In Reason, Noah Berlatsky reviews The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, by Tom Nichols:
Believe the experts! Experts are not perfect, but they are more likely than non-experts to be right. Experts know what they do not know, and are therefore more cautious and better able to self-correct. Sometimes, in small ways, non-experts may outperform experts. But in general, America and the world need more respect for expertise.
That is the thesis of Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. It is also, as it turns out, a critique of the book itself. Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, is an expert on Russia and national security; he is not, however, an expert on expertise.* His hand wringing about kids today is not grounded in a scholarly background in education policy or the history of student activism. He is a generalist dilettante writing a polemic against generalist dilettantes. As such, the best support for his argument is his own failure to prove it.
There are two central flaws in The Death of Expertise. The first is temporal. As the title implies, the book is written as though there were once a golden age when expertise was widely valued — and when the democratic polity was well-informed and took its duty to understand foreign and domestic affairs seriously. “The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of ‘uninformed,’ passed ‘misinformed’ on the way down, and finally is now plummeting to ‘aggressively wrong,'” Nichols declares. His proof for this statement is that “within my living memory I’ve never seen anything like it.”
As Nichols would ordinarily be the first to point out, the vague common-sense intuitions and memories of non-experts are not a good foundation for a sweeping theory of social change. Nichols admits that Americans are not actually any more ignorant than they were 50 years ago. But he quickly pivots to insist that “holding the line [of ignorance] isn’t good enough” and then spends the rest of the book writing as if he didn’t know that Americans are not getting more ignorant.
The myth of the informed democratic voter is itself an example of long-ingrained, stubborn anti-knowledge. In their brilliant new Democracy for Realists (Princeton University Press), the political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels explain that laypeople and experts alike have developed a “folk theory” holding that American democracy is built on an engaged electorate that casts its votes for rational policy reasons. Unfortunately, as Achen and Bartels demonstrate, decades of research have shredded this theory, stomped on it, and set the remains on fire.