There is a Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Take a moment to consider the implications of that fact. The inhabitants of what, under other circumstances, would be an obscure academic backwater need legal defense. Non-scientists have convinced themselves so thoroughly that these experts have to be wrong that they claim the whole field is swimming in fraud and have engaged in legal assaults to try to confirm their beliefs. The scientists need legal defense because their opponents are convinced they can provide evidence of the fraud—if only they could see every email the scientists have ever sent.
Climate scientists may suffer from an extreme example of this sort of vilification, but they’re hardly alone. The US has had a long history of mistrust in highly educated professionals, but we seem to have shifted to a situation in which expertise has become both a disqualification and a reason for attack.
That’s the central argument of Tom Nichols’ recent book, The Death of Expertise, which has recently come out in a paperback edition. Nichols is a professor at the Naval War College and an expert himself, having done graduate studies about the former Soviet Union. While he’s gained some prominence as a never-Trump conservative, the arguments in his book are evenhanded at distributing blame. And they make disturbing reading for anyone in science who’s interested in engaging the public—especially in the science arena.
The book has an unusual origin story. The Death of Expertise started as a tweetstorm and developed into an op-ed before finally reaching book form. This keeps it relatively light and easy reading, despite the depressing topic. Nichols’ straightforward writing style and highly organized structure makes the ideas in The Death of Expertise easy to digest, although they also make it easy to think of examples and arguments that didn’t make the final cut.
A history of mistrust
To some extent, expertise is simply the outgrowth of a division of labor: in any sufficiently complex society, not everyone has the knowledge to simply step into any role. And, as our society has globalized and grown in complexity, the number of areas of distinct expertise has grown astronomically. Nichols acknowledges that experts span a broad range of professions, from academics to plumbers and auto mechanics. But for the most part, the latter have only been the subject of private mistrust, triggered by things like $1,200.00 repair bills for cars that seemed to be running just fine. Instead, public mistrust tends to be reserved for experts of a more academic persuasion.
This isn’t a uniquely US phenomenon; witness a Brexit campaigner saying “people in this country have had enough of experts” in response to said experts suggesting the move could be a disaster for the UK. But Nichols argues that this country has added uniquely American twists to the phenomenon. Less than 50 years after the founding of the US, he points out, de Tocqueville was noting how the US public trusted and celebrated its common sense as being superior to that held by specialists. And, in more recent times, the experts who planned the Second Gulf and Vietnam wars miscalculated badly, heightening mistrust while inflicting national trauma.
(I’d add that the US has a long history of celebrating athletes at the expense of eggheads, but Nichols points out that athletes possess their own specialized expertise.)
Plenty of blame to go around
Nichols identifies how this tendency has been accentuated by some distinctly modern problems. One is that our education system has ended up focused on promoting a degree of confidence in students, recognizing that this can be critical for success. But that can come at the expense of having students recognize the limits of their knowledge, leaving them feeling that they might become experts at anything they decided to attempt. If anything, Nichols argues, this is more of a problem in higher education, where college administrators have become focused on keeping their $20,000-a-year customers happy.
The book points how the Internet, rather than revealing just how much information is out there, has instead led people to think they can read the Wikipedia entry on epidemiology and tell someone with a Masters in Public Health why they just don’t understand the dangers of vaccines. As an example of the sorts of things Nichols skips in this brief work, I don’t recall him discussing how the Internet also allows these people to self-organize into communities, which helps them reinforce each other’s mis-beliefs.
Nichols’ brief treatment really only comes up a bit short when he gets around to offering solutions. The public needs to recognize that, while they can be wrong, experts are far more likely to be right than anyone who gets their knowledge on a topic by spending time with a Web browser. Experts need to get better at explaining their degree of confidence in their conclusions and do so using language that the public can understand. And experts have to do so to the public, rather than limiting their conversations to their fellow academics.
All that is right, of course; The Death of Expertise is just lacking in implementation details. Fortunately, many of the organizations that support the experts on climate science are consulting with the experts they need—behavioral scientists, communications specialists, and more—to find ways of getting the public to respect the scientists’ expert conclusions. Maybe in a few decades, we’ll see whether any of these efforts were affected or whether the public waited for the Earth itself to make believing in climate change a matter of common sense.