Features Australia

The death of expertise

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

7 April 2018

9:00 AM

It must have been a joke. The other day, I was looking through the Harvard Magazine and saw a piece entitled ‘The Mirage of Knowledge’. It was a profile on Tom Nichols, the author of The Death of Expertise.

In this book, Nichols tells us that he is deeply shaken by the ‘new and accelerating hostility toward established knowledge’. ‘People are no longer merely uninformed’, he adds, ‘but aggressively wrong and unwilling to learn’. Nichols offers a range of explanations, including the internet (‘which encourages the illusion that we are all equally competent’), what he calls ‘misguided egalitarianism’, the narcissism of voters and, of course, Donald Trump.

I was delighted to see this. It was clearly a satire written by a group of cheeky undergraduates, I thought.

This Tom Nichols character, who is described as an ex-Sovietologist, was nothing but a figment of their imaginations: a throw-back to the 1980s who bemoans his lack of contemporary relevance and standing. A whisky-soaked, rather dishevelled-looking academic came to mind, cursing the effrontery of the ignorant public.

It was reassuring that somewhere at Harvard, where I studied in the early 2000s, there were people willing to expose the arrogance and elitism of their professors. But as I read on it became clear that this was no joke. Nichols actually exists.  His book had been written in deadly earnest. For him, the failure of the public to uncritically accept expert views was no less than a threat to the US republic. ‘The end of civilisation as we know it’ would be no exaggeration of Nichols’ alarmism.  Surely this man would not be taken seriously, I thought. But no, as I read on I saw that his book has been rapturously received. Published by Oxford last year, it has become a best seller. Nichols, we are told, has been in constant demand as a speaker in the US and abroad, including Australia.

Clearly there is a large and receptive audience for Nichols’ views. Presumably, these people consider themselves to be experts as well; fellow members of an elite, yet under-appreciated class, one that has lost the unthinking respect of the masses and resents that fact.

Plato’s vision of a caste of philosopher kings, an aristocracy of the educated trained to rule over us, came to mind.  This seems to be the dystopia they want, I thought for a moment. But I soon dismissed it. They are not that ambitious and nor do they want the responsibility.

No, their anger comes from a more superficial place. It is a question of etiquette for them. Rather than rule the world, they just want to be treated with deference, a bit like the aristocracies of old when confronted with someone from a lower order. Don’t speak unless spoken to is a rule which non-experts must follow, and never contradict or question what you are told to believe by your betters.

I read on. Nichols acknowledges that experts err, but concludes that this is a rare event. ‘Like plane crashes’, he observes, ‘spectacular but rare’. This is not a reason to abandon experts, he adds, but requires us to find better ones.

This claim suggested once more that Nichols may have been a fictional character. Even the most casual observer of recent, or indeed ancient, history would recognise that expert failure is the norm rather than the exception. In recent decades we’ve had the Club of Rome and expert-led concerns about Y2K and pandemics. In the lead up to 2008, experts discounted any prospect of a housing market collapse in the US and, to top it off, in 2016 there was the Brexit scare. A wise person, when asked to make a bold historical prediction, might well hesitate. But the record shows that, all too often, experts cannot resist the lure of the big call. And when they are shown to have erred, like the problem gambler they double down on their losses, offering even more apocalyptic predictions in place of the ones that weren’t realised. If, to use Nichols’ analogy, planes crashed as frequently as experts erred, air travel would be unthinkable.

At this point, a number of disturbing questions occurred to me. If only experts can judge the bona fides of other experts, who appoints the new set of experts?  Should there be a kind of supreme expert council appointed for this purpose?  And who determines the membership of that august body? And what about demarcation disputes between different groups of experts? How should these be resolved? Should a body of meta-expertise be developed for this purpose?

Further questions intruded. If Nichols and his fellow experts dislike being button-holed by non-experts, perhaps they should don some kind of uniform?  An academic gown? A badge of some description?

Or perhaps a ribbon of a certain colour (akin to the virtue-signalling ribbon-alia we see spruiking other causes)? Grey might be a good choice, projecting sober responsibility.

If I can be serious for a few moments, it is remarkable to me that Harvard, of all the world’s learning institutions, would be trumpeting Nichols’ views. If what Nichols calls ‘established knowledge’ should never be questioned, of course, the Enlightenment would not have occurred.  An uncritical reverence toward current orthodoxies is the antithesis of progress, insulating the status quo (and those with a stake in it) from scepticism and challenge. It is no accident that it is beloved of authoritarians.

For me, scepticism and challenge lie at the heart of our cultural and intellectual heritage. A healthy democracy is impossible without it. Experts can make their case, but we should be suspicious when they refuse to and ask us just to trust them. This is often the refuge of either a mediocrity (who can’t deal with intelligent questioning) or an ideologue (who doesn’t want to expose the value judgements which underpin their views). Policy questions must be explained, argued persuasively and debated. There are no shortcuts.

This leads me back to our Sovietologist, Mr Nichols, who appears to be completely unaware of the following, rather delicious ironies.

First, as we all know, not a single Sovietologist predicted the sudden, virtually violence-free collapse of the Soviet Union. He is a case study, in fact, of expert failure on a grand scale.

Second, Nichols talks about the so-called Dunning-Kruger Effect, a theory ‘which holds that the less competent people are, the greater the belief they tend to have in their own competence’. He applies this to the average person, but I think it sums him up rather well.

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