Flat White

In defence of the expert

17 April 2018

1:05 PM

17 April 2018

1:05 PM

David Pearl’s recent Spectator feature on Professor Tom Nichols, a defence academic and Sovietologist at Harvard Naval College, suggested that the establishment is smug and therefore are useless for our society. I found Pearl’s comments about Nichols and his book to be very unpersuasive. Pearl must have encountered Nichols for the first time. As someone who has followed him for a certain period of time and who has read his book The Death of Expertise, I must say that it’s not the case.

The book is a non-partisan in-depth look into the rapidly disintegrating trust of the institutions that we hold dearly. Nichols also asks for a renewal of the relationship between the general expert, like your doctor, lawyer or scientist and the layperson by ensuring one holds them accountable while clarifying and reasserting the positions both tribes should hold. Simply put, the experts are not here to be right, they’re here to advise you on what they think, and the layperson would be wise to just listen and take it because they just don’t have the same preparation and experience. Thus, we can only appeal to authorities to seek help. Sounds condescending? A book like this would have been incredibly pompous in tone, but thankfully Nichols allows it to be genial and open.

The relationship between the layman and the expert is illustrated thoroughly in a chapter about academia. Nichols starts the chapter by declaring that the bureaucracy of the university has transitioned into ‘a consumer-oriented experience’ in which students learn. From experience, he points out that many universities “are putting out PhDs at a rate far higher than any academic job market can possibly absorb”. While the values of degrees and credentials continually inflate as it loses its value, it highly correlates with the massive influx of political correctness among students. He provides some notable examples such as the mass protests at the University of Missouri and a Yale professor being confronted by student activists over insensitive Halloween costumes, both of which happened in and around the same time in 2015.

Had Pearl read the book, he would’ve been delighted that there are examples provided where the elites have indeed got it wrong. The book targets journalists, the most egregious of the elites, featuring a huge error made by Vox in 2014, insinuating there’s a bridge between the West Bank and Gaza (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t exist). During a chapter on what happens when the experts do get it wrong, Nichols questions the criteria of everyone who self-proclaims as an expert or an intellectual:

At this point, a number of disturbing questions occurred to me. If only experts can judge the bona fides of other experts, who appoints the new set of experts?  Should there be a kind of supreme expert council appointed for this purpose?  And who determines the membership of that august body? And what about demarcation disputes between different groups of experts? How should these be resolved? Should a body of meta-expertise be developed for this purpose?

Pearl went on to suggest that the Y2K bug, the fall of Rome and the Soviet Union are all caused by the failure of experts and thus it has been a norm for a long time. From reading The Death of Expertise, Nichols has already prepared a response in his book stating experts themselves are not supposed to be prophets:

The goal of expert advice and prediction is not to win a coin toss, it is to help guide decisions about possible futures. To ask in 1980 whether the Soviet Union would fall before the year 2000 is a yes-or-no question. To ask during the previous decades how best to bring about a peaceful Soviet collapse and to alter the probability of that event (and to lessen the chances of others) is a different matter entirely.

Experts delude themselves into thinking they are the prophets in any field they’re not involved with, leading to an irritating amount of anti-intellectualism. But since the layperson doesn’t know much about anything, we can only seek to appeal towards authority. Nichols acknowledges that experts have a huge issue with communicating their findings, which, to be fair, should have been more of the book’s crux, yet has this important note to add:

The public needs to approach expert advice with a combination of scepticism and humility. It is not enough to know what the experts agree upon. It is equally important to accept the limits of that agreement and not to drive more conclusions than the weight of expert views can support.

In the first sentence, he agrees with Pearl’s original thesis. The elites shouldn’t be immune to criticism and have shown to have little connection with their inferior classes that John Howard once decried them as self-appointed cultural dieticians. This is not to suggest that the book nor Nichols believe that experts and elites aren’t capable of making mistakes. But expertise is still essential to our democracy, that a glib dismissal won’t be helpful. With our discourse becoming more divided than ever, confirmation bias, unfortunately, remains an obstacle on both sides of the political spectrum.

Pearl is correct on one thing. That there is a receptive audience for the book, who don’t know what the right facts are. The observation that we are less trustful of the establishment, more qualified than us is nothing new. In one chapter, Nichols suggests that there’s a possibility that information overload could be unhealthy for our democracy, allowing corporations to manipulate it to its own advantage. The shift in political paradigms with Trump and Brexit, both of which are populist revolts has amplified it that our elites are deeply uncomfortable. And to a degree, he has a point. Maybe it’s the time to rebuild bridges, not burn them to ashes.

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