Something strange happens when the Internet becomes synonymous with your world. If you only inhabit a digitized space of memes and rage, where partisan expression is the lingua franca of the realm and being on the “right side” is a badge of honour, then bothersome things like evidence, data, and knowledge are steamrolled by ideological fervour. We trust the right to express our feelings above all; and since we all have feelings, what we think and feel is equally important and worthy. We’re all experts of expression.
But that is a world where expertise means nothing—where mastery and wisdom and knowledge are treated as irrelevant. It’s also a world that gives cover to corrosive ignorance. That’s why editor Jamie Smith was eager to talk to Tom Nichols, author of the new book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2017), a timely contribution to contemporary debates about populism and policy.
JAMES K.A. SMITH: In your book you call out a dangerous levelling effect in society that stems from an egalitarianism run amok—confusing a democratic politics (in which we all have equal rights) with a democratic epistemology (in which everyone’s opinion is equal). Why is this dangerous? And why might a restored “elitism” actually be good for democracy?
TOM NICHOLS: Well, as an American and a citizen of a democracy, I believe in our bedrock principle—one we’ve fought to bring to fruition through a revolution, a civil war, the enactment of universal suffrage, and the civil rights movement—of equality before the law. That’s light years away from the denatured notion of democracy that’s taken hold in America today, in which people mistake political equality for actual, personal equality in every way. It would be easy to write this off to a culture of permissiveness, and there’s some of that at work here, but C.S. Lewis warned us all about this nearly seventy years ago when he wrote that in the Western democracies in general, people were taking the notion of political equality to mean a coarse and sullen insistence that “I’m as good as you” no matter how obviously false an assertion it is.
Likewise, any notion that anyone is better or smarter in some area is now “elitism,” a word whose pejorative connotation has been reinforced by this resentful populism. Americans hate this notion in every way, which as Tocqueville noted is rooted in our culture. But we’ve taken it to idiotic extremes now—except, that is, in only one field: professional sports. Only when it comes to athletic achievement (and to some extent, in acting, perhaps), where prowess and failure are both obvious, do Americans think that a natural sorting of the top people from everyone else, the professionals from the amateurs, is acceptable.
Tell the average American that the top executive at a major corporation makes tens of millions of dollars and they’ll snarl with disgust at the greed of a man or woman who they think does nothing particularly useful or special. Tell them that football or baseball players get millions of dollars, and that they will have to pay a hefty price for a ticket to watch them, and they will gladly explain why some people who are great at things can command higher prices than those who stink.
This is disastrous for our system of government, because as I note in the book, Americans live in a republic, not a direct democracy. Our entire system is predicated on assuming that some people are better at some things than others, and that we delegate responsibilities and decisions. Our Founders built that into the system; they had no interest, really, in every single person getting an equal say on every issue. In fact, they created a political order specifically designed to prevent that kind of populist egalitarianism.
I’d argue that in the recent era, the rejection of George H.W. Bush—easily the most qualified man to run for the office since 1945 and a president whose tenure is now remembered more warmly even by his enemies—was the beginning of this populist wave. Pat Buchanan and Bill Clinton and Ross Perot all tapped into the “I’m just like you” sentiment, even though Buchanan was a life-long politico, Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, and Perot was a billionaire. Donald Trump, remarkably, has managed to sell that same line, despite the fact that Trump is like almost no one else in America. But that populist appeal, in which a crowd of angry people are assured that no one is any smarter, more virtuous, or more industrious than they are, is now the supreme expression of an anti-republican spirit that threatens the foundations of our democracy.
So, yes, restoring some notion that we put trust in others to carry out the functions of government would be a welcome return to a better balance between populism and elitism, one we had even into the early 1990s.
JS: How does this intersect with the kind of populism that has got us—and Europe?—to where we are today?
TN: Well, the Europeans are used to a more stratified society than ours—or at least, they’re used to admitting they live in a more stratified society—so I think their populism is different from ours. There are people in these US populist movements (some of whom now work for the president) who are trying to create a European-style nationalism in the United States, and that’s very worrisome. But it’s also kind of silly, because of the basic nature of America as an immigrant society. People who think they can turn American populism into American nationalism really don’t understand the intersection of European populism with traditional European nationalism, or the blood-and-soil ideas that motivate it.
This nationalist appeal, however, does rely on attacks on established knowledge in some important ways. The American nationalist project is so self-evidently dumb that it falls apart on even a moment of reflection. For example, I’m the grandson of Greek and Irish immigrants, and both sets of my ancestors were considered exactly the same kind of threat to the Anglo-Saxon American nation when they and others like them were disgorged en masse from boats in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anyone with any European immigrant ancestry will figure this out in a matter of seconds. (There’s no city with Irish pride like Boston, and we politely put aside the fact that the Protestants of old Massachusetts were appalled by the seizure of their political institutions by people they considered barbarians.) And so to smother this realization before it brings people to their senses, populists and would-be nationalists inundate citizens with a lot of messaging about history and culture that is, basically, false, and built on idyllic notions of an America that never really existed.
Leave aside the campaign of 2016; you can find it earlier. Pat Buchanan ran in part by talking about a culture war that was destroying lovely memories of his childhood in Washington, DC, in the 1940s and 1950s. Accepting that life was better in DC in those days, however, requires you to forget that this was a segregated America, one in which women had to get permission to get a car loan, and in which even white Irish Catholics like Buchanan were viewed by the WASP elite as the pollutants in a previously pure version of America in which guys like Pat were not welcome. People worked hard, didn’t live as long, and were less healthy. But if you have no idea of history or science or technology beyond last week, this won’t occur to you.
Look, I’m fifty-six, and I get it about social and economic nostalgia. I miss the New England of the 1960s in some ways; my hometown had a local barber, and a diner, and pieces of it looked like a Norman Rockwell painting. But there is also a history that is undeniable: where I grew up in Massachusetts was built on mill work. And anyone who is nostalgic for millwork is someone who’s never seen a mill.
JS: At Comment, we are spending the spring season thinking about the significance of trust and social architecture. Can the “death of expertise” be framed in terms of distrust? What are the causes? Can it be restored? How?
TN: I wrote a book a lot of years ago that tried to explore Robert Putnam’s work on social capital. (I tried to apply it to Russian politics. I wasn’t very successful.) I think this is a crucial concept and one we don’t talk about nearly enough. Part of the reason so many Americans have become surly narcissists is that they spend way too much time alone. One of the things I do miss about my childhood was the sense that adults spent a lot more time in each other’s company, which socialized them to hear the views of others, and forced them to respect the hierarchy of intelligence and achievement among them.
This isn’t just a gauzy childhood memory. Putnam and others have shown empirically that people spend a lot more time on their own, and far less time in social organizations, from churches on down through fraternal organizations like the Elks, the VFW, or the Masons, and even down to things like local sports leagues. (If you want a visible example, think of how houses used to have porches in the front. Now they have decks in the back.) This is a terrible development in a nation where social trust is the only glue that allows us to vote and delegate power to each other without fear.
I’ll give you an example. My parents were intelligent but uneducated people, as were most of their social circle. Where we lived, people who’d finished high school and had some specialized training— cops, firemen, bookkeepers—were at the upper edge of a society of factory workers like my dad and light clerical staff like my mom. Seeded in those social circles were a small number of college graduates in the professions: doctors and lawyers. (My church community had exactly one college professor in it, as I recall, in an area that boasted the University of Massachusetts, Smith, and
Amherst. There were plenty of professors, but not in my town.)
These professional people were respected for their expertise, not just because they were smarter and more educated than the rest of the community, but because to contradict their advice you had to do so face-to-face. You had to stand in the basement of the church, or at a picnic, or at a party at someone’s home, and tell a man with a medical degree that his evaluation of your sore shoulder was bunk. You risked looking like an idiot not only in front of an actual doctor but in front of one who was also your friend and a member of your community. You also didn’t know a whole lot of doctors, either.
Today, the narcissistic and faux-egalitarian American likely doesn’t know her doctor personally, and has no fear of contradicting a medical professional by resorting to the Internet or to a Facebook page full of people just as untrained in medicine as everyone else. There is no danger of a rupture to a social relationship because there isn’t a social relationship. Worse, it’s no longer a friend who’s being smarter than you, it’s some stranger. And why should some stranger be smarter than you?
This is civic poison, because it makes every person an advocate for their own lonely thoughts without any restraint of social or educational bonds. All they have is the voice telling them, like Fredo in The Godfather, that they’re smart, that they can do things—a voice reinforced, by the way, in a therapeutic educational culture that values the feelings of children over all else.
JS: What would you say to the person who is flummoxed—and maybe even cynical— because they hear “experts” telling them very different things? How can they know whom to trust?
TN: To the average citizen, it looks like there’s a lot of expert disagreement only because everyone now has a megaphone no matter how uninformed they are. In reality, the opinions of experts don’t diverge nearly as widely as people think they do. But if you can access any number of crackpot ideas at the same time you’re looking for expert views, it looks like a balanced fight among experts.
Think about vaccines. There are virtually no reputable medical professionals who share the anti-vaccine stance, and the range of expert opinion on this is about the width of a molecule. But if you go to the Internet, or watch a lot of cable, you’d think that there’s this battle raging between doctors about vaccines. There isn’t. It’s that simple.
The flood of information that confronts the average person is like the proliferation of restaurant chains and fast-food outlets. It might look like Americans have more dining choices, when in fact they’re eating themselves to death with a steady diet of cheap, easily available junk.
That’s mostly what people encounter now in the public sphere. In The Death of Expertise, I emphasize “Sturgeon’s rule,” the dictum by the late sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon that in any human endeavour about “ninety percent of everything is crap.” Well, if you realize there’s a billion websites in the world, that means that in any random search for information, you’re up against 900 million bad sites as opposed to 100 million sensible ones. And even those might not be written at a level comprehensible to the average reader. (And remember, to insecure Americans, anything that can’t be comprehended instantly is to be dismissed.)
What experts really disagree about, mostly, is what to do about problems. For example, there isn’t really a huge debate about climate change among experts. The earth is getting warmer. That’s undeniable. What the experts disagree about is cause, degree, and mostly, solutions. Is the earth’s warming a natural cycle? Some part of it is man-made—but how much? And what costs are we willing to bear to mitigate it?
Those are real debates. But when a cable show puts on a climate scientist and a climate-science skeptic—I won’t say “denier,” because some of them are real skeptics—it looks to the viewer like it’s a fifty-fifty split on the basic question.
This, as I note in the book, is a failure both of experts and of journalists. The experts have failed because they do not prize the notion of being accessible and understandable. They retreat into jargon and prefer to speak only with other brainy types who understand them. This is a terrible development, and leaves a space open—one that used to be filled by what we once called “public intellectuals”— that is quickly taken over by charlatans.
Journalists, meanwhile, have failed because they themselves often don’t understand the issue, or because they adhere to some hokey notion of “balance” that requires constantly having panels of ten people discuss a major issue, with the idea that all of them are equally smart. (Worst of all: instant polls on such shows. “Do you think gravity is a law? Tweet me now!”) This is all inane, but it’s also supremely dangerous, because again, it makes the viewer feel like the sole arbiter of important questions that are not only over his head but also should be discussed with other citizens repeatedly and with goodwill, not via Facebook memes.
Image: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti by Ben Shahn (1967, mosaic), Syracuse University.