Continuing on our discussion of Tom Nichols The Death of Expertise I want to talk about a specific story that Tom Nichols thinks shows that experts are giving us important information which we are ignoring, but which really shows that experts are infatuated with their own importance and focus on irrelevant technicalities to boost their own ego.
The story I want to look at is a story he gave about someone who was trying to find information on Sarin gas on twitter. Thankfully, if you want to follow along, you can read the full account here.
Basically a girl was doing a school project on Sarin gas. She tweeted out to her friends (probably she is followed by classmates) asking if anyone knew of where she could find information on Sarin gas.
An expert in the field replied. What was this expert’s big insight? First he corrected her capitalization and then said that sarin is not a gas. Now, technically, the expert was right on both counts. But both of them are irrelevant. This is what drives people mad. Experts seem to derive more pleasure out of correcting things that don’t need to be corrected than supplying actionable or usable information.
Sarin is not so much a gas as it is a vapor. Note, however, that the expert didn’t say it was a vapor, which might have cleared some confusion, but said it isn’t a gas, which actually gives the student less information than what they had. Thinking of it as a gas gives the student some semi-reliable ways to think about the action of Sarin in the atmosphere. Simply saying it isn’t a gas leaves them without a conceptual model at all of how it might work.
But, really, who the hell cares about the difference? The CDC doesn’t, and in their own documentation, says it is a gas. So which expert is this poor girl supposed to follow? The knowledge that is contained in every book, encyclopedia, and government organization, or someone on twitter who claims to be an expert? The author here is undermining his very point – he thinks that we are too credulous on the Internet, but when someone on the Internet claims to be an expert, but whose information is at odds with literally every other authoritative information source, the author wants us to believe random Internet expert.
I’m sorry, this is ridiculous, and I have trouble seeing why anyone takes Tom Nichols or this book seriously. Literally every example he comes up with shows that the experts are either pompous blowhards or full of crap.
By the way, this is one of the big issues with experts. Many of them are totally incapable of distinguishing between real, helpful information to provide, and technicalities that are only relevant to a tiny number of people. In fact, many experts use these technicalities to inflate their own ego, and pretend that knowledge of these things gives their guesses preference on any situation in which everyone’s opinion is a guess. Guess what – it doesn’t.
I have known many experts who do this. If there is a point where reasonable people agree, experts will pull in irrelevant technicalities to force their opinion. I see this happen all the time.