The Death of Expertise

March 27, 2017

While the internet has allowed more people more access to more information than ever before, it has also given them the illusion of knowledge when in fact they are drowning in data and cherry-picking what they choose to read. Given an inexhaustible buffet of facts, rumors, lies, serious analysis, crackpot speculation and outright propaganda to browse online, it becomes easy for one to succumb to “confirmation bias” — the tendency, as Nichols puts it, “to look for information that only confirms what we believe, to accept facts that only strengthen our preferred explanations, and to dismiss data that challenge what we accept as truth.”

Citizens of all political persuasions (not to mention members of the Trump administration) can increasingly live in their own news media bubbles, consuming only views similar to their own. When confronted with hard evidence that they are wrong, many will simply double down on their original assertions. “This is the ‘backfire effect,’” Nichols writes, “in which people redouble their efforts to keep their own internal narrative consistent, no matter how clear the indications that they’re wrong.” As a result, extreme views are amplified online, just as fake news and propaganda easily go viral.

Today, all these factors have combined to create a maelstrom of unreason that’s not just killing respect for expertise, but also undermining institutions, thwarting rational debate and spreading an epidemic of misinformation. These developments, in turn, threaten to weaken the very foundations of our democracy. As Nichols observes near the end of this book: “Laypeople complain about the rule of experts and they demand greater involvement in complicated national questions, but many of them only express their anger and make these demands after abdicating their own important role in the process: namely, to stay informed and politically literate enough to choose representatives who can act on their behalf.”


11 thoughts on “The Death of Expertise

  1. This has been happening in Malaysia, even before Trump arrived on the US political scene. Our Prime Minister appoints pseudo experts like Idris Jala formerly of Permandu Inc. Expertise in Bank Negara and Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister have been sidelined in favour of spin doctors.

    Playing around with statistics is a dangerous preoccupation since it will lead to bad policy. I am sure LaMoy and CLF have something to say about this. –Din Merican

    • CLF wins hands down. Jala no match for CLF MBA and Harvard PhD advisor.

      Pemandu is a rabbit pulling magician with barrels of feel good numbers being massaged to please Jibby while CLF and his advisors are dealing with real numbers on everyday basis.

    • I can’t comment on the expertise, or otherwise, of the Bank Negara, but I know the Economic Planning Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department has, ever since the days of PM Dr Mahathir , often played fast and slippery with FACTS, leave alone conclusions based on those facts, very often publishing statistics and analyses that were rooted more in the prevailing political ideology and resulting strategies of the Prime Minister of the day than in the cold and hard light of Truth.

      The EPU exemplified what it meant to be political hacks, and they ought to be thoroughly be ashamed of themselves.

  2. I’ve not read Tom Nichols’ book, yet. So, I can’t write a review to comment on what he has written. I’m going to touch on his title The Death of Expertise but respond more directly to Trump’s ” taste for advisers with little or no government experience; his selection of cabinet members ….”

    People today are exposed to more information than ever before, both by technology and by increased access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

    This rejection of experts has occurred for many reasons, including the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24/7 entertainment machine. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement. When ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy – or in the worst case, a combination of both.

    The result is that Americans have elected someone who doesn’t read books into the White House. Maggie Haberman of New York Times reported that Trump “does not read books.” Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter behind Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal told The New Yorker that in the 18 months he spent with Trump, he “never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment.” Schwartz told the magazine, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” Washington Post article reported similar information, first noting that Trump had not read any biographies of U.S. presidents because he didn’t have the time. The article also reported Trump as saying that he does not read extensively because he is able to come to correct decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

    No wonder Trump goes around telling: “I love poorly educated people.” Because he himself is poorly educated. Trump likes to brag about attending Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. We all know he transferred there as a junior from Fordham University which he rarely mentioned. His grades in Fordham just barely passed. No one knows why University of Pennsylvania admitted him. Obviously not through his grades and effort. I suspect it was through his father’s big contribution to the university. I wonder if he could write anything longer than his tweets. And even his tweets are full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, very unlike a graduate from Wharton School.

    It’s not surprising for a poorly educated president to select his advisers and cabinet members with little or no government experience. This is inferiority complex. He feels more comfortable to be boss with incompetent and ignorant fools around him. And the “experts” he has around him are those who deliberately fudge studies, either because of financial conflicts of interest or to advance their careers by generating more newsworthy, publishable results. The flaws of individual pseudo expert is relatively minor. The real danger is that the entire group of Trump’s so-called experts is built on prejudice. It is built on the old American eugenic theories which were picked up and used by Hitler and led to horrific acts of genocide.

    It is very disturbing that we now have a president who doesn’t understand the importance of reading. All our recent presidents, Republican and Democratic, have been readers. It’s common knowledge that Barack Obama loved a good read. Obama routinely visits independent bookstores and releases his summer reading list every year. And George W. Bush famously got into a reading duel with Karl Rove, to see who could read the most books. Part of being a leader is knowing what it means to sit in the audience, how to listen, and there’s nothing more humbling and informing than reading, taking in the voice and consciousness of someone else in such a deep way.

    But Trump does not read books. He does not know how to listen, and does not know the difference between listening and hearing. He has no patience, and he does not know it can be developed through reading. He does not know how to be humble. And he can’t write. The saddest and scariest of all, he thinks he is the greatest expert in everything; he thinks he is god and the people around him are really calling him Jesus. He is insane with the code to the nuclear bombs.

    I feel like echoing Alexander Pope:

    “A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    and drinking largely sobers us again.”

  3. Trump’s personal vendetta against Obama is on, signing four more bills to roll back Obama-era regulations. What a petty man!

    Trump’s approval rating has hit a new low at 36%. Never in the American history has a president’s approval fallen so fast to so low yet so soon. Not only the Independents, the Republican voters are turning their backs on him. Republicans in the House and Senate are getting antsy, real nervous. Funny thing is the Democrats are relatively quiet. Seems like their strategy is to give Trump enough rope to hang himself and in the mean time dragging down those Republicans who support him to the end.

    Apparently, Trump is hanging himself. He is making enemies both at home and abroad. Know why his White House press conference with Merkel was so awkward? I heard rumor from connection in Washington, but cannot verify it, that prior to the press conference Trump handed Merkel a NATO defense invoice for approximately $377 million. The concept behind putting out such demands is to intimidate the other side, but the chancellor took it calmly and did not respond to such provocations. If true, you think Germany is going to pay this bill? Hell no, Trump was only being childish, very stupid, very rude. Where is the etiquette for being a graceful host?

  4. Years of subjugation under colonial rule and dispensation of English education have together shaped and conditioned our mind to have a Western tilted thought process even though many of us might have learned a vernacular language in schools as well.

    Intellectualism and expertise and all are the hunting grounds of the elites and the ruling class and have little relevance or applicability to the common man. But the common man also goes through his own learning process through passage of life and picks up his own learning points. We may call this street smartness.

    A rich country bumpkin was living in his huge bungalow. He developed some incurable disease and was suffering in pain. He prayed to God to cure him and promised that if he was cured he would sell his bungalow and give half the money to charity. He was cured and now came the time for him to keep to his side of the bargain. The crafty man thought deep and came up with a brilliant idea. He advertised his bungalow for sale with a condition that the property must be purchased along with a pair of Siamese cats in the bungalow. The price: bungalow $50,000, the Siamese cats $350,000 and he was not an intellectual!!

  5. C’mon semper, surely you jest! Me totally irrelevant lah..

    This pemandu Jala ain’t no sneeze, you know. Some of his ‘boys’ did get their doctorates too – sort DBA kind. Practitioners of pemandu crap – gostan gear in perpetuity. Honestly though, no one with a bit of common sense believes his ‘figures’, which figures. Those blokes can’t even forecast their own toe-nail growth much less the State of Disunion in Malusia.

    Din is absolutely right about EPU which has morphed into the task-master instead of the policy maker and monitoring head-honcho (ICU functions). Their best technocrats have retired and it is now run by ayam pancung kepala. So how?

    Bank Negara? Some good experienced brains there, but nowadays running helter skelter and hiding under their tilam – cuz of the on-going case of shit-bricks Tiga Tan Sris’. So what happens? A Governor who has zilch idea on how trade works in the modern era. Hentam tetap hentam, lepas geram. Semua takut and so Carma rules.

    Then you have UKAS, the Public-Private Partnership Unit in PMO, where the present Chief Sec or KSN derives from.. Powerful and almighty! So is the Syariah NIt. All swimming in the deep Blue Ocean!

    I refer you to this:

    • Ha ha, me not kidding. Sometimes the solution is a straight forward answer and not one gobbledygook handiwork beating around the bush. My recent personal experience which you knew was ‘more of the same’ and don’t go for new ideas. Alas program dead in water yet spending millions without significant results.

      The list you refer to consist of yesmen and yes women mostly unqualified except the ability to say ‘saya setuju’ to KSN and Jibby. The Jala boys DBA’a are what I term as Doing Business As a fictional entity to cover their asses. Some are probably bought as opposed to earned.

    • Yup. Billions have been ‘spirited’ away on feel good, corruption, mismanagement, sheer stupidity and incompetence. Your unfortunate experience is actually the norm, not the exception, dear friend. Anyway those who did that, have bitten the dust.

      Only in Malusia are there equations such as these:
      K.Tahan Sturgeon=Caviar,
      KY Jelly=Liwat etc – and the most recent:
      Milk Cows=Dairy self sufficiency.

      Look, our wonderful torrid tropic climes aren’t any good for raising Holstein-Friesian cattle. So i guess we will have to make do with the mammaries of lactating indigenous women. One word of caution though, us East and SE Asian Adults are Lactose intolerant. Cirit birit (diarrhea)!

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