Book review: The Death Of Expertise

What’s the common point between the questions of cryptography (US and Australia), vaccines (and link to disease), vitamin C (to cure cancer), spending thousands on power cables for your sound system? Some people use their non-knowledge to bully experts. And I think this book answers the question of why this happens.

Discussion

Tom Nichols is a known scholar, writer and advisor. His 2017 book tackles the complex issue of knowledge and its usage. The first chapter defines the difference between experts and the rest of the population, the different types of expertise, from simple knowledge to mastering a domain.

Starting from these definitions, the author takes us to the day-to-day horror of dealing with people who use their non-knowledge to impose it on experts. Even if they don’t have any scientific background, they still think they know better and they still think that their experience, for instance on a random coincidence, is a proof of something that doesn’t exist. Case in point the pseudo link between vaccines and autism.

Customer is always right, and education has become a market instead of… well education. There are many books on the subject, but here Nichols tackles the issue of paying for the degree and no wanting to get the associated education, which is quite different. Due to the attraction to money and the fierce competition between universities, it’s not really surprising. In France, a similar problem is occurring, with engineering schools increasing the number of students and getting lower quality students, which triggers a lack of knowledge in new engineers.

Internet is also not helping, and Fake News is probably the new trend that propels this death of expertise. Even if the book was only recently published when Trump started his pseudo Fake News crusade and when Facebook realized they had a huge problem to solve with them. I think the book may even be wrong by stating the axiom of 90% of bad content (inherited from the concrete book world), it’s probably far more than that.

Journalists also have played a part in this debacle. With the advent of Internet and sensationalism, they require a fast turnover of stories, and they can’t verify everything (when they are not just relying on Internet itself where you can find a confirmation for everything!). This lowering of the content quality due to monetary constraints is concerning as lots of people rely on this source of knowledge on a day-to-day basis.

The last chapter is about the failure of experts themselves and the actual danger to democracy. Yes, experts fail sometime, they fail more when they speak about stuff they don’t know (I’m still very angry at a French doctor that fought against vaccines, when he had no epidemiology background and was just guessing). This makes people think they are just as good as experts, and in this instance, they are, as experts themselves muddy the water. The danger is that experts may end up being the only ones on top and decide stuff for everyone else (kind like the 5 year plan for communism!).

Conclusion

I don’t think the real danger to the death of expertise is technocrats (after all, we see this with the EU which is basically governed by technocrats already, see the Commission), but really idiocraty (check the comedy movie, it’s edifying). I don’t know if there is a way of getting away from it, as education is not enough. If we don’t wake up, we won’t solve the problem. This book shows it very well. But I don’t know if mankind has the will to grow up again.



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