The Real Cause of the Death of Expertise

Note – this is Part 1 of a series on Tom Nichols’ book The Death of Expertise. You can also go to Part 2 and Part 3.

I am currently listening to an audiobook titled The Death of Expertise. I have only just started it, so I am curious to see if my position changes over the course of the book. But so far, I think that the author Tom Nichols is dead wrong on the reason why Americans are skeptical of experts.

The Introduction to the Problem

My contention is that the reason Americans are skeptical of experts is that the experts themselves have become the problem. I will go into these further, but these are what I see as being, not just incidental, but systematic of people in the expert class:

  • Fraudulent – many people are actively using their status as experts to defraud people of money. This is often even systematized within a profession.
  • Lack of Philosophy – modern expertise is trained with an absolute lack of philosophy. This leads to being completely unable to see the world through any other lens than the one they were trained in.
  • Lack of knowledge – the requirements for becoming “an expert” have become so low that a lot of people can get advanced degrees while knowing almost nothing. They may have read a lot of books, but it didn’t seem to stick.

The author wails about the fact that the public merely using experts as technicians. Frankly, that’s all they are really good for these days.

Before I begin, let me say that I know a lot of experts who are great. But, unfortunately, they are the exception. The way that I know this is that when I bump into someone who is an “expert” inadvertantly – either by watching TV or going to a doctor I don’t know or something else – I generally wind up with a total idiot. Now, it may be the fact that as much as 50% of people in a profession are better than the above picture. But is that really what should count for an expert class? Doesn’t this show that people actually shouldn’t be fronting the whole class of people as experts?

Lacking Philosophy

I’m going to start with the “lack of philosophy” problem because it is easiest both to explain and defend. I’ll begin with a story that is 100% true.

I played football in high school, and I have had intermittent knee problems ever since. Nothing bad, but every once in a while my knee will swell up for no reason I can tell. When I was just out of college, my knee swelled up, and then for months it never went back down. So I was concerned.

I rarely go to the doctor, but I thought it would be good to have an “expert” look at it, right? So I go to a doctor, and have him look at it. What I told him, and I emphasized this multiple times, is that (a) it did not hurt, (b) it was not bothering me, and (c) I *only* wanted to do what was in the long-term interest of the knee. The swelling was not impacting my life at all, so I only cared about long-term issues. What did the doctor do? He said that he thought I get a steroid shot to reduce the swelling. I was going to go along with this – he’s the expert, right? and I had just given him all of the details of my situation – but I decided I needed to double-check. I asked him if this would help my knee out in the long term. He then said, “no, it actually harms the knee in the long run, but it will make the swelling go down.” I declined.

So what happened here? I told the doctor my situation. I told the doctor my priorities. The doctor had all the information he needed to make the decision. He simply decided to ignore all of that information and just work within the bounds of his training. He lacked philosophy – the ability to look outside his present world and see what it looks like on the other side. Even when I told him my priorities explicitly, he could not see past his own habits of mind.

This is not an isolated situation. This happens over and over and over again. Experts of all kinds have no ability whatsoever to look at not just their expertise, but how their suggestions might interact with the real lives of real people. If the experts refuse to do this, then we have no choice but to treat expert opinion as the lowest rung on the ladder of information.

Another one, also in the medical field (I have a lot of experiences with doctors, so this is where this comes in). My wife has a weird disease (currently diagnose as Ehler Danlos). So many times (before her current diagnosis) rheumatologists have suggested expensive tests to refine the diagnosis. When pressed, however, you find out that the test is just something the doctor is curious about – no matter what the result it doesn’t change the treatment plan! So, the doctor is just suggesting we spend large sums of cash with no purpose. Insurance takes care of it, right? Of course, he forgot that everybody’s insurance premiums keep rising. I wonder why?

This one also goes into the “fraud” area as well. I find that, while there may be good rheumatologists, several people go into that field because the diagnoses are so murky that you don’t actually have to be knowledgeable or helpful to be an expert and charge people a lot of money.

Within my own field of computer programming you have the same thing. People suggest building technology projects without ever asking why. People recommend systems with ridiculous ongoing costs, just because its the “best” way to build a technology project. NO! Sometimes you need to build projects in a way that isn’t the best – you have to take the people themselves into account.

As an example, I have a friend who built a ultra-secure computer system for a church. It was locked down so that only people who had very explicit rights could access any individual piece of data. Great, right? Well, the reality is, if you make a system that is so secure it is difficult to use, people are going to go around the security. The end result was that the people with the most access just made CD-ROM copies of the whole database and passed it around the office. You might blame the office people, but I blame the expert. The expert only thought about their own field of expertise, and forgot to incorporate (i.e., philosophize) about the real way that people need to access information and the way that the barriers allow and prevent work flow. In the end, the draconian security measures made security worse, because the numerous copies of the whole church database were floating around on people’s desks for anyone to pick up! The security was perfect – expertly made. But it lacked philosophy.

Here’s another one. My mom (who has since passed away) had kidney disease. The doctors wanted her to get a new kidney. So, my mom asked them for success rates. They told her about very good success rates. But then, my mom went deeper. She decided to find out what the medical community counted as a “success”. The medical community counts as a success any patient who retains the kidney for longer than a year. So, if you get a transplant, and it doesn’t go well, and are sick in the hospital for 366 days, and on the 367th day they decide to give up and remove the kidney, you are counted in the “success” category. Now, that statistic may be perfect for medical research. But it is absolutely useless for someone trying to decide if they need a kidney. And when “experts” pawn off the “success” statistic as if it were meaningful for patients, they have committed a grievous philosophical error, and in doing so have eroded public trust.

I should also mention for a moment the anti-vax movement. This is mentioned at the beginning as the epitome of the anti-intellectual issue. Now, there are indeed many anti-intellectual and other problematic tendencies in the anti-vax movement. However, what causes the anti-vax movement to maintain steam is that there are uncountable numbers of parents who gave their children vaccines because they believed them to be safe, and then watched in horror as their children immediately afterward developed horrific problems. Then, to top it off, the doctors refused to see the connection. It is not so much that I think that “yes vaccines must be causing the problem” as I can see 100% that the medical community is completely ignoring what their patients are seeing. They can’t look outside of their bubble for two seconds to see what is happening. There *is* something going on (I don’t claim to know what), but doctors are systematically refusing to allow non-experts to comment on expert matters.

Let me give you another situation to help you understand why. I have had three friends who have problems with kidney stones. Do you know what all three of them told me? They said, “it’s funny, the doctor said I should avoid milk to keep the stones from coming back. But I had actually stopped drinking milk X months ago altogether.” After hearing this, I though, “huh, I wonder if stopping drinking milk is actually the problem – maybe the milk is doing something that we don’t know.” I figured out to ask this question after a sample size of literally three people. It took the medical community about 50 years. This tells me that, for 50 years, nephrologists have systematically ignored what the patients were telling them on account of their “expertise” on the subject. But now they assure us that the mothers who have watched their own children deteriorate before their eyes should not be listened to and that we should ignore them in favor of expert opinion.

Lack of Knowledge

I have personally noticed an erosion in real knowledge in every field. It may be that I just know more than I used to, so I can spot hacks more easily. But, all in all, there seems to be a lack of skill and knowledge by people who are supposed to be experts. People don’t seem to have a history or background even in their own fields. A large part of this is an education problem. I used to teach as an adjunct computer science teacher for a community college. I would hear horror stories about the ineptness of teachers. I remember *being* in a community college class. It was ridiculous. What we were learning and doing was so simplistic I did all of my homework for the whole semester in one evening at the beginning of the semester. And I got greater than 100% in the class.

My actual college was much better, but I get stories from people going through college now that regular colleges are teaching the way that community colleges used to. The standards for graduating are going down.

Additionally, the people who are in the fields want to use their position to tout their own view. This is actually anti-intellectual. If anything, the greatest thing that a public expert could do is to show us what the options and consequences of different possibilities are, and the variety of perspectives on the subject. But, what usually happens, is that the expert ignores all of that, and just gives what they think we should do. Sometimes this is from lack of philosophy, but oftentimes this is because they have refused to do what it is that academic experts should do – become very familiar with ideas outside their own and be able to reason about them objectively.

The inability to do this means that the expert class has gotten rid of one of their primary potential contributions to the conversation.

But it is even worse than that – in many fields, they are throwing out dissenters. They are throwing out people who, though having demonstrated their understanding of the current thinking, have chosen to go a different way. When fields do that, they are rejecting knowledge. A great example of that is the theory of evolution. When the field of biology finds someone who disagrees, they just throw them out. And then they claim a consensus of opinion – ha! I have a friend (Norbert Smith, if you care) who made great strides in biological research – in the 70s he figured out how to do biometrics extremely cheap. The sensors that were being sold for thousands, he figured out how to make them for tens of dollars. He started up an undergraduate research program at a small university and was getting significant funds. His research on diving bradycardia was being featured by the BBC. But then, it came out that he was a creationist. He didn’t even mention this in class – it’s just that people found out. The kicked him out of academics, tried (unsuccessfully, thankfully) to take away his Ph.D., and he wound up driving trucks for the rest of his life. There is even an organization out there (the NCSE) who has been known to call professors to bully them to kick out any people with dissenting opinions out of their graduate programs. Can you imagine a non-profit organization that targets undergraduates for expulsion because they disagree? Well, we have it with the NCSE.

But it is even worse than that – we have whole departments whose expertise is predicated on the idea that facts don’t matter. These are the departments whose names end in “studies” like “women’s studies”. It’s not that it isn’t possible to have a women’s studies department, it is just that we currently have in modern academics such departments where thinking that there is objective truth is considered a hate crime. The fact that universities still have such departments and haven’t gotten their own to shape up makes many people skeptical of the whole business.

Fraud

In this subject, I don’t mean just that there are experts who are fraudulent. I mean that whole groups of experts perpetrate fraud against the entire public in a systematic manner. It’s late and I’m tired, so I don’t have time to go deeply into this, but the simplest one is the role of carbohydrates in the diet. There have never been any good data suggesting that carbohydrates are good for you and that fats are bad. But this fraud got perpetrated against us. And it was indeed fraud. The data was known at the time, and it hasn’t changed. The food pyramid which was sold by experts to the public was known to be a fraud.

The news media is a giant fraud. Here’s how you can tell. Take note of any story in the news in which you yourself have some expertise. Then ask yourself – did they get it right? If they don’t get it right on the stories which you yourself have personal knowledge, why do you think they are getting it right on other topics? What’s worse, is that many of these are actually committing frauds to get their own point of view across.

Here’s an example from my own life. I knew someone who got on the news for volunteering. The newspaper was running an article on volunteerism in Tulsa. My friend was working with Up With Trees, and the reporter interviewed him about volunteerism. His picture was above-the-fold on the front page. The story lauded the volunteering spirit of the crew and this person. There was only one problem. What was not mentioned in the story was that my friend (whose picture was on the front page) and the whole Up With Trees crew, was volunteering as part of a judicial sentence. That’s right, they were actually doing time. But the reporter didn’t let something like facts get in the way of a good story. And that was for something that didn’t matter at all. What do you think happens when it does matter?

The Systematic Nature of the Problem

I should point out that all of these issues are systematic in nature. I’m not saying that an expert somewhere has been wrong at some point in time, so we should give the whole thing up. I’m saying there is a large set of systematic problems with the expert class in this country. Until the expert class recognizes it in themselves and bothers to do something about it, they will continue to be ignored. That’s the only thing the average person can do to survive the onslaught of ignorant and predatory experts.

Real Experts

I don’t think that people actually have a problem with real expertise. We are just tired of being had. If we had a problem with expertise, we would get rid of engineering exams and requirements. The fact that we don’t just means that we are skeptical of fields where there is, and can be, so much fraud and manipulation. We are skeptical of fields that impact human life directly, because the experts don’t seem to know anything about human life.

Bridge builders aren’t really problematic. We tell them to build a bridge somewhere, and they don’t pretend to tell us how to live our lives. They just build the bridge. They really are experts. I’ve found that in the medical field that surgeons are the ones most likely to be experts. I think that is largely because of how hands-off they are. Surgeons rarely are the ones who recommend people for surgery – they are just the people who do it.

Finding Knowledge for Decisions

While there are some experts whose opinions I trust, I find that the average expert is so inept at seeing things from other people’s point of view and how their suggestions or solutions will impact the person themselves that it is simply not worth engaging with them. I would rather engage my next door neighbor who knows something about my life for advice. If I want extra knowledge, I can go to the Internet. A lot of it may be B.S., but it is actually rather easy to separate the bull from the good stuff on the Internet, and the Internet doesn’t shove itself in my face pretending to know better about my life than I am. The Internet itself is humble, and the browser will look for what I ask it to, and even connect me with experts when I want their opinion. The Internet is a humble servant, unlike experts.

I’m sure that there are people who doubt experts for much more problematic and self-serving reasons. I’m sure I do it, too. However, if the experts were behaving as experts, then they would have more cheerleaders among the public. I tried to follow experts until I found out through experience that I couldn’t. I wish I could tell people to listen to the experts – I can’t in good conscience do it. I tell people to learn and make decisions for themselves, because what experts taught me is that they may have studied deeply in their tiny niche of a subject, but you are a better judge than anyone else if their study affects you in any way whatsoever.

You should definitely listen to what experts have to say. But you should never, ever take what they say as the definitive word on the subject, especially for your own life. Use expert opinion as a jumping off point for your own investigations. But don’t pretend that any expert will give you a complete look at what the real issues are, even within their own field. The ones who are actually widely studied enough to know them is not going to share them with you.

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