New book explores contemporary attitudes toward experts

BY DR. GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

“They say, ‘oh, Trump doesn’t have experts,’” The Donald told a crowd in Wisconsin in 2016. 

“They say, ‘Donald Trump needs a foreign policy adviser’….But supposing I didn’t have one.  Would it be worse than what we’re doing now?” 

In the fall, the man who claimed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and charged that Senator Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, took his assault on knowledge all the way to the White House.

In “The Death of Expertise,’’ Tom Nichols, a professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S.  Naval War College, acknowledges that anti-intellectualism is as old as America, but makes a compelling case that there is something new – and ominous – about contemporary attitudes toward experts. These days, he writes, “the issue is not indifference to established knowledge; it’s the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge.”

On conspiracy theories
“The Death of Expertise’’ is engaging and informative.

Conspiracy theories, Nichols reminds, are ubiquitous in 21st century America. Almost a third of Americans, for example, believe that a secret elite is conspiring to take over the world;15 percent that the media or government adds mind-control techniques to television broadcasts; half of respondents think Princess Diana was murdered; and substantial numbers are certain that UFOs are prowling the skies and aliens have landed. 

Conspiracy theories, Nichols emphasizes, can do a lot of harm. When they spread misinformation about the danger of vaccines, millions of children were at greater risk for preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough.

“Confirmation bias” is so powerful with baby boomers, GenXers, and millennials, Nichols suggests, because they have been taught “that their feelings override every other consideration.” 

The usual suspects
Nichols also points out that experts discredit their expertise when they move from explanation to prediction. And when they opine, as they are wont to do, on areas outside their expertise.

In analyzing the death of expertise, however, Nichols rounds up the usual suspects: higher education, the Internet and social media, and the “new” journalism. His discussion of these factors, alas, often recycles familiar themes, and is, at times, superficial and simplistic. 

In a one-size-fits-all chapter on higher education, for example, Nichols exaggerates the extent to which colleges and universities cater to the whims of undergraduates (with plush dorm rooms, fitness centers, and dining halls), hand out high grades and unearned praise in the classroom, and, often consciously encourage students to believe that their views are every bit as valid as those of their professors. 

Nichols does not give Wikipedia nearly enough credit for trying – and often succeeding – in designing procedures to ensure that its entries are accurate. And his “unsparing” critique of journalists as “too lazy or inexperienced” to get their stories right,” underestimates the pressure to give equal time to experts, pundits, and partisan spinners (and fail to distinguish one from the other.) Nor does he factor in the radical reduction in the number of experienced and knowledgeable reporters in newspapers, magazines, and television networks.

Opine on experts
Despite these limitations, “The Death of Expertise’’ conveys an urgently important message. 

Nichols is surely right that when the public disdains experts, “the result will not be better policy but more politicization of experts,” because policymakers “will rely on experts who will tell them – and the angry laypeople hanging on their office doors – whatever it is they want to hear.”

And woe to our democracy, Nichols implies, when a leader can decide to bomb a distant nation, support a health care policy, scrap a climate change agreement because he “knows” that his “alternative facts” are as good – or better – than those of an expert.

Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.

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