confirmation bias, critical thinking, Death of Expertise, democracy, expertise, Gutenburg, internet, journalism, media, printing press, psychology, public sphere, safe space, social media, Tom Nichols, trigger words, university
There are few books – at least contemporary ones – I would insist that one must read, but Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, a spectacular survey of the most corrosive social malady of our time, is undoubtedly one of them. In an era in which another’s ignorance has not only become as good as one’s knowledge but there is outright hostility towards any kind of proficiency, The Death of Expertise comes as a much-needed, calm, and unbiased analysis of today’s warped public sphere.
Every generation inevitably complains about the one following it. The “deterioration” in values, the “abandonment” of customs and traditions, the pursuit of “newfangled” ways and questionable goals have always attracted the sharp remarks of older generations. As Seneca the Younger reminds Lucilius in one of his Moral Epistles (#97), these are the vices of mankind and not of a certain age. Nichols’ issue is not with this recurring generation gap. Rather, The Death of Expertise addresses the contemporary normalisation of ignorance in civil society and hostility, not just rejection, towards experts and their research. The United States is a country that is obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance, Nichols argues, where people are proud of not knowing things and to reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy.
In studying this postmodern turn, Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, looks at American society but his observations can, in an increasingly globalised world, easily be applied to several countries with only a few minor local adjustments.
Nichols sees four reasons why the reservoir of latent hatred for experts has burst its banks in the past couple of decades. First, universities have started treating students as customers rather than informed members of a future body politic; two, the internet has made possible the lightning spread of spurious data and arguments; three, the media has abandoned its post as the sentinels of society; and four, experts have become increasingly unaccountable, insular and defensive.
India does not suffer from the same problems American universities are facing – yet. There have thankfully been no demands for safe spaces or trigger warnings from Indian students in the humanities so far. Additionally, lack of privatisation in education has not allowed the profit motive to dictate Indian curricula yet. Rather, the primary concern is the politicisation of the university and the student body. Not only does this manifest itself in cheap displays such as that of hosting beef festivals or expressing solidarity with separatist terrorists that are further sensationalised by the media but the political slant in the curriculum itself. The abdication of the Right from politics after independence allowed the Left to capture key institutions in India. Decrying moral science in schools, education became about Leftist values. Critical thinking, that most important of skills we hope to pick up in our 12+4 years of schooling, was the first victim.
This is not to say that college goers have become dumber over the years. Nichols cites the example of a 1943 survey in which only six percent of incoming freshmen could name the original thirteen colonies; India was/is probably not much different. What has changed, thanks to greater penetration of the state and the internet, is our awareness of it. It also speaks to our failure as a society to harness technology to prepare a better informed citizenry.
It is not fair to blame the internet for the death of expertise, and Nichols admits to as much. Critics of the Gutenberg printing press worried that “printed books and broadsheets would undermine religious authority, demean the work of scholars and scribes, and spread sedition and debauchery.” They were not entirely wrong. Though the printing press enabled the spread of literacy and the easy dissemination of knowledge, it also produced tracts like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and taught people to confuse words with facts that diluted that same knowledge. The internet is the printing press at the speed of fibre optics. Nichols argues that the speed and reach of the internet changes the process by which we consume information. Furthermore, the lack of gatekeepers to the material available together with the inability to think critically makes for a deadly combination. As Nichols notes, as Wikipedia has evolved, it has sought to emulate a peer review process akin to professional journals. Whatever flaws the academic process has – and there are many – it remains a relatively reliable source of getting accurate information. Moreover, the sheer volume of websites available makes it difficult for a well-intentioned autodidact to sift through the chaff and arrive at credible information that has been put together cogently and argued logically.
It has also been shown that reading information on a screen changes the way we read. Rather than read horizontally, our eyes make an ‘F’ pattern down the page. Essentially, this means picking up the headlines and maybe a couple of sentences beyond but not engaging with much of the article. The purpose of most readers today is to pronounce judgement on the author rather than engage with the topic under consideration.
As Nichols argues, “the Internet has accelerated the collapse of communication between experts and laypeople by offering an apparent shortcut to erudition. It allows people to mimic intellectual accomplishment by indulging in an illusion of expertise provided by a limitless supply of facts… This is erudition in the age of cyberspace: You surf until you reach the conclusion you’re after.”
Confirmation bias is something that affects not just lay people but even experts: we all like to be right and the evidence that tells us so is irresistible. However, experts have been trained to recognise this failing and their work is subjected to peer review to additionally screen for such biases but laypeople on the internet have neither safety nets. History is not done merely by referencing a couple of primary sources any more than one knows sailing because he read Moby Dick. Expertise is more about years of diligent practice and methodology more than it is about the simple accumulation and recall of facts on demand.
The third pillar of society that has given away is the media. World over, not just in India, people have less faith that the media are reporting news honestly and accurately. Most news outlets have become commentary portals rather than houses of old-fashioned journalism. In India, the media has completely lost credibility due to its servility to political parties of one persuasion and the habit of “manufacturing news.” Social media, for all its ills, is seen as a David to the media’s Goliath and this emotional loyalty gives credibility to even the most spurious of anonymous claims floating around on these sites.
Whether it is due to government regulations on speech, unseen financial and access strings, or personal advancement, the media’s partisan character has irredeemably damaged its reputation among laypeople. Journalism is one of the most important institutions in a democratic society and this erosion of trust has consequently skewed Indian democracy and society. Half the time, the vicious arguments over food, language, sport, Kashmir, customs, minorities, or economics is actually not over those issues but over something far more fundamental. In this cacophony, the public sphere can only limp forward.
This is just one part of the rot in the fourth estate. In the pursuit of profit, even sensible editors are pressured into casting headlines as click-bait and looking for the sensational angle to every story. Thus, a missing lamp-post becomes a caste conflagration, a heat wave becomes a communal innuendo, and celebrities’ musical genitalia take precedence over matters of policy and substance. As long as this business model is rewarded over long form essays, it is difficult to fault media houses alone for sensationalism.
Finally, Nichols turns his gaze on to the experts. Despite being a professor himself and presumably of the class the masses would term as elite, Nichols is unsparing in his criticism of his colleagues. Yes, experts can get it wrong sometimes, Nichols admits, they should certainly be held more accountable than they are today. Yet the public also needs to be able to understand the difference between an expert getting something wrong once or twice and the hundreds of times the same expert has got something right. The one-in-a-million stories of a teen finding an accurate diagnosis on Google while his doctor gets it wrong makes headlines but the ten thousand other times the same doctor made a correct diagnosis is forgotten. To demand that level of perfection from anyone is asking to be disappointed.
Experts do sometimes branch out beyond the scope of their expertise, commenting on fields of study that bear little relation to what they do. This is a human folly, the irresistible urge to proffer an opinion, especially when asked for one. Pace the inter-disciplinary trend, it would behoove experts to mind the fences and tend to their own field when asked about topics unfamiliar to them academically.
What is important is that experts ask normal citizens to trust them and have confidence that mistakes will be rare, that experts will learn from the rare mistake they make and constantly improve themselves. On the other hand, an amateur with slick fingers on a keyboard may occasionally be able to trump an expert but he would be hard-pressed to give a repeat performance.
People must also be discerning what information they consume. When an argument is presented, it is vital not only to look at the inherent logic but also the data, its sources, and the track record and credentials of the person making the argument. Part of the problem is that laypeople are uncomfortable with ambiguity – they prefer answers rather than caveats. Except in exceptionally rare occasions, expertise only comes in shades of grey.
The Death of Expertise is a tour de force that has implications beyond just the sad state of public awareness and the failure of some of our prized institutions. Nichols uses plenty of data, anecdotes, and arguments to make a persuasive case that the public sphere stands on a precipice. Readers will find Nichols’ mustering of psychology an important peg in his analysis of what ails modern discourse. Ultimately, he is more hopeful than I that we can step back from the edge.
Although The Death of Expertise does not address this issue and its author remains committed to the status quo of the present systems of government, it is our duty to ask ourselves again if democracy is indeed the best possible system of government. The theory sounds great but in practice, we are unsure if everyone is willing to be sufficiently informed to be a useful member of the pubic sphere. If not, why must the rest force this choice upon them? Perhaps, like Athens, a multi-tiered democracy might be an option worth exploring for political theorists; perhaps the Great Reform Act of 1867 was overly progressive. The more we force everyone to become part of an informed electorate, the more we may end up feeling the sensation Roman senators felt when Julius Caesar introduced Gauls into the Senate.
But this is the opinion of an expert. And he could be wrong.