“The Death of Expertise:” The Conclusion

As previously mentioned, this is a very important book. But author Tom Nichols unfortunately runs out of gas in his final concluding chapter. The burning question is what to do about the collapse of respect for public policy experts. Even the word “experts” is now used in a mocking way. The “so-called experts” just don’t know anything. They are just “elitists.”

Nichols restates his argument well. “The relationship between experts and citizens, like almost all relationships in a democracy, is built on trust,” he writes. “When that trust collapses, experts and laypeople become warring factions.” That threatens to send our democracy into a “death spiral,” he warns.

Obviously, millions of Americans have failed to educate themselves adequately. “This plummeting literacy and growth of willful ignorance is part of a vicious cycle of disengagement between citizens and public policy,” Nichols writes. “People know little and care less about how they are governed, or how their economic, scientific, or political structures actually function.”

Okay, Americans need to get smarter. Got that. What should experts do differently?

I think that a great many of the people who would qualify as experts have sold out in some respect. Everyone knows that if you want a think tank to issue a report that supports your position on any issue, you start giving money to the right think tank and taking part in polite discourse. The money talks. You get the opinions you wanted.

The economics profession also has allowed itself to become ideological-ized. If economics is a science, why don’t economists agree on anything? It’s because some want to work for Republican/conservative organizations and others are employed by Democratic/liberal institutions. They have to say things that support their masters’ points of view.

Some scientists also are for hire. How could anyone deny that there is at least the threat of climate change? How could anyone deny that vaccines usually save lives? The answer is that economic entities that wish to resist these findings can hire scientists to come up with evidence to contest the obvious truths.

And there seems to be little consequence for experts who fail. I remember when the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1990 and 1991, there was a debate about what the Russians should do next. What kind of model could they adopt? Jeffrey Sachs, then at Harvard, argued that they should go “cold turkey” and embrace Western-style democracy and capitalist market systems overnight. As someone who had lived in Communist China and understood the structure of power in a Communist society, I knew that what Sachs was suggesting was preposterous and subsequent events have established that. But I still see Sachs getting quoted and he holds an exalted position at Columbia University.

Or take Francis Fukuyama, who wrote “The End of History” in 1992. He argued that Western liberal ideals had completely prevailed in the world after the collapse of the Soviets. Man, did he get that wrong. Look at the rise of radical Islam. Or check out what our pals in Moscow and Beijing and Tehran and Pyongyang are doing. They seem to have missed the fact that we are all now taking part in one big happy Western love fest. Yet Fukuyama is allowed to write earnest op-eds in the Wall Street Journal. How can the expert community police itself against pretenders?

One positive step I’ve seen is that news organizations, which qualify as “experts,” have started talking about what they do and why it is important. It’s interesting that the New York Times has started running stories on page 2 talking about the story behind the story, i.e. how a reporter or team of reporters went out and got a story. These stories reveal that many reporters have decades of experience and went to enormous lengths to dig out the truth. So rather than just presenting their stories, the Times is trying to educate its readers about the process and the people who were involved.

So this is just a small piece of an overall response by America’s public policy experts, but it might be a start: rather than simply making an argument, slow down and explain how you developed your knowledge. What steps did you take to learn what you know? And are you making a particular argument on the basis of conviction or has someone hired your brain for their own purposes?

Yes, I agree with Nichols that Americans must do a better job of informing themselves and should not just rely on Facebook or Twitter for their daily consumption of information. But experts also have a responsibility if they wish to regain credibility–which is to better explain themselves and make their arguments from deep conviction, not for profit.

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