The Death of Expertise, by Tom Nichols

Experts on a subject can and do make mistakes. However, they are far more right about their field of expertise than laymen. One would think this would be obvious. But it’s not. Someone who has spent decades studying their field gets challenged by a yahoo on Twitter who spent five minutes googling the subject. Given our crazed social media atmosphere, the yahoo often gets supporters, because, a yahoo’s opinion is just as valid as an expert, right?

Wrong. And if you disagree with that, then please, have your knee replacement surgery done by your buddy Joe who knows nothing about surgery, and not by a surgeon who has done hundreds of such surgeries. Let me know how it turns out.

Tom Nichols explores the delusion that every opinion is equally valid. They are not. Some say the earth is flat and will belligerently argue with those who say otherwise. Yet, the earth is not flat. The opinion of flat earthers should be ignored, and not treated as golly, maybe we should let them have their say too.

The problem here is that while we do live in a republic where everyone has an equal vote, that does not conflate to saying all opinions are equal and worthy of discussion. This leads to junk news, fake news, a Tower of Babel – and an uniformed electorate. That’s the real danger, an electorate that thinks it is deeply learned about many things but can’t find Venezuela on a map or thinks we live in a democracy, not a republic (assuming they even know what a republic is.)

Such willful ignorance can lead to our institutions being jacked by nativist populists or Silicon Valley technocrats who know what is best for us.

Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College, a major Never Trumper on Twitter (@radiofreetom), and does not suffer fools gladly.


As Tom Nichols shows in The Death of Expertise, this rejection of experts has occurred for many reasons, including the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement.

Nichols has deeper concerns than the current rejection of expertise and learning, noting that when ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy-or in the worst case, a combination of both. The Death of Expertise is not only an exploration of a dangerous phenomenon but also a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age.

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