Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A Few Minor Musings About "The Death of Expertise"

Dashiell Hammett's con man Casper Gutman says, "Talking's something you can't do judiciously unless you keep in practice." Blogging and reading also require practice, and this summer has shown me how woefully out of practice I am at both activities. In an effort to regain some form, I'm going to post a few observations about Tom Nichols's The Death of Expertise.

First, Nichols gives a thorough overview explaining how we have gotten to this point where all opinions, no matter how ludicrous, are treated as equal; he illustrates how schools, talk radio, the Internet, and experts' hubris all share in the blame. Nichols's clear exposition of how each entity produced voters who are both angry and misinformed makes the book a must read. 

Second, Nichols buries the lede. The problem of  "the most disturbing aspect of the American march toward ignorance is 'not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge'" is first mentioned on page 216. To be fair, I'm not sure anyone knows how to solve the problems caused by that particular arrogance, and any attempt to do so would have required a far different book.

Third, Nichols has written an eminently readable book. (I will probably assign it to a couple of my Debate II students.) The book's readability, however, points to a larger problem that Nichols alludes to several times: can experts and the public, even with the intervention of "public intellectuals" communicate? Nichols quotes several public intellectuals in his book. One, James Poulos, is so comfortably esoteric that he is likely unable to communicate most ideas to an average person on the street. Nichols also quotes Dan Drezner, one of my favorite denizens of the Twitterverse. Drezner, like Nichols, is eminently readable. That said, Drezer's column today refers to a "Bulworth-like jeremiad." I may be selling my friends and neighbors short, but I'm not sure I know 10 people who can both recognize the allusion and define the word. Bubbles exist and experts get comfortable talking to other experts and we common folk get comfortable talking to other common folk. Communicating across bubbles is far more difficult.

Finally, Nichols does an excellent job of mentioning the need for humility. I think this scene encapsulates what Nichols is saying, (The most relevant part starts at 7:20)

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