The Death of Expertise

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Tom Nichols PhD was professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College for 25 years. In 2018, he published The Death of Expertise, a book in which he argued that "the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill informed [sic] and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement". He considers this a sign of "narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism". He argues that the current distrust of expertise is different from the generalized public ignorance of the past, in that it exposes:

...the emergence of a positive hostility to such knowledge. This is new in American culture, and it represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other. This is a remarkable change in our public discourse.

While Nichols does, in his book, apportion blame for this phenomena among experts as well as the public, he concludes:

Experts themselves, as well as educators, journalists, corporate entertainment media, and others have all played their part. In the end, however, there is only one group of people who must bear the ultimate responsibility for this state of affairs, and only they can change any of it: the citizens of the United States of America.

If the citizens, you see, weren't so aggressively ignorant, then the incompetence or malevolence of experts wouldn't matter as much.

Aggressive Ignorance

expertsI don't have a problem granting that a growing portion of the public is, in fact, aggressively ignorant, or that it endangers our ability to govern ourselves, as I pointed out in my previous post. But I'd also point out that the public is not the villain here, nor are they largely responsible for it. The experts are.

Americans, by and large, don't educate themselves. There is, at both the state and, for some unfathomable reason, the federal level, a vast panoply of educational experts who oversee the public education system. This system, in turn, provides the education received by 91% of students, according to the government's National Center for Education statistics.

To become a teacher, or "educator" as they increasingly love to style themselves, one must complete a specified course of education at the college level, and pass various credentialing exams. Moreover, to maintain their certifications, teachers must complete a variety of continuing college-level educational courses on a recurring basis. Children are taught by these certified educational experts from kindergarten through completion of college.

Moreover, the money spent on the public education system is the largest state and local expenditure in the budget, taking up an average of 21.2% of total expenditures. This is more than twice the amount spent for, say hospitals and health care, and nearly 4 times the amount spent on roads and infrastructure. Some states spend much more. In California, for example, more than half of the state's annual budget goes towards public education.

One would think that, with this level of expertise and credentialing for education, not to mention its funding, we would be producing the most highly educated populace in human history. The reality is quite different when one looks at, say, literacy statistics. 21% of American adults are functionally illiterate. 54% have literacy levels below the 6th grade level.

In California, where more than half of the state budget—approx $136 billion—goes to education, and where spending per student tops the national average by more than $1000, 28.4% of adults are illiterate.

Whether through incompetence or malevolence, the experts we hire to implement and administer our system of public education are failing. If Americans are aggressively ignorant, these experts must bear the lion's share of responsibility for that state of affairs.

Education is not the only way that experts have publicly failed us.

From Incompetence to Malevolence

There is an old saying: Never attribute to malevolence what can be ascribed to incompetence. There are plenty of examples of expert incompetence in the modern era to go around.

David Halberstam's book, The Best and the Brightest, is an encyclopedic examination of how the most talented, experienced, and well-educated defense officials in history embarked on a policy to win the Vietnam War that can only be described as delusional. The Washington Post's Book World review described it as "A fascinating tale of folly and self-deception." Several years later, Barbara Tuchman wrote The March of Folly, a historical account of four historical instances of governmental folly, in which a quarter of her book was devoted to the experts' policy failures in Vietnam.

More recently, we can review the expert decisions that led to the failure of American policy in Iraq or Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a particularly apt example, where more than 20 years of conflict following the overthrow of the Taliban ended with the immediate resumption of Taliban governance of the country, even as America withdrew its troops. What were all the defense and foreign policy experts doing for two decades while overseeing our policy there? How did such an expense of blood and treasure end with the status quo ante?

Incompetence is bad enough. But the growing malevolence of our policy experts is even more dangerous.

Nichols recounts, in the conclusion of his book, how President Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, created a network of experts who would provide support for the administration's nuclear deal with Iran by parroting whatever the administration wanted them to say. The experts, in other words, were for sale.

And, apparently, many experts are still for sale. In 2020, in the run-up to the presidential election, the New York Post exposed information from a laptop reportedly abandoned by Hunter Biden at a computer repair shop. The laptop contained email messages which showed indications of corrupt dealings by the Biden family, and perhaps Joe Biden himself. As a response, more than 50 former senior intelligence officials released a public letter declaring the laptop's contents to have all the hallmarks of a Russian disinformation campaign. We know now, of course, that the laptop was really Hunter Biden's, and the Russians had nothing at all to do with it.

wivOr we might also refer to the debate around the origins of COVID, and the Lab Leak theory. The position of public health authorities in 2020 was that COVID was entirely natural in origin, and support for the Lab Leak theory was "misinformation". As BMJ pointed out in an article that details the efforts by Peter Daszak and others to impose orthodoxy on claims of COVID's origins:

Shortly after the pandemic began, [Peter] Daszak effectively silenced debate over the possibility of a lab leak with a February 2020 statement in the Lancet. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” said the letter, which listed Daszak as one of 27 coauthors.

For over a year, Peter Daszak's campaign to label supporters of the Lab Leak theory as wild-eyed conspiracists was successful. Indeed, the Lab Leak theory was considered to be misinformation so toxic that public support for it could get one banned immediately from social media sites, even if one were a well-known, respected expert in the fields of biology, virology, or medicine. "Fact Check" articles were written that declared the Lab Leak was a debunked conspiracy theory or a baseless claim.

It wasn't until May 2021 that an open letter from other experts was published in Science to point out that the origin of COVID was not, in fact, known, and that a proper investigation should be conducted. It was only then that the facade of orthodoxy around the natural origins explanation began to crumble.

Now, nearly three years later, we know much more.

We know that Peter Daszak was funding gain of function research (though unrelated to COVID) at the Wuhan lab, and that the research was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, then headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, despite a funding ban on such research. We also know that Fauci was...factually incorrect...when he testified to Congress that “The NIH has not ever and does not now fund gain-of-function research in the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

Indeed, as of today, we know that Professor Andrew Rambaut, one of the authors of the Natural Origins letter that Daszak engineered for publication in Nature, knew that the Lab Leak theory was a possibility. He feared, however, a "shit-show that would happen if anyone seriously accused the Chinese of even accidental release".

So, we don't actually know what the origin of COVID is. And thanks to experts like Daszak and Rambaut, an entire year was lost in searching for those origins.

Why were these experts so concerned about the possibility of a lab leak? Why so concerned with China's response? Why were scientists so willing to shut down debate on the matter, or so willing to comply with the stated orthodoxy? Why were journalistic outlets—who purport to skeptically question authority—so eager to lend their "Fact Checking" services to this orthodoxy? And, in the case of Daszak and Fauci, how much of their concern stemmed from wanting to avoid revelations about the gain-of-function research they were pursuing, despite a funding ban from the US government?

The whole Lab Leak controversy is yet another data point for the aggressively ignorant public to doubt both the competence and fundamental honesty of our expert class.

Expertise in the Information Age

The readily available access to information is both a blessing and a curse. We can, on one hand, access nearly the sum total of human knowledge from our phone. On the other hand, we can access a thousand Internet randos who have proof that our government officials have all been murdered and replaced by body doubles, who are actually Siluran lizard-people from the interior of the planet, and who are controlling our government for their own, reptilian purposes.

For a relatively uneducated public, how do they know what to believe? There are fellow citizens, walking among us today, who believe the earth is flat, or the moon landings were faked, because they saw a convincing YouTube video about it. People are always in danger of falling prey to information that sounds authoritative, documented, and explanatory, but which happens to false. And an education system run by experts who are incapable of teaching their students to read, much less teach them rational, skeptical thought, doesn't seem to be a very good answer to that problem.

An expert, all other things being equal, should be expected to be more likely correct than not when addressing their area of competence. But for many of our experts, that doesn't appear to be the case. What many of our experts have are credentials. They have an advanced degree. They've passed tests to receive certifications. But credentialism is not expertise, and we fool ourselves if we think otherwise.

Experts should be aware that we no longer live in the Book Age. In that era, experts were often obscure, and their failures and successes took place largely out of the public eye. That is no longer the environment in which we live. Yes, the Internet exposes the public to outlandish ideas with which they aren't equipped to grapple. But it also exposes the writing, positions, and recommendations of experts—and their failures and successes—in a way that wasn't possible before. To be an expert in the Information Age is to live in a world where your failures and accomplishments are much more available to the public. Thus, more than ever before, the Information Age requires transparency and honesty from our expert class.

But, so far, we don't seem to be getting that necessary transparency from our experts. Not willingly anyway. And it's not the fault of an aggressively ignorant public that they've noticed that. It's not the public's fault that they notice when experts in highly visible instances have not just been wrong, but blatantly dishonest.

I would argue that the death of expertise does not fundamentally come from an aggressively ignorant public. It comes from the failure of experts to ensure that we don't have such a public. It is the result of experts who are publicly exposed as perverting their expertise towards the pursuit of desired social or political goals that lie completely outside their expertise. Thus, I believe that much of the public skepticism towards expertise is the result of the experts own actions.

In short, the death of expertise isn't a murder case. It's a suicide.

Photo credit, Wuhan Institute of Virology: Ureem2805, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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