The Scarlet

The Death of Expertise

Building the Argument from Trusting Experts on Pillars That are Shaky, at Best

Elyse Wyatt, Opinions Editor

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Tom Nichols came to Clark on Monday, October 15th to address the growing lack of respect for expertise and the general sentiment that the average citizen ought to be taken as seriously as an expert in a given field, especially as it pertains to policy and the structure of democracy. Professor Nichols acknowledged that expertise is not actually dead and is not going anywhere anytime soon. However, what’s changed in recent years is the assumption of the general public that their opinions are as valuable as those of the experts who can make informed recommendations.

        Professor Nichols addressed three major problems as being responsible for this recent change in culture: education (specifically colleges), mass media, and the Internet.

As for education, he claims that we have fostered a culture in which students are made to believe they are the peers of their professors. He observed that rather than asking students what they know, colleges now ask them how they feel. He made the statement that students owe their professors trust – implying that students ought not to challenge or criticize things their professors say or readings they assign. This perspective is mostly reasonable, but fails to account for the importance of the development of critical thinking skills. While an undergraduate student is certainly not the peer of their professor, without allowing for student criticism, it is impossible to educate students who think, read, and interact critically. In a conversation with him following the lecture, he was asked where he leaves room for students to be critical or to challenge their professors. He said he leaves very little. He simply reiterated that “he is the professor” and he has to be the one making decisions about the class. If students want to challenge his interpretation of a text he assigns, that is fine, but it is not the place of the student to suggest other texts. This made sense, but it also did not answer the question, communicating that his expectation of his students was that they consistently take what he says at face value, and that he would only accept challenges from other experts.

        The media and the Internet were very closely related as the next major points of challenge. Nichols explained that the media gives us what we want – random people on Facebook can submit questions to news outlets and have them answered, rather than experts on the subject asking and submitting questions. News has been marketized to appeal to a mass audience, and is increasingly being treated like a product being sold rather than as a source of information. The media has been so politicized that “conservatives watch Fox News and liberals watch MSNBC.” As a result, Nichols argues, we can watch and read the news all day long without encountering anything we don’t like. Similarly, the internet is a tool of indulging confirmation bias, creating an “epidemic of narcissism” in which everybody believes not only that they are right, but that their voice ought to be valued as much as that of an expert. Widespread access to information has not made anybody smarter, but it has given everybody the ability to pretend that they are much more knowledgeable than they actually are. He said during the question and answer period that he would have said five or ten years ago that the internet had made our society better overall, but that he was no longer so sure. For the purposes of his argument, that might be fair, but that stance also ignores a much broader picture of the purpose served by the internet. Access to information contributes to the rise of democracy around the world and serves as an essential tool of protecting human rights, regardless of how it may influence discourse in the United States.

        Moving on from the changes in culture, Professor Nichols theorized as to why there is so much disdain for expertise, and why people do not like listening to experts, usually when it means their own voice will be counted less. In short, it is not fun to be wrong. Experts are frequently putting out information that the public does not want to hear or that is inconvenient at the time, so people manufacture their own expertise to get around reality. Acknowledging the shortcomings that experts frequently have in terms of empathy, rigidity, and “staying in their lane,” Nichols went on about what he believes experts owe to the public – to speak the truth, even when it is not what people want to hear – and what the public owes experts in return – to listen to what they have to say. He used several analogies to prove this point, giving the example that he does not expect his electrician, plumber, or doctor to explain exactly what they’re doing; he just trusts their judgement. First of all, it is not reasonable to expect the public not to demand an explanation from experts in any realm – people have the right to know exactly what is going on, and to have a voice in what is going to be done about it after having all of their options explained to them. Second, these analogies do not really translate to the political realm. A person cannot typically have an opinion about the safest way to install wiring – there is a right and a wrong way to do it. The average citizen can, on the other hand, have an opinion about the correct course of action politically, based on their personal values, even if they are not an expert on the topic. These were not the only examples of his that do not hold up to scrutiny. During the question and answer period, when asked a question about cultural relativism, he began by saying that there are universal human values; there is right and wrong, regardless of culture. This is true. He made his fatal error when, to defend this point, he brought up the writings of Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner who would not have included women or people of color in the American political realm of his own accord.

        Professor Nichols concluded by arguing that democracy cannot continue to function if ruled by mass ignorance. While we can recover from many of the mistakes demanded by the public, such as those regarding economics and healthcare, we cannot recover from mistakes regarding war and diplomacy, as those may drive us into World War III, and may even include the use of nuclear weapons. That said, Nichols also speculated that it might take some sort of mass crisis to facilitate the return to trusting experts. For example, it may take a pandemic to snuff out the anti-vaxxer movement, or an economic recession to end the trade wars. He believes that we have come to take miracles of technology, diplomacy, and globalization for granted and that we seek to blame experts when things do not work, even when the public demanded the dooming action. Despite this, we will rely on experts to make things function again, as self-soothing as it may be to blame them while chaos unfolds.

Professor Nichols had a reasonable argument, but made a lot of unreasonable implications in his defense of it. It is true that with the spread of information on the internet, people can artificially manufacture expertise to the detriment of public discourse. The voices of experts should be weighed more heavily than the voices of the public in decision making. However, because this is a democracy, the public still has the right to be involved in decision making, and has the right to ask questions of those making decisions on their behalf. Additionally, Professor Nichols failed to account for academic fields in which lived experience can be as much an indicator of expertise as a degree, such as the experiences of marginalized groups. Finally, there needs to be more room in Nichols’ argument for criticism of experts, especially by college students. The development of critical thinking skills is the most important aspect of education, and it cannot be achieved through deference.


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The Death of Expertise