Tom Nichols is a professor, a 5 time Jeopardy! champion, and author. His most recent book is The Death of Expertise. His book is a mostly well founded rant against the willingness to believe stupid things, the distrust of people who know what they’re talking about, and the turn against factual knowledge in general.
As a PhD student, much of what he wrote resonated with me. I do take umbrage with some of his comments on education, but only because they’re based on antiquated pedagogical thoughts that ignore recent research. I hope you enjoy this look into some of his ideas. After a few quotes, I hope to provide you with 3 ways to combat the death of expertise in your own life.
The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance.
Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learn anything.
Second…experts will make mistakes, but they are far less likely to make mistakes than a layperson.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect, in sum, means that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb.
Pommer’s Law, in which the Internet can only change a person’s mind from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.
Skitt’s Law: ‘Any Internet message correcting an error in another post with contain at least one error itself.’
People do not do “research” as much as they “search for pretty pages online to provide answers they like with the least amount of effort and in the shortest time.”
Worse, voters not only didn’t care that Trump is ignorant or wrong, they likely were unable to recognize his ignorance or errors.
3 Ways to Combat The Death of Expertise
Stop Taking the Easy Way Out
Looking for what you want to believe, and nothing else, is stupid. Confirmation Bias is something to be combated, not fed. Is your life, and your “research,” just an echo chamber? Do you immediately look for the easiest answer?
An area where I previously struggled with this was nutrition. There’s so much mind-numbing crap out there that preys on people’s fears and the horrific reporting on the topic in recent decades. I initially bought in on the whole organic craze, reading nothing but the anti-scientific nutjobs who were pushing it. Once I took my normal approach to researching a topic, it became clear just how stunningly, intentionally false most of the organic and “clean” food movement is. The research, the legitimate double blind scholarly research, is unanimous on the health of GMO breeding methods and superiority of their environmental impact. Additionally, the voices against conventional and GMO foods share a common problem.
Trust Experts (in their field)
I’m becoming an expert in Instructional Design, Online Education, and closely related topics. I’m fairly well informed on other topics, but nobody should consider me an expert in those areas unless it is evident that my position matches the research.
One of the largest voices against GMO foods is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He’s a legitimate expert in his field, which is risk management. One thing he’s not, is an expert in nutrition. Yet, despite that, he consistently stands at the forefront of the debate except when actual debate is required. Other influential names on the anti-GMO side are similarly unqualified and not publishing peer reviewed research to support their positions. As of 2013 there were over 2000 real, academic studies showing the safety of GMO foods. In 2014 a 1 trillion meal study was published saying the same thing. The current count is a total of more than 7800 studies with unanimous results. There is no debate except by those who are ill-informed and peddling in fear mongering under the veneer of intellectualism.
Seek Differing Viewpoints
In education, I favor the pedagogical approaches of constructivism and connectivism. Those terms mean nothing to most people, but one of my disagreements with The Death of Expertise is that the author’s viewpoint is largely behaviorist. I only know that because my PhD required me to do a deep dive into various constructs and weigh the evidence before coming to any conclusions.
In addition to ensuring that the resources you use are legitimate, you need to actively seek out those that are in some level of disagreement. If you’re delving into the nutrition realm, knowing that people think GMO foods are unsafe is good. You can take that information and engage with the research and experts to see if it’s valid. That approach can be applied to anything.
One of my favorite quotes ever comes from a short lived TV show called Sports Night. The character Isaac Jaffe, played by the brilliant Robert Guillaume, was giving advice to another character and said something I believe to be truly profound. He simply said, “If you’re stupid, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”
Take that approach to life and you’ll master real learning.
So What Are You Going To Do About It?
Every single vote in a democracy is equal to every other, but every single opinion is not, and the sooner American society reestablishes new ground rules for productive engagement between the educated elite and the society they serve, the better.
So, what are the fake things you’re most likely to believe? Where have your biases been discovered and how often do you seek input from the people who know you best?