Tom Nichols is onto something significant and it would behoove each of us to read his book to understand why our country is so divided.
I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters” and it helps me better understand a lot of the nonsense that is tearing our country apart. Although the book was published in early 2017, it is more relevant than ever in 2020.
As the title indicates, there is clearly a war going on with established knowledge and expertise. It’s a phenomenon of damning the facts that goes far beyond flat earthers, anti-vaxers, and deniers of the moon landings and the Holocaust.
If you’ve ever felt that someone’s Google search is no match for your college degree and years of experience, you’ll appreciate what Nichols has to say. Although we live in the Information Age, public discourse is increasingly devoid of truth, facts, and discernment. The sad part is, a lot of it is intentional. Not all information online is true or factual and the Internet is full of misinformation and all-out fabrications. Some is intentional and some is not. The line between fact and opinion has become horribly blurred and twisted.
An underlying theme throughout the book is the rapid rise of narcissistic egalitarianism – a belief that all opinions are equal when in fact they are not, and the one that counts the most is your own. An example of this would be someone’s belief that information about their symptoms they searched on WebMD is equal to or greater than the opinion of their doctor or other medical specialist.
A more updated example would be anti-maskers who feel their “informed” opinion is more valid than the advice given by most medical professionals and medical organizations to wear face coverings to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. One of the pitfalls to this – and something Nichols addresses in his book – is that you can always find someone with a degree of expertise who will offer differing opinions than the majority.
If you think back to the old commercials where “four out of five dentists recommend …” that would be the equivalent to listening to the fifth dentist and ignoring the other four. In “Death of Expertise” Nichols talks at length about when experts are wrong and the harm it causes. He cited many examples of when people deemed experts in their field ignored contradictory findings in their studies or blatantly fabricated information for profit or gain. It’s human nature and it happens.
Those instances aside, most people who are experts in their field have studied, practiced, and gained a dependable level of experience and knowledge. Unfortunately, there is a rapidly increasing number of people who will deny or oppose that expertise and they will do it proudly with disdain. We see that ad nauseum on social media platforms.
As I write this, I’m just hours removed from posting last week’s column about masks on Facebook and am being mercilessly vilified and mocked by anti-maskers, none of whom are offering evidence to the contrary and most of whom either didn’t read the column or else totally missed the point. Either way, they exemplify the point made in Nichols’ book.
One of the sections of the book that was of particular interest to me was the one about the media. It’s not hard to figure out that the public’s trust in modern journalism is at an all-time low, and with good reason. A lot of what passes as news on television and online is increasingly more biased and opinionated. Nichols points to this as the result of the 24-hour news cycle and the need to make the news more entertaining in order to keep an audience.
We’ve also witnessed a rapid increase in the failure of expertise amongst journalists who have been caught falsifying information or completely making up stories. That harms the reputation of the entire profession and makes the jobs of honest, trustworthy journalists that much more difficult. Trust me, I know. It’s hard when you have everyone from the president to the average person on Facebook calling everything fake news and refuting facts with opinion.
There is so much more to “The Death of Expertise” that I’d like to discuss and perhaps I will another time. In the meantime, I highly recommend the book and encourage everyone who is tired of the divisive diatribe that has become our social narrative to read up and become better informed and more discerning.