MARCH 9, 2017
IN JUNE, in a question and answer session on Sky News, the British journalist Faisal Islam pressed Michael Gove, the British justice secretary, to justify his support for the campaign to leave the European Union. He rattled off the organizations that had come out against Brexit — the Bank of England, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the International Monetary Fund, not to mention the US, Indian, Chinese, and Australian governments — and then asked Gove, “Why should the public trust you over them?” Gove was ready with an answer: “I’m not asking the public to trust me. I’m asking the public to trust themselves,” he said. “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.”
He could have been echoing Donald Trump, who, at a campaign rally in La Crosse, Wisconsin, two months earlier, had responded to criticisms of his foreign policy proposals by declaring, “The experts are terrible. Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have. Look at the mess. Look at the Middle East. If our presidents and our politicians went on vacation for 365 days a year and went to the beach, we’d be in much better shape right now in the Middle East.”
Now that he is president, Trump appears to have gone out of his way to fill his cabinet with non-experts: Rick Perry, who once claimed he wanted to dismantle the Department of Energy, as Energy Secretary (succeeding Ernest J. Moniz, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics department); Betsy DeVos, who has no experience running a public school system or crafting statewide education policy, as Education Secretary; Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, as Secretary of State. According to the Washington Post, the people Trump has chosen to lead the country’s government agencies hold fewer advanced degrees than any first-term cabinet in at least 24 years.
The distrust of expertise is part of a revolt against elites that has characterized the global rise of populism. Many people blame experts for a whole host of recent crises, from the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 to the inability to foresee the economic collapse in 2008. This attitude has gained substantial ground in the United States, where public trust in authority figures has hit a nadir. In 1964, American public trust in government peaked at 77 percent; by 2015, it had fallen to just 19 percent. Americans have also lost faith in local police, public schools, organized religion, business, science, medicine, and the media. We are more likely to trust our chiropractors than our journalists.
But beyond an increasing skepticism toward experts, writes Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College, in his new book, The Death of Expertise, we may now be “witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” Americans aren’t just ignorant, argues Nichols, a five-time Jeopardy! champion; they celebrate their ignorance. In 2014, the Washington Post polled Americans about whether the United States should intervene militarily in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite the fact that only one in six Americans could identify Ukraine on a map, respondents expressed strong views on the matter; in fact, Nichols notes, “respondents actually showed enthusiasm for military intervention in Ukraine in direct proportion to their lack of knowledge about Ukraine.” The less people knew, in other words, the more forcefully they held their beliefs.
In some sense, Nichols acknowledges, the problem is an old one. Since the days of ancient Greece, democracies have invited, even encouraged, challenges to accepted knowledge. In the 19th century, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted that Americans seemed especially prone to skepticism. “In most of the operations of the mind,” he wrote, “each American appeals only to the individual effort of his own understanding.” The egalitarian nature of American democracy destroyed, in each citizen, “the disposition to trust the authority of any man whatsoever.” Half a century ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter warned that the overwhelming complexity of modern life left ordinary people dependent on elites, writing, “Once the intellectual was gently ridiculed because he was not needed; now he is fiercely resented because he is needed too much.”
But if the problem is not exactly new, Nichols argues that it has now morphed into something more pernicious. No longer are people merely indifferent to established knowledge; today they are actively hostile toward it. “This is new in American culture,” he argues, “and it represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other.” Nichols offers little in the way of hard data to prove that the hostility that exists now is greater than that which existed half a century or a century ago, but he does point to several recent phenomena indicative of the “death of expertise,” including the anti-vaccination movement and the fad, popular among gourmands despite clear FDA health warnings, of drinking raw milk.
Most troubling, for Nichols, is the rise of “low-information voters,” who believe or insist on broadcasting inaccurate views about government policies, making productive public debate all but impossible. In 2009, for example, around half of all Americans believed, incorrectly, that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels” that would decide who was worthy of receiving health care. Many Americans decry foreign aid as wasted money, but this is likely because 97 percent of Americans have no idea how much Washington spends on foreign aid. More than one in every 10 people believe the United States spends over half of its budget on foreign aid; in fact, it spends less than one percent.
Most of the time, Nichols argues, such ignorance stems from common cognitive errors like confirmation bias, the tendency to look for and accept only information that matches what we already believe. The most extreme forms of confirmation bias manifest themselves in conspiracy theories, and “in modern American politics,” Nichols writes:
conspiracy theories abound. President Obama is a secret Muslim who was born in Africa. President Bush was part of the plot to attack America on 9/11. The Queen of England is a drug dealer. The US government is spraying mind-controlling chemicals in the air through the exhaust ports of jet aircraft. The Jews control everything — except when the Saudis or Swiss bankers are controlling everything.
Conspiracy theories appeal to our sense of heroism — only we can reveal the truth the big bad corporations are keeping from us — but they also reflect our struggle to grapple with a world that, socially and economically, feels increasingly beyond our control.
“Ask any professional or expert about the death of expertise,” Nichols writes, “and most of them will immediately blame the same culprit: the Internet.” It’s not hard to see why. On the web, misinformation abounds, and, on social media, it travels quickly and easily. According to BuzzFeed News, in the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election-related news stories on Facebook were shared and “liked” more often and more widely than the top stories from The New York Times, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News, and others. But, argues Nichols, the internet on its own is not responsible for the death of expertise; “rather,” he writes, “the Internet has accelerated the collapse of communication between experts and laypeople by offering an apparent shortcut to erudition. It allows people to mimic intellectual accomplishment by indulging in an illusion of expertise provided by a limitless supply of facts.”
In the mid-1980s, Philip Tetlock, an expert in political psychology, began what has since become the most famous study of expert failure. He asked 284 experts — professionals who made their “livelihood by commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends of significance” — to assess the likelihood of various events. Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Would Quebec secede? In 2006, after two decades and more than 80,000 forecasts, Tetlock published Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? When experts are pitted against “dart-throwing chimps,” he concluded, “we find few signs that expertise translates into greater ability to make either ‘well-calibrated’ or ‘discriminating’ forecasts.” In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, Gove was spotted reading Superforecasting, Tetlock’s latest book, and Dominic Cummings, the director of the campaign to leave the EU, has suggested Tetlock’s work be mandatory reading for Britain’s political elite.
To his credit, Nichols goes out of his way to acknowledge the many ways experts fail. Like regular people, experts lie, exaggerate, and fall prey to cognitive biases — and sometimes, for one reason or another, they simply make mistakes. In 1982, the Soviet Union experts Seweryn Bialer and Joan Afferica wrote, in Foreign Affairs, “The Soviet Union is not now nor will it be in the next decade in the throes of a true systemic crisis.” Eight years later, the bloc crumbled, blindsiding a generation of Sovietologists. In 2014, Michael LaCour, a graduate student at UCLA, published a study in Science that claimed to show that when opponents of gay marriage discussed the topic with a gay person, they were much more likely to change their mind. Five months later, a graduate student at UC Berkeley discovered that LaCour had fabricated his results.
Nichols devotes part of a chapter to Expert Political Judgment, which he calls “one of the most important works ever written on how experts think.” But he argues that the book does not invalidate expertise more broadly. Tetlock himself found that some experts — those more comfortable with complexity, less confident in their own abilities, and less likely to subscribe to grand overarching theories of history — were more accurate forecasters than others (those who appeared most frequently in the media, meanwhile, were likely to make especially poor predictions). We should not let experts off the hook for “massive failures of insight,” Nichols argues, but neither should we let a few bad calls tarnish all forms of expertise. “The goal of expert advice and prediction is not to win a coin toss, it is to help guide decisions about possible futures,” he writes. “To ask in 1980 whether the Soviet Union would fall before the year 2000 is a yes-or-no question. To ask during the previous decades how best to bring about a peaceful Soviet collapse and to alter the probability of that event (and to lessen the chances of others) is a different matter entirely.” In explaining and analyzing, rather than simply forecasting, experts remain indispensable.
Nichols concludes on a somber note. The US political system is resilient. But “when democracy is understood as an unending demand for unearned respect for unfounded opinions,” he writes, democracy itself is under threat. The United States’s anti-intellectual fever may one day break, but likely only after the country stumbles into a major disaster — a war, perhaps, or another economic collapse. If it is to break sooner, ordinary citizens and experts must learn how to co-exist. The people must realize that they do not know everything. But the experts must remember something, too: that they “are the servants and not the masters” of a society that bestows its trust in them.