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This is an important book.

In The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Tom Nichols (professor at the U.S. Naval War College and a former aide in the Senate) argues that the United States "is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance" (ix). Of course, there is nothing new about ignorance or indifference. Most people (myself included) know little about almost everything. What's new is the positive hostility we seem to have toward admitting our ignorance and listening to experts. "Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge," Nichols writes, "and yet have been so resistant to learning anything" (2).

This is not a book long rant against ordinary rubes and common folk. Nichols is well aware that experts are part of the problem. His aim is to bridge the gap between experts and laypeople (xv). A functioning Republic depends on the former serving the latter and expects the latter to pay some deference to the former.

To act as if no one knows more than anyone else is not only silly, it's also a serious mistake. Nichols cites a survey from a few years ago in which enthusiasm for military intervention in Ukraine was directly proportional to the person's lack of knowledge about Ukraine. It seems that the dumber we are, the more confident we are in our own intellectual achievements. Nichols relays an incident where someone on Twitter was trying to do research about sarin gas. When the world's expert on sarin gas offered to help, the original tweeter (a twit we might say) proceeded to angrily lecture that expert for acting like a know-it-all. The expert may not have known all, but in this case he knew exponentially more than some jerk online.

We've swallowed the lie that says if we believe in equal rights we must believe that all opinions have equal merit. Nichols also tells the story of an undergraduate student arguing with a renowned astrophysicist who was on campus to give a lecture about missile defense. After seeing that the famous scientist was not going to change his mind after hearing the arguments from a college sophomore, the student concluded in a harrumph, "Well, your guess is as good as mine." At which point the astrophysicist quickly interjected, "No, no, no. My guesses are much, much better than yours" (82-83). There was nothing wrong with the student asking hard questions, or even getting into an argument. The problem was in assuming he had as much to offer on the subject after a few minutes reflection as the scientist did after decades of training and research.

It Is What It Is

Even if we don't like experts, no one can seriously deny there are experts. That is to say, there will always be people who know considerably more than most people about a given subject, and usually this expertise is distinguished by years of education and experience (29-30). I'm not an expert in cars, medicine, home repair, microbiology, or animal husbandry. Like you (and everyone else), I'm an expert in virtually nothing, but I'm thankful that in almost every area of human inquiry someone is.

At present, I'm about four-fifths of the way through a PhD program in early modern history. By this point I know more about John Witherspoon than 99.99 percent of the world. This isn't because I'm a genius. It's because I've worked for several years to read everything I can by and about John Witherspoon. One of the things doctoral work has shown me is how little I actually know about most things. When you see what expertise looks like, you realize you don't have it! Even now, after five years of reading about Reformed Orthodoxy and the Scottish Enlightenment and Evangelicalism and Old Princeton, I'm more aware of the gaps in my knowledge than I was when I started. Becoming an expert takes a long time and a lot of work. We should be thankful there are people who have made the effort to know more about sarin gas than the rest of us.

Again, Nichols makes clear that the problem is not that people are dumber than human beings used to be. We have more information than ever before. The problem is that we are more confident in our abilities and less willing to learn than previous generations--a lethal combination of militant arrogance and invincible ignorance. American colleges and universities have produced students who are undereducated and overly praised (77). We've mistaken critical thinking for relentless criticism. Which means we don't engage with others "as iron sharpens iron," but as an axe fells a tree. Public policy debates have devolved into shouting matches between equally uninformed persons duking it out with exchanges of contradiction, random factoids, and shaky sources (40). Too many online debates traffic in confirmation bias and conspiracy theories that are by definition nonfalsifiable. And when we aren't pronouncing all the experts wrong, we are certain that anyone can be right. If the Declaration of Independence announced these truths to be self-evident, we now believe all truths are self-evident (x). Who needs experts when everything is obvious?

Way Forward

So what can be done about this problematic death of expertise? While Nichols doesn't provide a 12-step plan to bridge the gap between experts and laypeople, he does offer helpful advice for both.

For experts: don't drive outside your lane. We've come to disdain experts because so many of them pontificate on things about which they have no expertise--scientists thinking they understand religion, journalists thinking they know science, movie stars thinking they know everything. Stick to what you know.

By the same token, stop making predictions. If your career depends on making predictions, then at least make them more tentatively. It's hard not to want to stone the experts when their prophecies about the future are so often demonstrably false.

As for the rest of us, Nichols gives a number of helpful suggestions: Be ecumenical--don't get all your information from the one source that magically you always agree with. Be less cynical--most people are not out to get you. Be more discriminating--consider whether the source you're reading has editors, is tied to a reputable institution, is transparent about its sources, and present facts that are testable and checkable. As Nichols puts it, "Conspiracy theorists and adherents of quack medicine will never believe anything that challenges their views, but most of us can do better" (168).

And finally, be humble. This goes for experts and laypeople. If you are an expert, use your knowledge as a servant not as a master. Pompous technocrats, bureaucrats, and professional haranguers are seldom popular. If you know stuff, use it to help others, not yourselves.

At the same time, all of us have good reason to assume we don't know as much as we think we know. Let's be humble enough to learn from others. When it comes to good ideas and good policies, facts are more important than feelings. This is not an excuse for being rude, but it is a summons not to confuse loud emotions with logical arguments. Political equality means every person should be treated the same in the eyes of the law. It does not mean that every opinion is equally important, trustworthy, or deserving of attention. A republic was not designed for the masses to make intricate decisions about complicated issues. From ending poverty to providing healthcare to combating terrorism, things are harder than they look. Let's have the humility to admit as much. If the death of expertise--as a book and as a cultural conundrum--can lead to a little more modesty on all sides, then we'll all have something for which to be thankful.

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15 thoughts on “The Death of Expertise”

  1. Brian Sloan says:

    Kevin, many thanks for this reasoned discussion on expertise. I worked in education for over 30 years and found true expertise to be elusive, because most people weren’t willing to put in the time and effort. In this century we’ve seen the growth of armchair experts, who think they know everything about everything, but actually are generally uninformed. Enjoy the PhD process, it can be great fun as well as challenging. B

  2. Curt Day says:

    First, the comment about American universities and colleges producing so many undereducated graduates needs context. I taught in colleges for 19 and 1/2 years. And unless one is talking about the very best students. the caliber of students coming into college has been steadily dropping for at least the past 10 to 15 years. This puts college professors in a bind in terms of where to draw the line between accommodation and using legitimate educational standards.

    We could also look at the lack of trust in experts to post modernism because experts have been used to legitimize oppression. In addition, when experts and either prosperity or comfort collide, I think we have more and more preferred the latter.

    But here is something we should ponder. Why is trust in experts inversely related to authoritarianism? After all, we are seeing an alarmingly increase in authoritarianism around the world including the U.S.

  3. ChrisB says:

    The story about the astrophysicist actually highlights part (just part) of the problem many in our society have with “experts”: When people who are experts in one area seem to think that makes them an expert in other areas.

    What does an astrophysicist know about missile defense? I could be surprised, but I’ll bet it’s not that much more than the average well-informed American. This is akin to the “Nobel laureates” who believe in “climate change” — laureates in literature, economics, and medicine, that is.

    In other words, the “experts” are just as prone as everyone else to overestimating their own knowledge subjects not related to their expertise.

  4. Tim says:

    Ironically, I gleaned the following from a quick Google search. It seems like this particular astrophysicist–Robert Jastrow– had some competence to speak on this topic. See “The Technical Feasibility of Ballistic Missile Defense”

  5. They’re several flaws in the argument that we the general public who lack advanced​ credentialed qualifications should listen to the experts.

    1. There’s a general assumption that the experts are willing to share their knowledge. Consider many books on how to read the Bible: how many can you recommend to a person attending your church? Experts have a tendency of hiding helpful knowledge in big words. And when the rest of us point this out, we’re accused of being lazy and not passionate enough to pursue the subject and master it’s jargon.

    2. Experts enjoy talk to each other to reinforce their ego. Pick up any book on theology and you will find the authors love talking about each other and weighing their thoughts. They do not write for the rest of us who are not part of their elite group.

    3. There’s a dangerous assumption that only people who are credentialed in a subject can be experts. I have zero seminary qualification but I have heard many people with MDivs and MThs asking me about where I went for seminary. I have been reading and taking free classes for the past 15 years because I don’t afford seminary education. But my ten years study on hermeneutics does not make me an expert because I don’t have a diploma.

    4. Experts assume we’re dump and we’re assume they’re out of touch. The truth is, it’s most probably experts are out of touch.

  6. Charles says:

    I agree with the premise but how does one discern genuine expertise these days? Merely because one claims to be an expert does not make it so. Even multiple degrees are no guarantee of true expertise. I see so many “experts” on television and in print say things that I, with even a limited knowledge of the subject, know are demonstrably wrong that it makes me hesitant to trust anyone on anything. Almost as bad are conclusory statements masquerading as facts by so many so-called experts.

    It would be easier to trust experts these days if there were fewer of them and their motives were more transparent.

  7. Dean says:

    I find gratitude for experts works well in serious medical operations & serious conditions.I really appreciate various commentary that rises above all the chatter. Experts should be able to explain the situation well.

    But experts can lead you up the garden path just as much as anyone else & knowledge is only part of the equation. We can also develop expertise at the day to day of being amongst a culture that is full of so much garbage.

    And if the media are not interested you dont get to hear about it, or the other side of the claim.

    As you wrote the other day the internet is a pretty crazy(busy) place & people can be very fickle and modesty seems in short supply but ignorance abounds. In some ways its probably no different to Solomons day & thats one reason for the book of Ecclesiastes & Proverbs.

  8. Richard Bush says:

    Thank you for a wonderful overview of this book. I just finished reading this book and thought Nichols did a great job in discussing the issues. I recommend it to everyone.

  9. Andrew Hall says:

    I have this graph on my classroom wall to remind myself and my students:

  10. Mark says:

    I find this is increasingly true in the church as well. I hear folks openly confess that they are essentially ignorant regarding the Scriptures, yet at the same time they consider their opinion on matters which Scripture speaks to be equal with one who has done serious study. The attitude appears to be that if the facts are not known (lack of expertise), then the facts are no longer considered authoritative. Authority moves from outside reality to inner opinion and desire. I imagine this is part of the broader rejection of expertise as well.

  11. Serving Kids In Japan says:

    Hey Kevin, I hope that you’ve sent a copy of this book to those in the believing community who need it most of all — nouthetic counsellors (or “biblical” counsellors, or whatever they prefer to call themselves now). I’ve heard far too many stories of ordinary joes trying to advise sufferers of serious trauma and abuse, when they clearly don’t know the first thing about psychology or addiction or PTSD or the dynamics of abuse. And all because they assume that, by reading the Bible, they’ve become experts on everything about everything.

    Dangerous fools.

  12. neville briggs says:

    All opinions are equal but some opinions are more equal than others.

  13. Scott Hoffman says:

    Kevin, for what is worth, some people see the forest, but not the trees, some see the trees but not the forest, Those of us who see both the forest and the trees are generally dangerous. We are the ones that can see the Trends, we can connect the dots and the threads… We can see History before it happens. Or Trends in the Market Place.

    It has taken me a long time to understand that most people can not do this. I think you are one of those who can.

    And that my friend is what makes you dangerous!

  14. Paul Douglass says:

    An elderly friend, with multiple earned doctorates, once said that 90% of all individuals who sought such doctorates did so only because they didn’t know how to gain respect and credibility any other way. There seems to be a biblical connection with his understanding, when future prophecy points to the problem of “ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Educated idiots. Ever notice, in the qualifications for ministry listed in 1st Timothy, little mention is made regarding scholarship and academic achievement, but the entire focus is upon obediently living out a sanctified life? We need to keep first things first, my old friend would say.

  15. Paul Douglass says:

    An elderly friend with earned doctorates told me that 90% of those who seek a doctorate do so because they cannot obtain credibility and respect any other way. He understood 2 Tim. 3:7 “ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” in this way. Educated idiots he called them. It is noteworthy, that in the qualifications for ministry listed in the same pastoral epistles, emphasis upon academic achievements is clearly missing. And yet we continue to foster an indiscriminate value for degrees in our communities – and even our churches – without clear distinction as to what actually constitutes a genuinely sound education.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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