Idiocracy: The Death of Expertise

Our pockets hold a device to access all the information in the world. We use it to view cat videos. And while the sum of human knowledge grows hyperbolically, and we’re getting more education than ever, the average American’s ignorance is rising.

This is the nub of Tom Nichols’s 2017 book, The Death of Expertise. (Nichols is a professor and foreign affairs wonk.) Expertise itself isn’t dying — it’s being rejected.

Take vaccination. Expert, knowledgeable, responsible opinion is clear about its benefits, and the baselessness of fears about it. They began with a fraudulent “study” by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, that was authoritatively debunked. Wakefield’s medical license was even revoked. That hasn’t stopped the nonsense, still spewed by irresponsible people like former Playboy pin-up Jenny McCarthy. Too many listen to her rather than the medical establishment, and refuse vaccination. Result: children dying of illnesses previously almost eliminated. (See my commentary on a previous book, Denialism; it also discusses the similarly misguided (and likewise deadly) campaign against GM foods.)

Civilization is grounded upon division of labor and specialization of function. We have doctors who doctor and plumbers who plumb, with arcane expertise not possessed by the mass of others. This is how airplanes are engineered and flown. We trust such experts to do these things. Nobody would imagine they could build and fly a plane equally well. Yet plenty do somehow imagine they know better about vaccination than the experts.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That old saw is weaponized by the internet, spreading what might appear to be “knowledge” but actually isn’t. While previously, discourse about matters like science or public policy was largely confined within intellectual ghettoes, those walls have been blown down.

Anti-intellectualism and magical thinking have long afflicted American culture. Worse now, many people, fortified by a college degree, deem themselves their own intellectual experts. But Nichols, who delves deeply into the subject, says going to college is not the same as getting a college education. Students arrive there already spoiled by the coddling of helicopter parents, giving them an arrogant attitude of entitlement. (I can’t count how often I’ve heard that word, “entitlement,” spoken by professionals discussing interactions with young people.)

Schools find themselves forced to surrender to this ethos, with fluff courses, “safe spaces” against intellectual challenge, feelings allowed to trump facts, and gradeflation to flatter fragile egos. “When college is a business, you can’t flunk the customers,” Nichols says. Critical thinking? Rational discourse? Forget it.

The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Thusly stepping back to see oneself objectively is metacognition. Such humility is fading from America’s narcissistic culture, where college makes people imagine they’re smart without giving them the tools to recognize their own deficiencies (or deficiencies in the “information” they imbibe). Anti-vaccine madness is more rampant among the college-educated than the uneducated.

Social science actually has a name for this phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most people think they are (like all Lake Wobegone children) above average. Those who don’t understand logic don’t recognize their own illogicality. They don’t actually understand the concepts of knowledge and expertise.

It’s an irony that in the past, with far fewer people “educated,” there was more respect for education, expertise, seriousness, and indeed facts. A less educated past America would never have tolerated the lies and vulgarities of a Trump.

But there’s also the cynical feeling that experts and elites have their own self-serving agendas and have led us astray. Look at the Vietnam War; the 2008 financial crisis. Nichols addresses at length the problem of expert error. But he invokes the old conundrum of a plane crash getting headlines while thousands of daily safe flights are just taken for granted. In fact, everything about modernity and its benefits — medical science, air travel, and so much else — is the work of experts. If they weren’t generally very good at it, planes wouldn’t fly. You would not board one staffed by a bunch of Joe Sixpacks. Experts can be wrong, but is it likelier that Jenny McCarthy is right about vaccines?

“Rocket science” is used as a metaphor for extreme expertise. I recently saw a TV documentary about the Hubble Space Telescope* — which, after launch, didn’t work, a huge bungle by experts. But even more striking was how, against all odds, NASA people managed to figure out, and execute, a fix. Expertise more than redeemed itself.

Another factor in the shunning of expertise is a rising ethos of individualism and egalitarianism. It’s the idea that you — and your opinions (however derived) — are as good as anyone else and their opinions (expertise be damned). Nichols thinks Americans misunderstand democracy, confusing the concept of equality of rights with actual equality, and equal validity of all opinions. Yet at the same time there’s a refusal to engage in a serious way with the public sphere — “a collapse of functional citizenship.” Democracy is corrupted if voting isn’t based on a grasp of facts that are actually facts.

I keep mentioning confirmation bias because it’s such a big factor. We welcome information that seemingly validates our pre-existing beliefs, and insulate ourselves against anything contrary. Smarter, educated people are actually better at constructing such rationalizations. And modern media facilitates this cherry-picking; we embed ourselves in comfortable cocoons of confirmation.

Declining trust in experts is part of a larger trend of declining social trust generally. Polls show a belief that other people are getting less trustworthy (for which there’s no evidence). Mainstream news has been a victim of this. Many Americans don’t know who to believe. Or, worse, their cynical lapse of confidence, in conventional repositories of trust, paradoxically leads them to swallow what should be trusted least. Like all that garbage from the internet — and the White House.

So rejecting input from real experts opens a field day for phony ones. The Jenny McCarthys, conspiracy freaks like Alex Jones, not to mention legions of religious and spiritualist frauds. Nichols cites Sturgeon’s law (Theodore Sturgeon was a sci-fi writer): 90% of everything is crap.

The ironies multiply. Trump’s election, and the Brexit vote too, were revolts against experts and elites, seen as lording over common folk. Yet those voters have delivered themselves, gift-wrapped, to the not-so-tender mercies of a different gang that exploits their ignorance and credulity for its own bad ends.

Americans are losing their grasp of the nation’s founding ideals and values (no longer taught in schools). Without such understanding, those principles cannot be sustained. Nichols sees a “toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism that Americans now wear like [a] full suit of armor against . . . experts and professionals.” This, he says, puts democracy in a “death spiral” as disregard for informed expert viewpoints (and, one might add, just plain reality) produces ever worse results in the public sphere. This embitters citizens even more.

I’ve always seen a dichotomy between the smartest people, who really understand and know things, and the rest of humanity. And it’s only the former — maybe 1% of the species — at the far end of the bell curve of cognitive ability — who actually run things. Who are indeed responsible for all we’ve achieved. Literally all. Without that 1%, we’d still be in caves.

* A picture in that documentary included someone who was at my last birthday party!

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4 Responses to “Idiocracy: The Death of Expertise”

  1. Lee Says:

    I don’t hear the college professors around me speak about students with an excessive claim to entitlement. Neither do I detect an increase in “fluff courses” over the decades that I have been paying attention.

    “Safe spaces” that exclude sexual misconduct, etc. are common and I applaud those but, again, my experience differs from yours in that I do not see places that are safe from facts. (Well, there is the occasional speaker who cannot deliver a lecture because of a protest — which is bad — but there are 1,000 times more similar events that do take place.)

    Perhaps we travel in different circles.

  2. Lee Says:

    Not everything a doctor tells me is 100% sound … but medical science does deserve a tremendous amount of credit for vaccinations. Anti-vaxers are endangering not only themselves but the rest of us as well, especially those among us with compromised immune systems.

  3. Scott Perlman Says:

    People so often confuse elitism for expertise and as a result they turn away from both in error. A very good podcast where Nichol’s is interviewed by Sam Harris is

    https://www.samharris.org/forum/viewthread/70569

  4. Lee Says:

    California increased vaccination rates significantly by eliminating the religious exemption.

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