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The Death of Expertise Book Summary – Tom Nichols

What you will learn from reading The Death of Expertise:

– Why the transformation of education into a consumer good is a bad idea.

– Why obsession with equality has lead to equality of perspectives which undermines experts.

– Why experts being wrong doesn’t make them not experts.

The Death of Expertise Book Summary

The Death of Expertise was a really interesting book. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with everything Tom Nichols has to say, I do think he’s relatively on the money with the thesis that there is a ‘campaign against established knowledge’. This book explores the causes of why trust in experts has eroded. This book will help help you see how the internet has had some negative effects on the world and why some popular ideas such as ‘wisdom of crowds’ aren’t always correct.


The Rejection of established knowledge:

Tom Nichols suggests there is a self-righteousness and fury to this the rejection of expertise in society that suggest, at least to him, that this isn’t just mistrust or questioning or the pursuit of alternatives: it is narcissism, coupled to a disdain for expertise as some sort of exercise in self-actualization.

He notices that, not only do increasing numbers of laypeople lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.


Society works by deploying experts:

Day to day, laypeople have no choice but to trust experts. We live our lives embedded in a web of social and governmental institutions meant to ensure that professionals are in fact who they say they are, and can in fact do what they say they do.

Universities, accreditation organizations, licensing boards, certification authorities, state inspectors, and other institutions exist to maintain those standards. In general, these safeguards work well. We are shocked, for example, when we read a story about an incompetent doctor who kills a patient exactly because such stories, in a country where nearly a million physicians practice medicine safely every day, are so unusual.

The relationship between experts and citizens, like almost all relationships in a democracy, is built on trust. When that trust collapses, experts and laypeople become warring factions. And when that happens, democracy itself can enter a death spiral that presents an immediate danger of decay either into rule by the mob or toward elitist technocracy. Both are authoritarian outcomes, and both threaten the United States today.


‘Let’s agree to disagree’ – The Debating of the future:

Instead of arguing, experts today are supposed to accept such disagreements as, at worst, an honest difference of opinion. We are supposed to “agree to disagree,” a phrase now used indiscriminately as little more than a conversational fire extinguisher.

And if we insist that not everything is a matter of opinion, that some things are right and others are wrong … well, then we’re just being jerks, apparently.


The confusion with Equal rights – Are all opinions equal?

Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about thing must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s. This is the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense. It is a flat assertion of actual equality that is always illogical, sometimes funny, and often dangerous. 

Here’s an example, answer this.

Are students guesses as good as professors?

Tom Nichols talks about a lecture he once witnessed were Jastrow had to remind a student that their guesses weren’t as good as his.

“Well.” the student said, “your guess is as good as mine.” Jastrow stopped the young man short. “No, no, no,” he said emphatically. “My guesses are much, much better than yours.”

Professor Jastrow has since passed away,  I suspect that he was trying to teach some life lessons that are increasingly resisted by college students and citizens alike: that admission to college is the beginning, not the end, of education and that respecting a person’s opinion does not mean granting equal respect to that person’s knowledge. Whether national missile defenses are a wise policy is still debatable. What hasn’t changed, however, is that the guesses of an experienced astrophysicist and a college sophomore are not equivalently good.


The problem with Education:

Higher education as a consumer good:

Tom Nichols explains that the broad availability of a college education-paradoxically-is making many people think they’ve become smarter when in fact they’ve gained only an illusory intelligence bolstered by a degree of dubious worth.

When students become valued clients instead of learners, they gain a great deal of self-esteem, but precious little knowledge; worse, they do not develop the habits of critical thinking that would allow them to continue to learn and to evaluate the kinds of complex issues on which they will have to deliberate and vote as citizens.

This cultural change is important to the death of expertise, because as programs proliferate to meet demand, schools become diploma mills whose actual degrees are indicative less of education than of training, two distinctly different concepts that are increasingly conflated in the public mind. In the worst cases, degrees affirm neither education nor training, but attendance. At the barest minimum, they certify only the timely payment of tuition.

The emergence of these faux universities is in part a response to an insatiable demand for degrees in a culture where everyone thinks they should go to college. This, in turn, has created a destructive spiral of credential inflation. Schools and colleges cause this degree inflation the same way governments cause monetary inflation: by printing more paper.

College is supposed to be an uncomfortable experience. It is where person leaves behind the rote learning of childhood and accepts the anxiety, discomfort, and challenge of complexity that leads to the acquisition of deeper knowledge-hopefully, for a lifetime. A college degree, whether in physics or philosophy, is supposed to be the mark of a truly “educated” person who not only has command of a particular subject, but also has a wider understanding of his or her own culture and history. It’s not supposed to be easy.


The Coddling of the Mind:

Unearned praise and hollow successes build a fragile arrogance in students that can lead them to lash out at the first teacher or employer who dispels that illusion, a habit that proves hard to break in adulthood.

Engagement and debate are the lifeblood of a university, and professors are not above criticism of either their ideas or their teaching ability. But the industrial model of education has reduced college to a commercial transaction, where students are taught to be picky consumers rather than critical thinkers.

The ripple effect on expertise and the fuel this all provides to attacks on established knowledge defeat the very purpose of a university.


Just because you’re not always right doesn’t mean you are always wrong:

At the root of all this is an inability among laypeople to understand that experts being wrong on occasion about certain issues is not the same thing as experts being wrong consistently on everything.

The fact of the matter is that experts are more often right than wrong, especially on essential matters of fact. And yet the public constantly searches for the loopholes in expert knowledge that will allow them to disregard all expert advice they don’t like.


Anecdotes don’t trump data:

For people who believe flying is dangerous, there will never be enough safe landings to outweigh the fear of the one crash. “Confronted with these large numbers and with the correspondingly small probabilities associated with them,” Paulos wrote in 2001, “the innumerate will inevitably respond with the non sequitur, ‘Yes, but what if you’re that one, and then nod knowingly, as if they’ve demolished your argument with their penetrating insight.”

Examples and counter examples don’t disprove generalisations. Just because a plane crashed once doesn’t mean all planes crash.


Why do we have Conspiracy Theorists?

Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give context and meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible things happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurrences as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. These are awful choices, and even thinking about them can induce the kind of existential despair.

Whatever it is, somebody is at fault, because otherwise we’re left blaming only God, pure chance, or ourselves.

Conspiracy theorists manipulate all tangible evidence to fit their explanation, but worse, they will also point to the absence of evidence as even stronger confirmation. After all, what  better sign of a really effective conspiracy is there than a complete lack of any trace that the conspiracy exists? Facts, the absence of facts, contradictory facts: everything is proof. Nothing can ever challenge the underlying belief.


Interesting Etymology of Prejudice ( I didn’t know this!) :

Stereotypes are not predictions, they’re conclusions. That’s why it’s called “prejudice”: it relies on pre-judging.


The Internet’s effects on Established Knowledge:

The internet is a vessel not a referee:

Come of the information on the Internet is wrong because of sloppiness, some of it is wrong because well-meaning people just don’t know any better, and some of it is wrong because it was put there out of greed or even sheer malice. The medium itself, without comment or editorial intervention, displays it all with equal speed. The Internet is a vessel, not a referee.


The impact of the internet:

The deeper issue here is that the Internet is actually changing the way we read, the way we reason, even the way we think, and all for the worse. We expect information instantly. We want it broken down, presented in a way that is pleasing to our eye-no more of those small-type, fragile textbooks, thank you–and we want it to say what we want it to say.

People do not come to the Internet so that their bad information can be corrected or their cherished theories disproven. Rather, they ask the electronic oracle to confirm them in their ignorance.

Experts and other professionals who insist on the dreary rigor of logic and factual accuracy cannot compete with a machine that will always give readers their preferred answer in sixteen million colours.

Unfortunately people thinking they’re smart because they searched the Internet is like thinking they’re good swimmers because they got wet walking through a rainstorm.


The shadow of the more connected world:

In a slower, less-connected world, these kinds of groups could not reinforce their beliefs with instantaneous affirmation from other extremists online. The free movement of ideas is a powerful driver of democracy, but it always carries the risk that ignorant or evil people will bend the tools of mass communication to their own ends and propagate lies and myths that no expert can dispel.


The wisdom of crowds:

Crowds can be wise. Not everything, however, is amenable to the vote of a crowd. The Internet creates a false sense that the opinions of many people are tantamount to a “fact.” How a virus is transmitted from one human being to another is not the same thing as guessing how many jelly beans are in a glass barrel. As the comedian John Oliver has complained, you don’t need to gather opinions on a fact: “You might as well have a poll asking: ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?’ or Do owls exist?’ or ‘Are there hats?”


The problem with journalism:

The short answer where journalism is -pour concerned-in an explanation that could be applied to many modern innovations-is that technology collided with capitalism and gave people what they wanted, even when it wasn’t good for them.


Rethinking failures of prediction:

In the natural sciences, prediction and explanation go hand in hand: once a physical phenomenon is understood, its behavior should be predictable, and can even sometimes be expressed as a law.

Social scientists, historians, and other observers of human behavior, by contrast, tend to favor explanation over raw prediction. In many fields outside the hard sciences, conclusions are probabilistic rather than absolute. And yet, society as a client tends to demand far more prediction than explanation. Worse, laypeople tend to regard failures of prediction as indications of the worthlessness of expertise.


But, experts can and do lie:

When actual experts lie, they endanger not only their own profession but also the well-being of their client: society. Their threat to expertise comes in both the immediate outcome of their chicanery and the erosion of social trust such misconduct creates when it is discovered.


How Peer Review Works:

This kind of verification assumes, however, that anyone is bothering to replicate the work in the first place. Ordinary peer review does not include re-running experiments; rather, the referees read the paper with an assumption that basic standards of research and procedure were met. They decide mostly if the subject is important, whether the data are of sufficient quality, and whether the evidence presented supports the conclusions.


Stop listening to celebrities:

Over the years, celebrities have steeped themselves in disputes about which they have very little knowledge. They push fads, create false alarms, and change the daily habits of millions of gullible fans.


Claims to equality usually have ulterior motives:

The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which [a human being] refuses to accept. And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation.