We are living in the Information Age. Most people believe that people are more informed in the Information Age and the quality of knowledge has tremendously improved. But, unfortunately, this isn’t true. Google-fueled and Wikipedia-based knowledge has emerged as the biggest challenge for experts and scholars. In The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols argues that we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself. Any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers in the world of blogs are collapsing. In other words, he is arguing that the difference between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all is fast vanishing.
Tom Nichols argues that this is because never before so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet they resisted to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of an expert. Not only do increasing numbers of lay people lack basic knowledge, but they also reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge. In short, this is more than a natural skepticism toward experts.
Tom Nichols says that attacks on established knowledge and the subsequent rash of poor information in the general public are sometimes amusing. Sometimes they’re even hilarious. Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. It’s mostly harmless when people emphatically say, for example, that they’re avoiding gluten and then have to admit that they have no idea what gluten is. Watching people confidently improvise opinions about ludicrous scenarios like whether “Margaret Thatcher’s absence at Coachella is beneficial in terms of North’s decision to launch a nuclear weapon” never gets old.
The growth of this kind of stubborn ignorance in the midst of the Information Age cannot be explained away as merely the result of rank ignorance. Tom Nichols argues that many of the people who campaign against established knowledge are otherwise adept and successful in their daily lives. In some ways, it is all worse than ignorance: it is unfounded arrogance, the outrage of an increasingly narcissistic culture that cannot endure even the slightest hint of inequality of any kind. By the “death of expertise,” Tom Nichols writes, “I do not mean the death of actual expert abilities, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors and diplomats, lawyers and engineers and many other specialists in various fields. On a day-to-day basis, the world cannot function without them. If we break a bone or get arrested, we call a doctor or a lawyer. When we travel, we take it for granted that the pilot knows how airplanes work. If we run into trouble overseas, we call a consular official who we assume will know what to do.” Tom Nichols argues that this is a reliance on experts as technicians. It is not a dialogue between experts and the larger communities but the use of established knowledge as an off-the-shelf convenience as needed and only so far as desired. Tom Nichols says that the death of expertise is not just a rejection of existing knowledge. It is fundamentally a rejection of science and dispassionate nationality, which are the foundations of modern civilization.
The Death of Expertise is a timely addition to the growing scholarly literature on how the digital revolution is pushing knowledge and expertise in the background. With his unmatched credentials, Tom Nichols persuasively argues that there is unprecedented resistance to expertise and experts at a time when we have an abundance of knowledge and scholarship. The Death of Expertise will help us understand how the digital revolution has fostered a new cult of ignorance and how to fight the rising cult of ignorance. This well-researched book is really very persuasive. It is a must-read for everyone who wants to understand how the digital revolution changing our world.