I had to think long and hard about tackling this particular subject, because Tom Nichols is a smart man and I often agree with what he has to say. Even in this, there are some points of agreement. I’ve long noted the dumbing down of America, most poignantly demonstrated in the under-appreciated film Idiocracy. When Tom speaks of the death of expertise, he is commenting on a phenomenon that is real, pervasive, and at least partially responsible for the mess America finds herself in. After all, if the average voter is a complete moron, should we be surprised when he votes for morons to represent him?
Yet, Tom and I got into a bit of a flame war on Twitter surrounding this issue. It started when the 911 transcripts for the Orlando shooting were released with the now-famous [omitted] redactions plastered throughout. Now, as my readers are aware, I have a very personal interest in the Orlando shooting. So I found this transcript rather insulting. Even the idiots Tom is wont to rant about are likely able to make the connections the redactions were supposed to suppress. The government wasn’t fooling anybody, but they did demonstrate just how little they think of the American people.
Even the redneck from Podunk is likely to understand that much. I suggested that they ought to release the 911 transcript without such redactions, and release any other such materials that were not classified. Daylight, I said, was the best disinfectant for terrorism. Tom vehemently disagreed with me, and framed the resulting argument as a sort of anti-intellectualism. The flame war continued for awhile, and some choice words were exchanged. I won’t get into it here, but you can view it on my Twitter account, from a couple of days ago, if you wish.
One of the things that struck me as odd, however, was that Tom explicitly trusted the intelligence community to handle this matter. He stated as much, likening my suspicion of them to desiring a random layman to pilot an airplane. Yet therein lies the problem with Tom’s argument. I trust the pilot not merely because he has credentials, but because the safety record for commercial airline travel is impeccable. You are far more likely to die driving a car, than in an airline crash.
So unless the pilot is shouting “Allahu Akbar” I have little reason to doubt him. On matters of intelligence analysis, however, we have more reason to doubt. In this specific instance, the Orlando shooting, the FBI had been watching him for some time. He had been on and off of terror watchlists. A gun store reported him as suspicious, also. The analysts categorically failed with him.
Furthermore, the Obama administration often characterizes right-wing terrorism as the grave threat which America faces. Is this a failure of intelligence, or just a failure on the part of the chief executive? I don’t know, but it’s worth investigating. Other intelligence failures abound. Everything from Benghazi, to 9/11, to the Iraq war indicate failures in intelligence.
And, apart from those failures, it’s worth noting that even if you accept the expertise of the government in these matters, that doesn’t mean you trust their motives. The airline pilot and his passengers have no conflict of interest, generally speaking. All involved desire that the plane land safely at its destination (the rare suicidal pilot being the noted exception). So, with the documented safety record of commercial airline travel being good, his credentials and expertise, and with the alignment of our interests, I am pleased to trust the pilot.
That does not mean I should trust the government experts. Their interests do not necessarily align with mine. The government has a record filled with intelligence failures. The administration is on record saying the most blatantly untrue things, be it either out of ignorance or malice (or both). So, while I am not an intelligence expert, I do have good reason not to trust them. If you hire an electrician to fix your breaker box, and after he leaves the breakers keep tripping, you know that he failed, even if you don’t necessarily know what, specifically, he did wrong.
Tom explains his view for us:
I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.
This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.
To some extent, I agree with his first statement, that there are all too many people who will think themselves knowledgeable on a thing merely because they looked it up on Wikipedia. I tire of them. I have spent much of my adult life studying Byzantine history, and I once found myself in a debate regarding the Pirenne Thesis, a theory put forth by Henri Pirenne in the 1930s regarding the then-innovative idea that it wasn’t the Germans who were responsible for the Fall of Rome, but rather the Arabs. Several of us educated on matters of Byzantine history were discussing the finer points of the thesis when a Wiki-idiot decided to butt in and explain that Wikipedia said the Roman Empire fell in 476, and Arabs didn’t come until later, so we were all wrong.
To say I wanted to throttle this person until his head popped was an understatement. It didn’t help that his proclamation was followed by the sort of Jon Stewart smugness such people are naturally inclined to. So in this, I understand and agree with Tom completely.
It is the second paragraph where Tom starts to go awry. He declares: “…and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.”
Here’s the thing, they do have a right to their opinion. If someone wants to ignore the advice of his doctor, and go get acupuncture treatment instead, that’s his right. Indeed, perhaps a little natural selection might improve the gene pool. Even the smug Wiki-idiot who interrupted our discussion on Byzantine history had a right to his opinion.
In politics, too, the problem has reached ridiculous proportions. People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.
In this, I must tell Tom that we have reached a pot, kettle, black situation. When I confronted him on his assertion about the 911 call, his approach was to frame me as being stupid for disagreeing with him. He did the very thing which he accuses others of doing. That’s okay, I still respect him. God knows I’ve gotten angry and called people morons when they didn’t deserve it, also.
Critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House.
Here is where I start to peel off from what Tom is saying. He suggests that discussions must take place within certain limits. Who decides these limits? Who decides who the experts are in the first place? The Climate Change debate is a famous example where criticism is automatically shut down, because disagreement with the premise is taken to be stupidity. The sort of intellectual protectionism which Tom is suggesting here can be very easily perverted into intellectual elitism wherein alternative views are automatically dismissed because they did not originate from the properly orthodox.
There’s also that immutable problem known as “human nature.” It has a name now: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb. And when you get invested in being aggressively dumb…well, the last thing you want to encounter are experts who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of yourself. (There’s a lot of that loose on social media, especially.)
This Dunning-Kruger effect is touted widely by SJWs who, ironically, think they are smarter than they actually are. They use this notion to shut down debate. If you prove them wrong, it’s not really because they were wrong. It’s because you’re not smart enough to understand the nuance of their position. Then the Jon Stewart smugness makes its appearance, and the Wiki-idiot relishes in his imagined superiority.
No, I’m not accusing Tom of being an SJW. But he’s walking on a knife edge here. Once, in the Western world, a dreadful insult was considered worthy of a challenge to fight, often to the death. The gauntlets would be thrown, and if the challenge was not accepted, then one was considered a coward. But it was permissible for a man of high stature to ignore a man of sufficiently low stature. A great lord need not accept a challenge from a stable boy. Yet this exemption had to be used very carefully, so as to avoid the appearance of cowardice. It was better to default to accepting the challenge, unless the difference in station was demonstrably great.
So, too, must the notion of Dunning-Kruger be used carefully, and in circumstances where the other person is clearly of far lower intelligence. Do not bring it out immediately, or use it defensively.
None of this ignorance stops people from arguing as though they are research scientists. Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case, even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented. The use of evidence is a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn, which is why articles and books are subjected to “peer review” and not to “everyone review,” but don’t tell that to someone hectoring you about the how things really work in Moscow or Beijing or Washington.
Peer review is a great theory. But in practice, there are problems with it. Like all human institutions, orthodoxy can creep in, wherein questioning the accepted narrative is considered heresy. Your peers may suppress you, even if you are completely correct. In other examples, the peers may become lazy, and accept things that are clearly false merely because they haven’t bothered to thoroughly review your work.
Now, again, I’m not saying peer review is all bad, either. Rather, I suspect Tom puts too much trust in these things. One thing that any scientifically-minded person should practice is a healthy dose of skepticism. Experts can be wrong, also. Here is a professor of Byzantine Studies who wrote an error-prone book laced with falsehoods and carelessness (her arguments torn to shreds by Dr. Kelley Ross):
Herrin returns the neglect, if not the contempt, with a certain shocking carelessness for Roman history of Late Antiquity (despite her being a professor of “Late Antique” as well as Byzantine Studies). Thus, she says:
“…and the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed in 476, leaving a half-Vandal, half-Roman general, Stilicho, in control of Italy.” [p.13]
Unfortunately, Stilicho had been assassinated in 408. Herrin is thinking of Odoacer. Similarly, she says of the original Constantine, who was proclaimed Emperor by his father’s troops in 306, that “he was not recognized by Licinius, the senior emperor in the East” [p.4]. Again, unfortunately, Licinius was not made an Emperor until 308, and he was at that point junior to Galerius (d.311) and Maximinus II Daia (d.313).
Judith Herrin was acknowledged as a credentialed expert, subject to peer review from other historians. She was also very wrong, and you categorically did not need to be an expert to understand that.
Tom recovers himself a bit in the end, though:
But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.
At last we get to a point I can strongly agree with. The experts running things is a bad scenario, not a good one. The fact is, there is a strain of intellectual elitism in the West, wherein those who do not run in the proper circles are dismissed arbitrarily. The technocrats determine what is best for you, and in doing so strip you of your freedom and self-determination.
The most common excuse for their removal of your rights is that people are stupid. They are so stupid, say the elites, that they must surrender control over their lives to smarter, wiser men.
Socrates would have known them for the fools they are.
But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, it shouldn’t engender insecurity or anxiety to think that an expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. (Because, likely, it is.)
Is that the case? What if the expert decides to lie to you? Technically, in his own mind, he is correct. But he would be using his acknowledged status as an expert to hoodwink you. Politicians do this all the time. Trust us, they say, because we’re the experts. Don’t send a regular guy to Washington, send an experienced, expert politician…
An engineer or a doctor has a much harder time hiding a lie or a mistake. For if an aeronautical engineer makes a mistake, maybe a plane crashes, and people die. When a doctor does likewise, people die. When a plumber makes a mistake, the pipe bursts and your house becomes a lake. You may not know much about plumbing, but you know that he did something wrong.
Politicians, analysts, and other government cronies can hide their mistakes. They can pass off the blame. They can lie, cheat you, steal from you, and use you. So, even supposing they are competent, you still have good reason to mistrust them and to question them.
Tom takes a parting shot:
And how do I know all this? Just who do I think I am?
Well, of course: I’m an expert.
I find this one particularly amusing. There was a book I read sometime ago called Tales of New America. There was an amusing scene in the book, wherein a very attractive, intelligent, and sophisticated man finds himself being questioned by a border control guard. The man is naturally dismissive of the guard, for what else could he be but a low-level flunky? He was fat, and plain in the face. He did not use higher, educated language.
The guard books him quickly, after discovering the man’s illegal activities. The sophisticated man is confused and angry. The guard explains that, while he didn’t have the money to go to a good school or the good looks to garner a high station in life, that didn’t mean he was stupid or uneducated. Intelligent people are everywhere, and often where you least expect them.
After all, does anyone expect a club DJ to be an expert in Byzantine history? Probably not…
Be careful about underestimating people, Tom.