Expert Witness

The Death of Expertise by Prof. Tom Nichols is one of a number of books that refer to the tumultuous events of 2016 (c.f. at least three books about Post Truth). Prof. Nichols is an academic with a background in Russian studies and nuclear weapons policy research who teaches at the Naval War College. He’s also a conservative commentator of the “Never Trump” variety – he’s probably not expecting an NSC post any time soon.

The book identifies a decreasing respect for expertise / professionals / public intellectuals. This disrespect has three major courses that get a chapter each:

  • A higher education system that panders to its student base as consumers to be entertained rather than as learners to be taken on a journey of intellectual discovery.
  • An internet environment that enables the easy creation and dissemination of content regardless of its veracity.
  • The media landscape that is fractured, partisan and sensationalist.

Let me start with the areas where I agree with Prof. Nichols:

  • I value expertise and the pursuit of knowledge. I do not think all opinions are equally valid.
  • I have some major concerns as to the construction of our higher education systems. I do not think the focus on degree programs as an aspirational model for everyone is healthy. Some of the problems of grade inflation and campus politics are more extreme in the US market compared to Australia (based on my limited experience). However I do think the higher education market is due some kind of “crash” or at least, restructuring. The issues scene in the Australian VET sector (too much government money, too little regulation) are a small foreshadowing of the bigger falls that will come.
  • The media landscape is changing in ways that are inimical to high standards of reportage and journalism.
  • There is a break between democratic governments and their citizens. This fracture is widening in many Western democracies and will only get wider.

I want to make some notes on the form of the book:

  • Prof. Nichols is a decent prose stylist and entertaining writer.
  • Prof. Nichols is not a sociologist of the professions nor is he a cognitive scientist with insight into expertise development. In this domain, he is a dilettante. That is, in itself, not a problem although it is somewhat ironic that a book protesting the willingness of amateurs to wade into the domains of others is written by… an amateur wading into the domain of others.
  • There are some odd omissions within the book. Statistics are used but irregularly – the preference being for the sweeping assertion and a number of telling anecdotes. There is not a single chart in the whole thing.
  • The footnotes mostly refer to periodicals (e.g. The Atlantic, New York Times) rather than academic research – David Dunning and Philip Tetlock being noticeable exceptions. And why not, their work is excellent. But where is everything else? Extensive research has been carried out on the rise of the professions, their role in society, the challenge of integrating experts into government, and the opportunities and perils of technocracy. Why neglect it?
  • The whole thing feels like a 252 page “hot take” – a series of opinion columns strung together into a book. Some of it is entertaining. Some of it insightful. Some of it not much of either.

And now moving on to the content. I wish to ask a series of questions.

The first question is concerns definition. What exactly is dying? Early on, the book lumps together professionals, expertise, and public intellectuals as all things that under attack. This is… a very broad brush. Less a brush and more a mop. The book dashes from anti-vaxxers to public policy advisors to journalists. Nichols is seeking to make a grand argument about the nature of American society. This broad focus poses some risks that we will encounter very shortly.

The second question is: where is the evidence that expertise less valued now that it was in the past? There’s lots of anecdotes but little in the way of the quantifiable trend data. Which is odd because there’s a number of research polls about public attitudes to professionals. For example:

These polls shows a few things:

  • Not all professions are equal. Different professions are viewed very differently by the public at large.
  • Medical professionals remain highly trusted (and prestigious).
  • Some professions have actually grown in trustworthiness over the years – engineers being a stand out example.
  • Some professionals have not done so well. Politicians, lawyers, journalists, college teachers, and the clergy do not have great reputations. But for some groups this distrust goes back decades (trust in lawyers in 2016 is very similar to what it was in 1988).
  • I note with some amusement (& perhaps a dash of hope) in the Harris Poll that only 21% of those aged 70 or older think of “politician” as a prestigious occupation but 57% of Millennials do. Whither apathy?

These numbers do not show a widespread collapse in either trust or prestige for professionals across the board. Rather they imply the reconfiguring of the role of the professional within society. The pieces on the board are shifting around.

The third question relates to the chapter on higher education. The argument is that going into higher education (esp. lower status colleges) breeds a contempt for experts. Therefore, presumably one would expect those with “some college” would be the most hostile to experts and elites in general? I’d like to see some data supporting this proposition. In 2016 presidential election, the candidate positioned as anti-elitist also played best with those without a college education.

The final question involves taking a step back from the hurlyburly of rude people on the internet and biased news shows and asking what concerns professionals.

  • A Medscape survey identified that the key issues for doctors are: bureaucracy, long hours, and the computerization of practice. Professionals here are not concerned with mouthy plebs but rather the tensions of being a professional within an industrial-style institution.
  • Gary Klein & co write about the The War On Expertise but this war is being waged by technologists, behavioural economists, and checklist developers.
  • The Susskinds have written on the future of the professions in a manner that is both less gloomy and more far-reaching that Nichols’ book. Their point is that the models under which the professions have operated for the last 200 years are undergoing transformative change – and I agree with them. But this change is not necessarily “bad” for society as a whole. Our historical models of expertise management have left knowledge inaccessible to many.

Nichols’ book is a missed opportunity. There’s a bigger story here than ungrateful students and mean internet comments. While he picks up on some important issues, he needs to move beyond his own preoccupations.

 

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