Tom Nichols wrote this very readable and entertaining book on a depressing subject: why "expertise" has become increasingly disrespected in recent US history, and why that's problematic. His analysis is imperfect, but he writes with honesty and straightforwardness, and is (relatively) fearless about calling out the people responsible. (One exception: he recalls a working for a US Senator who threw him "out of his office in a fusillade of curses during a principled disagreement". The Senator is unnamed, but it doesn't take a lot of digging to discover: the late John Heinz.)
And best of all (from his Wikipedia page: "Nichols is an undefeated five-time Jeopardy! champion and one of that game's all-time top players." (Unfortunately, his run came in 1994 before they dinked the rules to allow contestants to play as long as they kept winning.)
Anyway, to the book: Nichols is (rightly) disturbed by the increasing levels of know-nothingism in the American populace. Specifically, he's put off by the aggressiveness demonstrated by the willfully ignorant. Caricature: "My opinion's as good as yours! even though you have a Ph.D. and years of experience in the field, I spent a few minutes with the Google and found these websites…"
The sources driving expertise-demise are named and shamed. Four big culprits:
The system of
US higher education, which has become corrupted by a "customer is always
right" mentality, concentration of "lazy river"-style entertaining fripperies for
students at the expense of academics, grade inflation, and a dumbing-down of course content.
As a result, a college degree (depending on the major, of course) has
become devalued, but the students coming out of the process seem to be
increasingly arrogant and entitled.
The Internet. It makes it easy to look up lies and errors, and (probably
worse) social media sites make it easy to connect with the
equally-deluded, and to establish an echo chamber/bubble in which people
can remain cozily unchallenged in their delusions.
Journalists. They're unskeptical, biased, and often unqualified to sort out nonsense from
fact. (It doesn't help that they're products of our higher education
system — see above.) Like colleges, they cater to their customer base.
What results is a "product" which has to be treated with huge amounts of
Experts themselves. As Nichols shows in a late chapter, they can
be wrong, and arrogant about it. Surprise: they're human beings too. And
instead of being patient, tolerant, and unbiased, they can be … the
opposite of those things. Understandably, the rest of us react poorly.
Especially, when an "expert" is caught unpantsed, it tarnishes the whole
group, and degrades the notion that experts should be (at least)
recognized as more reliable sources of information and advice than Joe
I mentioned imperfections. Here are a couple:
Nichols has a (funny/depressing) rant about raw milk. He notes a CDC report that claimed "raw dairy products were 150 times more likely than pasteurized products to cause food-borne illness".
Now, I don't disagree with Nichols' main point: consumers should make food choices based on solid information. But the "150 times" factoid is pretty useless for determining that; it's just a scary big number. What might be important and useful to know is the absolute risk, not the relative risk.
Specifically: If the illness risk for pasteurized products is negligible, then 150 times that risk might also be negligible. And (I bet) that risk goes down a lot if you buy from a reputable source, and follow sensible food safety procedures.
And Nichols' factoid is absent of context. Even if he had reported the absolute risk for raw milk, how does it compare to the risk of food-borne illness from other sources? My gut (heh) feeling is from news reports of food recalls and hospitalizations: problems are entirely from produce and meat, nothing from dairy. Am I wrong? Maybe. But good luck finding out relevant facts from "expert" sources.
[Disclaimer: raw milk is legal in New Hampshire—live free or die, baby!—and I tried some once. I did not die.]
The second issue is Nichols' occasional overbroad brush. I was taken by this (page 111):
The deeper issue here is that the Internet is actually changing the way we read, the way we reason, even the way we think, and all for the worse.
I read that, and I thought: hey, someone talk Tom down from that ledge. His "we" is certainly overstated ("what do you mean 'we', white man?") and "all for the worse" is unsubstantiated and (almost certainly) false. And I bet he'd rewrite that if he had the chance.
Note: I was led to this book by this Noah Berlatsky review in Reason. I liked the book better than Berlatsky did, but that may be because I'm slightly more conservative than the average Reasonoid. Still, Berlatsky's critique is worth reading in conjunction with Nichols' book.