is a classic case of misjudging public opinion, and more recently the poling oracle Nate Silver failed to predict Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 election. But expert opinion is still better than the alternative. So how do we improve the relationship between experts and the public?
This is where Nichols gets to the crux of the matter and where I wish he had more to say. Nichols readily admits he is rather pessimistic about the prospects of restoring experts to a more appropriate level of respect and authority, but he points to two things that would help. First, experts need to continue to speak out. Echoing the conclusions drawn in the panel discussion on public intellectuals I watched, he argues that experts must continue to translate their work for the general public. It is not good enough to leave the job to journalists who have various agendas and may or may not provide a good translation of the experts’ findings. Many academics and other experts are uncomfortable being in front of the public and are likely to be attacked by their peers of being mere “popularizers.” But Nichols urges academics and other experts to present their material to the general public whenever possible. Second, Nichols places much of the responsibility for improvement on the public. He seems to be hoping for a kind of attitude adjustment in which the citizenry finds the sweet spot between healthy skepticism and reverential respect. It is not entirely clear how we can bring this adjustment about, but it is likely such a change would help.
The Final Word
I strongly recommend The Death of Expertise. One of the best things about the book is its apolitical stance. Nichols describes himself as a conservative, and I describe myself as a liberal. Nonetheless, I found very little to quibble with in this book. We are both largely on the same page. Nichols is probably harder on higher education than I would be. I detect a little distain for those who did not attend high-status name-brand universities (disclosure: he did, and I didn’t), and he is not as supportive of free or reasonably priced college as I am. But I think he is absolutely correct about the pernicious effect of high-cost education and student loans on the commodification of college.
As the list of examples above suggests, rationality and established knowledge are on the decline in the American political and social landscape. We can hope, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg predicted in February of 2017, that the pendulum will swing back in the other direction (Phillips 2017). But in the meantime, there is much work to be done by educators, experts, and all of us who value a society based in science, reason, and incremental knowledge, and the stakes are very high. The forces of unreason are gaining power, and their ability to damage us all has increased. Let us hope that we can avoid the worst consequences of the glorification of ignorance before the pendulum turns back toward reason.
- Disclosure: Nichols’s book and two of mine were produced by the same publisher.
- Ashland Oregon Vaccine Statistics. 2017. AshlandChild. Available online at http://www.ashlandchild.org/vaccine-info/ashland-stats/.
- Funk, Cary, and Brian Kennedy. 2016. The politics of climate. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech (October 4). Available online at http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/the-politics-of-climate/.
- Funk, C., and L. Rainie. 2015. Public and scientists’ views on science and society. Pew Research Center (January 29). Available online at http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/.
- Gallup, Inc. N.d. Confidence in institutions. Gallup.com. Available online at http://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx.
- Jackson, D. 2016. Donald Trump accepts GOP nomination, says ‘I alone can fix’ system. USA Today (July 22). Available online at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/07/21/donald-trump-republican-convention-acceptance-speech/87385658/.
- Nichols, T. 2017a. How we killed expertise. Politico Magazine (September/October). Available online at http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/05/how-we-killed-expertise-215531.
- ———. 2017b. The Death of Expertise. The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Phillips, Kristine. 2017. Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Trump’s presidency: ‘We are not experiencing the best of times.’ The Washington Post (February 24). Available online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/24/ruth-bader-ginsburg-on-trumps-presidency-we-are-not-experiencing-the-best-of-times/?utm_term=.4745c606845c.
- Sun, Lena H. 2017. Despite measles outbreak, anti-vaccine activists in Minnesota refuse to back down. The Washington Post (August 21). Available online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/despite-measles-outbreak-anti-vaccine-activists-in-minnesota-refuse-to-back-down/2017/08/21/886cca3e-820a-11e7-ab27-1a21a8e006ab_story.html.