Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters is one of those perfectly written nonfiction books in which a review of the Introduction will tell the reader the premise the author will examine, and in this manuscript, prove over the course of two hundred or so pages. Nichols tells us that he will examine “the relationship between experts and citizens in a democracy” (Page 6). It is Nichols’ view that this relationship is in difficulty and so, he says, we are witnessing in our time the breakdown in the dialogue that is necessary for a democracy to thrive. Then Nichols goes on to examine the reasons for this breakdown in dialogue.
He first considers who is an expert and who is a citizen, recognizing that, in fields outside their own, experts are also citizens. This point is important for it is evident to many of us that we live in an era when many believe that expertise has no value. Nichols examines the factors that serve as barriers to dialogue, such factors as the Dunning Kruger Effect and confirmation bias. After considering these natural barriers, Nichols considers barriers that have developed in recent history.
The first institutions Nichols posits are contributing to the demise of expertise are universities, the very institutions meant to foster expertise. Students are now treated as valued clients more than as learners, he tells us. He goes on to dissect the impact this has had on citizen’s knowledge. Because of the need to keep students “happy”, some professors and institutions have fostered an atmosphere where education can be incomplete. For example, we know that it is educated parents who don’t vaccinate their children. That this is the case is a powerful indictment of education.
From the universities, Nichols moves to Google and the internet and the confusion of facts with knowledge. As well as considering the information and misinformation that can cloud knowledge, Nichols also examines how the internet, and its minions such as Twitter, have reduced the civility in our discourse.
Next, Nichols examines how the movement from journalism to news entertainment has affected our understanding of current events. Consider, he tells us, that we once had news shows that attempted to present what was happening in a neutral, unbiased fashion. Now we have news channels that cater to our preferences and beliefs, such as MSNBC or Fox.
A final factor in the disintegration of knowledge occurs when experts are wrong. These are the circumstances that confirm the bias against expertise in a world where all the previously mentioned factors are at play.
Nichols does conclude with some solutions and these merit our reflection. His entire, well-developed thesis, however, with its notes and references, is another antidote. It is impossible to study his argument and not become determined to do better.
(Note: I read the Oxford University Press 2017 Hardcover edition of this book.)