The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols
You might ask yourself why I’ve decided to read The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols right now. Because it is a highly relevant book at this time. I was happy to see it available online, for a couple of months, on Bodleian, as the library is closed and I can’t borrow any printed books, which is annoying. The book has the subtitle The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, which is so appropriate.
I loved this book. Without planning, I read it in about 24 hours. Considering that I’m very busy with preparing for exams and essays for university, this just shows how much I’ve enjoyed the book.
As the name suggests, this book is about the death of expertize, how people believe that with a quick google search they know more about a subject than people who actually studied the subject for years. Of course, the anti-vaccination movement and attacks on GMOs are also mentioned, they couldn’t be avoided in a book about the death of expertize, obviously. But the book is so much more than that.
He makes the point that technology helped spread information, but it is also a tool to spread disinformation.
His views on tertiary education are fascinating. I am not familiar with universities in US, but his examples were incredible. I don’t think students should rate their teachers and surely no rating should involve comments relating to looks. Surprisingly, he is not talking about unknown universities, but he talks about places like Yale.
I agree with him on the lack of knowledge young adults leave the school with. The comments and questions some people ask on the coronavirus situation are shocking. How can anybody graduating from high-school believe that 5G spreads a flu virus is beyond me.
Interestingly, Nichols talks about the reasons why this happened. Internet is one of the culprits, but not the only one by any means. The lower expectations in universities are also to blame, the ‘democratisation’ of opinion in everyday settings, including at TV. I can’t understand why they show a couple of people and ask them what they feel about a subject. It’s not relevant at all. Even BBC, something most of us pay for quite a lot each month (more than Netflix or Amazon prime), is keen on showing random people telling their views on a subject. More recently they asked a few parents what they think about children returning to school and none of these parents was an epidemiologist too.
Another reason is that experts are not always right. For me that shouldn’t be an issue. Everybody makes mistakes in their work, it happens.
I will end with a few quotes from the book:
‘Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything.’
‘Not only is the Internet making many of us dumber, it’s making us meaner: alone behind their keyboards, people argue rather than discuss, and insult rather than listen.’
‘the study found that when exposed to scientific research that challenged their views, both liberals and conservatives reacted by doubting the science, rather than themselves’
‘The tendency to bring up Nazi Germany in any argument inspired Godwin’s Law and the related reductio ad Hitlerum.’
‘The consumers of news have some important obligations here as well. I have four recommendations for you, the readers, when approaching the news: be humbler, be ecumenical, be less cynical, and be a lot more discriminating.’
‘The relationship between experts and citizens is not “democratic.” All people are not, and can never be, equally talented or intelligent. Democratic societies, however, are always tempted to this resentful insistence on equality, which becomes oppressive ignorance if given its head.’
I hope I made you want to pick up this book. It is worth reading.
The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols
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My rating: 5/5 Stars
Would I recommend it: yes
Published by: Oxford University Press
Year it was published: 2017
About the author: Tom Nichols got his PhD from Georgetown, an MA from Columbia University, and the Certificate of the Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union (today just called “the Harriman Institute”) at Columbia. He is a professor at the Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School, as well as a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York City and a Fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University. Previously he was a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
He taught international relations and Russian affairs for many years at Dartmouth College and Georgetown University. In Washington, he was personal staff for defense and security affairs in the United States Senate to the late Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania.
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