Summary of How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why That’s a Giant Problem By Tom Nichols

Summary of

How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why That’s a Giant Problem

By Tom Nichols

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Summary by: Brandon S. Brown

In the opening paragraph to his article, Nichols provides the reader with an important story about a poll that the Washington Post put out in 2014, asking respondents if they favored military intervention by the U.S. in Ukraine.  Despite the fact that only one in six people could identify Ukraine on a map, individuals still expressed pointed views; “in fact, the respondents favored intervention in direct proportion to their ignorance…the people who thought Ukraine was located in Latin America or Australia were the most enthusiastic about using force there” (2).  To strengthen the effect of his introduction, he references another poll asking voters if they supported bombing Agrabah, without telling them it was the fictional land from the 1992 Disney film Aladdin; the results varied according to party affiliation, with nearly a third of Republican respondents in favor of bombing and 13 percent opposed, and 36 percent of Democrats opposed with 19 percent in favor.

These incidents are not exceptions to the norm, they are increasingly becoming the norm in the U.S.  The rejection of expertise has become a symbol of demonstrating autonomy, stepping away from the “nefarious elites.” It is a mechanism of protecting the fragile ego of the American people, at least when it comes to issues like public policy.  Nichols discusses the seeming death of principled, informed arguments, and the birth of angry shouting matches in their place, as the status quo.  This does not amount, in Nichols view, to a shying away from expert claims or the practice of experts giving considered and experienced advice, but instead is indicative of the death of expertise itself.  Valid expert opinion is being replaced by the google-scholar and the Wikipedia-wizard, and a collapse is happening between those with achievement in a specific area or field, and those with nothing more than interest.

Important conversations require healthy dialogue between ordinary citizens and experts, but in the current American social climate, citizens seem to be unwilling to have those conversations.  The value of actual knowledge and understanding regarding a specific field is being replaced with a desire to have one’s opinions valued simply because of the strength of feelings they have on any specified topic.  Unfortunately, strength of feelings paired with stray information gathered during a lunch break does not, in any way, add up to actual knowledge or understanding.  According to Nichols, “A modern society cannot function without a social division of labor.  No one is an expert of everything” (4).  The problem, which Richard Hofstadter alludes to, is that the intellectual was once ridiculed for not being needed and is now resented for being needed too much.  In a world where the size and complexity of government makes it quite difficult for voters and laypersons to understand, let alone monitor, the many activities of the powerful elite, a deep mistrust and resentment has been born which compels people to not only shun expert opinion, but to do so with an uninformed recklessness.

Nichols believes this is a phenomenon that is due to the absence of what experts call “metacognition,” which translates as the ability to take a step back and see one’s own cognitive processes in perspective.  The process of metacognitionis one that is established through the process of pursuing expertise—the more you understand about a specific topic of study, the more you are able to recognize when you are committing errors both in thought and in action.  Metacognition is why professional singers are able to hear  the slightest nuance of an off-note, while those atrocious shower-superstars that we all know think they are killing every song they belt out.  Nichols references the many studies that have confirmed that “individuals who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance”. (8), He then proceeds to give a list of examples.  Ultimately, “it’s very hard to educate or inform people who, when in doubt, just make stuff up.  The least competent people turn out to be the ones least likely to realize they are wrong and others are right, and the most likely to respond to their own ignorance by trying to fake it.”These are also the people who are  the least able to learn anything (8). 

The presence of easily retrieved confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek out information which corroborates what individuals already do, or want to believe, is one of the major problems that experts are currently battling.  Scientists and researchers must grapple with this as a professional hazard on a regular basis—a hazard that they are well-informed about and constantly checking for.  But, outside the realm of scholarly articles and peer-reviews, arguments among the normal citizenry exist…arguments that have no mechanism of external review or accountability, leading to the coming and going of facts as people find them convenient, making opinion and argument “unfalsifiable and intellectual progress impossible” (9).  Conspiracy theories are circulated and adopted because they give context and meaning to things that would otherwise be frightening to research, and in societies that have suffered collective traumas, they become a mechanism for undermining the interpersonal discourse on which democracy depends.  Conspiracy theories feed themselves by being unfalsifiable; “experts who contradict them demonstrate that they, too, are part of the conspiracy” (10).  Easily-obtained confirmation bias coupled with the constant presence of conspiracy theories, combined with the complex nature of politics, make things all the more complicated in the U.S.  The rooting of political views in self-image and belief makes challenging such views a process that is typically resisted by any-means necessary, even when the challenge comes from a trusted source or expert.

The presence of advanced information technology, namely the Internet, where over one billion websites now exist, are not the primary problem we are facing, but most certainly fuel the death of expertise.  Even without the Internet, the invention of the printing press launched an assault against expertise, so the presence of the Internet itself is not the problem. It is the acceleration of the collapse of communication between experts and laypeople which has offered “an apparent shortcut to erudition” (11).  To use the Internet effectively, one must have some training in navigating the storms of useless and/or misleading information presented to searchers; the web does little good for the commoner who is oblivious to the lack of reputability of the majority of sources on the Internet, especially when it comes to the giant echo chamber that is social media.

Finally, fueling the war against expertise, is the presence of “outright deception and malfeasance, in which experts intentionally falsify their results or rent out their professional authority to the highest bidder” (14).  Experts must be willing to navigate their fields, and the world, with integrity and accountability.  They must be willing to own their mistakes whence they fail and prove to the general public that they are taking steps to correct their mistakes.  In the world of public policy specifically, this is happening much less than it should.  In a democracy, government and expertise need to rely on one another for the good of the people because the relationship between the two and the citizenry; “rests on a foundation of mutual respect and trust.  When that foundation erodes, experts and laypeople become warring factions and democracy itself can become a casualty, decaying into mob rule or elitist technocracy” (15). 

The road is a two-way street when it comes to re-establishing expertise as a trustworthy source of information.  Citizens must understand that democracy is meant to be a system of political equality where all voices have a say and are equal in the eyes of the law, rather than believing that it is a state of actual equality where every opinion is as good as the next regardless of logic or evidence.  Conversely, experts need to remember that first and foremost, they are servants of the democracy as a whole.  Through integrity and professionalism experts can begin to win back the trust of the public a little bit at a time, and only through that slow and arduous process can the necessary mutual respect be restored.