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We need experts more than ever

Experts have been having a tough time of it lately, with the likes of Michael Gove claiming ‘experts know nothing’ and extraordinary, unpredicted election results, seeming to confirm this. Add to this, the fact that anyone with a smartphone can access pretty much any information at the touch of a button, then experts do not know any more than the rest of us and indeed, we are now all experts.

So, Tom Nichols’ new book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters is a timely look at how 21st century life blurs the line between fact and opinion.

I listened to an interview with Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct (what?) professor at the Harvard Extension School and he raised some very interesting points.

A survey of 7,000 freshmen at colleges and universities around the US found just six percent of them were able to name the 13 colonies that founded the United States. Many students thought the first president was Abraham Lincoln, also known for “emaciating the slaves.” Par for the course these days, you may think?

It happens that the study in question was reported in The New York Times in 1943. The paper conducted the survey again, during the Bicentennial, using more up-to-date methods, and found no improvement. “Two‐thirds do not have the foggiest notion of Jacksonian democracy,” one history professor told the Times in 1976. “Less than half even know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I.”

Reading the remark now, it’s shocking that he was shocked. After 40 years, our skins are thicker.
The problem with narratives of decline is that they almost always imply, if not a golden age, then at least that things were once much better than they are now. The hard truth in this case is that they weren’t. On average, the greatest generation didn’t know any more about why The Federalist Papers were written, much less what they said, than millennials do now.

The important difference is that today students can reach into their pockets and, after some  typing and a minute or two of reading, know at least something on the topic.

How to judge this is largely a question of temperament – of whether you see their minds as half-empty or half-full. Nichols says the longstanding shakiness of the public’s basic political and historical knowledge as entering a new phase. The “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers” is like a lit match dropped into a gasoline tanker-sized container.

We now live in an age where children, and their parents, believe they know as much as their teachers. Once teachers were respected for their expertise and their knowledge unquestioned, but today everyone thinks they know as much as their teachers. Nichols devotes most of his book to identifying how 21st-century life undermines confidence in expert knowledge and blurs the lines between fact and opinion.

He acknowledges that real failures and abuses of power by military, medical, economic and political authorities account for a good deal of scepticism and cynicism toward claims of expertise.

But Nichols puts much more emphasis on the mutually reinforcing effects of media saturation, confirmation bias and “a childish rejection of authority in all its forms” – as well as the corrosive effects of credential inflation and “would-be universities” that “try to punch above their intellectual weight for all the wrong reasons, including marketing, money and faculty ego.” Unable to “support a doctoral programme in an established field,” Nichols says, “they construct esoteric interdisciplinary fields that exist only to create new credentials.”

Add the effect of consumerism and entertainment on the academic ethos, and the result is a system “in which students learn, above all else, that the customer is always right,” creating a citizenry that is “undereducated but overly praised” and convinced that any claim to authoritative knowledge may be effectively disputed in the words of the Dude from The Big Lebowski: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Nichols tells a great story of a Harvard undergraduate debating with his esteemed Nobel-prize-winning professor. After a while, getting nowhere, the undergraduate says: “Oh well, your guess is as good as mine,” To which the professor replies: “No. My guess is much, much better than yours.”

That is because the professor is an expert. An expert, at least in academia, is someone who submits their research, views and findings to strict peer-review. If their findings are false or fabricated, they will hopefully be found out and their views rubbished.

It is not just academics who go through such processes. An electrician, a builder or plumber will also be judged by experts in his field, before being allowed to operate as an expert.   

Nichols is a forceful and sometimes mordant commentator, with an eye for the apt analogy, as when he compares the current state of American public life to “a hockey game with no referees and a standing invitation for spectators to rush onto the ice.”

One interesting idea to take away from the book is the concept of metacognition, which Nichols defines as “the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong.” (He gives as an example good singers: they “know when they’ve hit a sour note,” unlike terrible singers, who don’t, even if everyone else winces.)

“The lack of metacognition sets up a vicious loop, in which people who don’t know much about a subject do not know when they’re in over their head talking with an expert on that subject. An argument ensues, but people who have no idea how to make a logical argument cannot realize when they’re failing to make a logical argument …. Even more exasperating is that there is no way to educate or inform people who, when in doubt, will make stuff up.”

The implications of this can be grave. Over the last decade or so, the MMR vaccination debate has repeatedly raised its unqualified head. It was suggested that MMR injections may increase the likelihood of autism (based on false medical facts). Many scared parents then refused to have their children vaccinated and the debate became a heated one between experts (whose findings were false), parents who emotionally pleaded for the right to do what they liked with their children and politicians, who knew even less. No wonder the real experts said their piece and then fled the scene in despair.      

In 2015-16, Donald Trump ran what Nichols calls “a one-man campaign against established knowledge,” and he certainly pounded the expertise of most pollsters into the dirt. He is now in a position to turn the big guns on reality itself; that, more than anything else, seems to be his main concern at present. Nichols writes that research on the Dunning-Kruger effect found that the most uninformed or incompetent people in a given area were not only “the least likely to know they were wrong or to know that the others were right” but also “the most likely to try to fake it, and the least able to learn anything.” That has been shown in the lab, but testing now continues on a much larger scale.

So, is Michael Gove correct when he says: “Experts know nothing.” Absolutely not. Experts are experts; politicians who can be in charge of a country’s education policy one day and then head up justice and the whole legal system the next, are from experts; they are just fly fly-by-night dilettantes; the same as everyone else with a smartphone.  


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