The following review was published in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, August 2017
Tom Nichols’ recent book on the increasing disconnect between experts and laypeople is quite popular, judging from its current (June 2017) No. 1 ranking in the “Philosophy/Epistemology” section of amazon.com. Not entirely surprising – the current political climate makes the topic resonate with intellectuals (aka “experts”) across the board. The book is very accessible and it is a highly entertaining read. It explores why “people have had enough of experts”, to quote Michael Gove, the former British Secretary of State for Education, and why it matters. This is of course not a new topic, but it has gained such incredible momentum that it now poisons the public debate on basically every relevant issue.
Central to the book is the thesis that experts in the US are more and more denigrated by willfully ignorant and intellectually lazy laypeople, who claim that 20 minutes of googling are easily on par with 20 years of experience on the job because they confuse google-induced gut feeling with actual knowledge. The book is often polemic and sarcastic, sometimes bitter – and it is fortified with a plethora of anecdotes and examples that are sometimes almost too stupefying to believe. For example, half the US population seems to have had a defined view in 2015 on whether or not to bomb the country of Agrabah – which is actually a fictitious land from Walt Disney’s film Alladin. Another striking example is Nichols’ examination why gourmands blatantly ignore the 2012 report of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) that drinking raw milk is the equivalent of playing food-driven Russian roulette with children’s health. He argues that this might be due to earlier diet recommendations that were retracted in the end – and then drives home the point that experts certainly get it wrong on occasion, but that they still “have a better track record than the average overweight American at keeping people alive with healthy diets”. Although all these anecdotes are convincing and certainly entertaining, every now and then I wish that Nichols had dived in a bit deeper and explored the underlying principal causes and societal mechanisms in more depth.
The book examines definitions of expertise, its role in society, the consequences of experts being wrong, their role in political decision-making and the interactions between laypeople, politicians, and experts. Nichols also analyzes the impact of having access to a virtually unlimited amount of largely unvalidated and often conflicting information via the internet and the bubbles of social media. Finally, he discusses the inability of established media outlets to fact-check on a broader scale and their failure to focus on news actually worth reporting, instead of relentlessly click-baiting our lowest instincts. In particular, Nichols enjoys grinding his ax with the American education system, concluding that “‘Going to college’ is, for many students, just one more exercise in personal self affirmation.” Not only the notorious Halloween incident at Yale University in 2015, but also very recent events at Evergreen College in Washington State seem to support the author’s conclusions.
Nichols finally concludes that “The abysmal literacy, both political and general, of the American public is the foundation for all of these problems.” and that, consequently “Americans have increasingly unrealistic expectations of what their political and economic system can provide. Unable to comprehend all of the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame experts, politicians, and bureaucrats for seizing control of their lives.” I often found myself enthusiastically nodding while reading, accompanied by a sinking feeling of despair.
The book analyzes the issue from a US perspective, which made me wonder whether we Europeans entertain a more fact-oriented, intellectually more honest public discourse. I have not yet made up my mind completely, but following the British Brexit debate certainly does not spark optimism. Perhaps we should simply use the current appalling state of affairs in the US, the UK and elsewhere as a compass pointing south, in order to work towards a more fact-based political debate, advised by experts.
Unfortunately, the book’s concluding chapters are too often mere repetitions of what was already presented in earlier chapters. Every now and then they provide additional insights on why things are as bad as they are, but they offer no convincing suggestions on how we could drag ourselves out of the swamp.
In the end, Nichols’ book calls for lifelong learning, asks us to respect other people’s expertise and requests that we acknowledge that our society is crucially dependent on expert knowledge and action. One can only hope that the book helps to spread these crucial messages. Although, given that the book is written by an obvious expert, it might be largely ignored by those who would gain most from reading it.
Finally, two recommendations for further reading, which I came across while trying to find some way out of this mess: “More professionalism, less populism: How voting makes us stupid, and what to do about it” by Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes from the Center for Effective Public Management at Brookings (2017, free download at https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/more-professionalism-less-populism.pdf) and “Post-Truth – the new war on truth and how to fight back” by Matthew d’Ancona (Ebury Press, 2017).