2018-01-29

Book Review: "The Death of Expertise" by Tom Nichols

I've recently read the book The Death of Expertise by Tom Wainwright. It's a polemical discussion of why large groups of people in the US, regardless of political affiliation, seem to be not merely indifferent but actively hostile to real learning and to the notion of expertise. It discusses, by chapter, the breakdown of communication between experts and the public as well as among members of the public, issues related to the commodification of the college experience and the associated rise of "safe spaces", the rising distrust of experts as fomented by talk radio and later by cable news and questionable blogs/"news" sites, the problems facing mainstream journalism in this respect, and the problems facing experts themselves in making sure to get things right and communicate expertise clearly to the public. It's not a particularly long book, and its writing style is clear & accessible. However, there are a lot of problems I have with the book, specifically revolving around many of the arguments being thinly sourced, internally hypocritical, and mutually contradictory; additionally, the author's frequent conflation of expertise in practice versus pedagogy lessens the credibility of many of his arguments. I detail these and other issues below; as a result, this post is going to be a bit longer than is typical for a book review on this blog. Also note that what I write before the jump will be my main criticisms of this book; other thoughts about the material (less about the book itself) will come after the jump.

In the early chapters, the author defines an expert as someone who professionally uses a specialized body of knowledge, but this seems to unduly discount those who amass specialized knowledge in fields for their own sake/pleasure and ascribe value in expertise only to those who are lucky enough to make money off of it; this implicitly discounts the role of luck, in turn implying that only those who can professionally use specialized knowledge deserve to do so as experts. Later in the book, the author points out that amateurs have transient interests while professionals are paid to do their work well with dispassion/disinterest even when they're not feeling "into it". That initially seems like a fair argument in favor of professionalism as a measure of expertise, but upon closer examination, this argument makes it too easy to claim that failures of expertise are isolated events that are few in number and can be overlooked in the face of the much larger number of successes in expertise, without truly grappling with the widespread societal impact of such failures (that might have led to present or future distrust of expertise), whether those are mistakes like the FDA recommendations to avoid eggs coinciding with an explosion of obesity & diabetes (as discussed in the book) or cover-ups like big oil & tobacco companies suppressing research showing their products to be directly harmful to the environment/human health (which are not discussed in the book).
The author also characterizes expertise by talent, longevity/experience in a field, acceptance by peer experts in the field, and so on, but the emphasis of the intangible quality of "talent" seems to feed into the pernicious notion of expertise being closed off to all but a predetermined few elites, rather than making clear that while developing true expertise is difficult, as it requires a long period of very hard work, it can in principle be done by anyone. (I will return to this point later in this review.)

A recurring problem through the book is that the author seems to conflate expertise in doing something with expertise in teaching to others, and while development of communication & teaching skills often goes hand-in-hand with development of the specialized knowledge & practice itself, high-level practice often does not overlap all that much with high-level pedagogy, as pedagogy requires a specialized skill set all unto its own. As I will discuss shortly, this problem is particularly prominent in the third chapter.

While the first two chapters, about communication breakdowns between experts and laypeople and among laypeople, have reasonably solid arguments and citations, the third chapter, about the issues with college education, seems shorter on citations of studies than the other chapters, and apart from the discussions of studies showing shorter and less rigorous assignments in many classes in universities across the US, the other arguments seem to be typical of modern critiques of the commodification of the university experience in the US, supported more by pieces from surveys and op-eds that seem more like opinionated reflections potentially riven by confirmation bias/cherry-picking of supporting narratives of their own. In particular, these sources, as cited in the book, do not compellingly demonstrate that these issues in colleges are really characteristic of most US college student experiences, and subliminally insinuate a causal link between the supposed infantilization of students at universities and their long-term rejection of authority without conclusively demonstrating (or even explicitly clarifying) such a causative link. Of course, I may be demonstrating my own confirmation bias in large part because I think the concerns over "safe spaces" and similar things are overblown (and the concepts themselves could, when done right, have some positive value for cultural tolerance), but even leaving that aside, I felt like the picture was rather incomplete, especially due to the overreliance on op-eds and other such pieces compared to rigorous peer-reviewed studies, relative to the other chapters.

For that reason, I initially thought that the book might be stronger without the third chapter, but reading further, the book never really recovers from this, as the following chapters are also a bit thin on rigorous citation material. Given the goals of this book, that is really the most damning thing about the book, because if it is generally thin on rigorous research for citations, or its citations themselves cite rigorous research but the author hasn't made that clear, then the author falls into exactly the trap of either spouting opinions which he is not necessarily qualified to make (by citing random op-eds with which he agrees, which he scolds members of the public for doing in their discussions with each other) or being a patronizing expert assuming that public will trust him enough to not question his lack of clarity regarding the trustworthiness of him and his citations, making this very book an exemplar of why many people distrust experts.

Also in the third chapter, the author conflates the issues that small colleges face in trying to attract talent, often dealt with by adding programs that they cannot sustainably support in order to use the term "university", with the hypothetical notion of two people with the same major claiming equivalence to each other even if one went to a more selective & prestigious university than the other. Even if one can question (as the author does) the equivocation of the two degrees on statistical grounds, ultimately the author also claims (earlier in the book) that college credentials are an imperfect measure of expertise in isolation and that expertise should be judged on the basis of individual demonstration, so the author fails that standard and falls into the trap of creating a strawman conflict between those two hypothetical people without properly assessing them as individuals. Moreover, in that same hypothetical scenario, the author claims that the accreditation of the major in both hypothetical colleges is not enough to claim that people graduating from that same major from the two colleges are equal, yet offers no further compelling justification; furthermore, this directly contradicts the author's prior use of college accreditation boards as an example of institutional peer expert approval, which damages the credibility of this line of argument through the book.

In the context of the third chapter, as I return to the author's conflation of expertise & expert teaching, the author had mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect as a symptom of a failure of metacognition (understanding how oneself thinks), yet it seems like this conflation of expertise & expert teaching and the consequent scolding of seemingly dense students is in itself a failure of metacognition on the part of experts like himself, in believing (in a Dunning-Kruger-esque manner) that expertise in a certain field automatically bestows upon such experts the right to believe that however they communicate their expertise to students must be correct and that students who question the quality of such teaching must necessarily be written off as dense & entitled. This is also reflected in the author's questioning of the value of student evaluation of college instructors, because while it may well be true that most such evaluations are meaningless as they are affected by factors irrelevant to the actual learning of the material, his lack of distinction between expertise & expert teaching (from the perspective of both experts & students) allows him to fully discount students' ability to assess teaching quality purely due to their lack of expertise in the specific subject matter, and then add further insult to injury by using the most egregious examples of irrelevant student evaluations of teaching to negatively stereotype such evaluations.

Another example of the author's mistaken conflation of expertise & expert teaching is when the author claims that many people overestimate their singing abilities, believing themselves to be good enough to appear on a nationally-televised competition like American Idol, yet these same people don't believe themselves to be good enough to be voice coaches. However, if the Dunning-Kruger effect says that people who are bad at something overestimate their abilities at that thing due to a failure of metacognition, then it seems certain that there are some people who are actually good at something (e.g. savants or child prodigies) due to some intuitive/instinctive understanding but who, through a failure of metacognition, cannot recognize or clearly communicate exactly why they have the skills that they do.

In the fifth chapter, the author discusses issues in traditional journalism, including saturation, competition & fragmentation in the market, the rise of talk radio (leading in turn to cable & online punditry) giving rise to deep distrust in expertise, and the fact that many journalists go right into major news organizations from university journalism majors instead of first interning at smaller organizations and thereby not understanding how journalism necessarily works on the ground. In the context of the latter point, the author admits to not having expertise in journalism (and admirably refrains from directly criticizing modern journalistic practice beyond pointing out well-known journalistic scandals), but defends his arguments by claiming expertise as a consumer of news, which seems to again contradict his argument that students of expert teaching cannot be trusted to properly assess said teaching. Also, the author seems to frame the story as if the number and scope of incidents of journalistic malpractice is clearly increasing, but the examples taken are from a variety of journalistic outlets, as opposed to a large number from one or two major outlets, so it would be more interesting (and convincing) to see whether such incidents of malpractice or mistakes have actually become more frequent within major outlets that have existed for many decades.

In the last chapter, the author investigates the failures of experts, from fraud & deception to overextension of expertise either into other fields or too far within a field into the realm of questionable broad predictions to innocent scientific disagreements, though the overextension of expertise too far into broad predictions often overlaps with the overextension of specialized expertise into other fields.
There were two issues that I had with that chapter that were relatively more minor in the broader context of the chapter & book but which I felt needed to be addressed. The first is the author's claim that science should only be about explanation and never prediction, which I contest because while the author's actual focus is on overly broad prediction of major phenomena in the world extrapolated from narrow technical expertise, the author gives the erroneous impression that science is never meant to make predictions (which is false, given that the whole point of science & engineering is to make and then test falsifiable predictions based on existing evidence, whether to explain the natural world or to design & test new technologies), which again seems like an example of the author making pronouncements outside his area of expertise. The second is the author's cautioning against overly broad oracular predictions by experts, accompanied by a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb railing against experts who would make predictions over time horizons of decades if they can't predict what will happen over the next year. I dispute this because the predictability of broad trends over longer time scales can be easier due to averaging over larger short-term fluctuations. An example would be how the uncertainty in short-term weather prediction does not preclude accurate prediction of long-term climate change; this is itself a broader example of how the existence of chaos in a system implying exponential growth in the difference between two initially nearby trajectories does not imply that the exponential growth continues forever, as the trajectories themselves could be bounded through stretching & folding. By contrast, the narrow view in that quote is almost like denying the existence of physiological farsightedness by claiming that anyone who cannot see something nearby cannot possibly see things far away.

The author concludes with an epilogue reviewing recent events, like the 2016 election, Brexit, and some of the deceptions practiced in promoting the Iran deal, to point out how difficult it would be to educate people who are resistant to real education & critical thinking, while still hopefully pointing out that our society can still be saved as long as experts start to reengage with the public and laypeople actually start to critically reengage with experts and with their own civic responsibilities in turn (though I would add that this goes for experts too). My biggest issue with the epilogue is that the author warns against false equivalency, like in debates over climate change, GMOs, vaccines, and so on, yet he himself partakes in this numerous times in the book, like equating the well-documented problems with Linus Pauling pushing vitamin C with unsubstantiated assertions that Noam Chomsky's political activism is somehow wrong, which seems rather hypocritical.
There are two other broad points in the conclusion with which I disagree, though that has more to do with differences in political & pedagogical ideology. I believe the author, in believing in essentially fixed talents of people and especially in quoting Andrew Sullivan several times in claiming that democracy needs elites to save itself from its worst excesses, is unduly pessimistic about the possibility of experts and laypeople reconnecting, because I believe (having read works like Whistling Vivaldi, participated in things like the MIT-K12 Project, and so on) that such reconnection should be possible if people see the value in education & critical thinking, that anyone really can develop expertise so long as they actually put enough hard work into it and can demonstrate their value to the field at hand, and that the initial onus is on experts to start reengaging with the public not by being patronizing scolds but by actively investing time & resources into developing pedagogical skills to channel that expertise in ways that are understandable to the public; this follows my aforementioned problem with the author's definition of expertise as focusing too much on the notion of "talent" as a fixed quantity. Also, I do think a lot of this pessimism is due to the sole focus of this book on current American society, which is fine given its goals, but it feels a little incomplete as issues like the Dunning-Kruger effect, fragmentation of media, and so on, seem like they could happen anywhere, so especially in the context of Brexit, I would have liked to see discussion of how these issues may or may not have played out in countries in Europe (or Canada, for that matter, which has a fairly similar culture to ours in many ways), with appropriate discussion of what other underlying political/cultural similarities & differences may explain such phenomena. I've also read elsewhere about how a lot of prior public support for STEM & education was due to the threat of the USSR in the Cold War, so when that threat dissipated, so did such support; with that in mind, it might have been nice to see him discuss the local political & sociological aspects of the Cold War in the US given his own expertise on the Cold War, yet he instead retreads more stale pedestrian arguments

Overall, I thought the book was rather disappointing, probably in large part because in the wake of the 2016 election, I read a bunch of articles & op-eds about the topics covered in the book, including anti-intellectualism, the Dunning-Kruger effect, "safe spaces" in colleges, and so on, so I may have felt a bit overexposed to the topics in the book, and I didn't feel like I came away with anything really new. This, combined with the aforementioned numerous flaws in the book (which were not helped by the author's own frequent use of personal anecdotes aggrandizing himself in a way that started off as an obvious joke but became more grating as the flaws became more obvious), also means that while this book could in principle be a nice synthesis of these ideas for people unfamiliar with them, in practice the flaws seem to undercut the value of this book beyond simply reading similar individual articles & op-eds online as I did. It's an OK book, and in the interest of critical engagement with opposing views, I'd suggest that other people read it to form their own judgment, but with arguments that are often thinly sourced, internally hypocritical, and mutually contradictory, that engagement need not be particularly deep or sustained: the author tries so hard to convince people that he's not an old curmudgeon and that he legitimately wants people to understand how experts come to judgments on matters in their expertise, but his use of thinly sourced contradictory arguments makes his scolding less credible, especially when he scolds people for doing exactly those things.
The above paragraphs are my main criticisms of the book. Follow the jump to see a few more thoughts about the broader material at hand.

In the second chapter, the author discusses how a large issue with confirmation bias is the lack of falsifiability, and educated people tend to go beyond simple common sense-based confirmation bias into the realm of intricate conspiracy theories. I've read a bit about the theory of inductive inference, and the irony is that theory would say that conspiracy theories are so unlikely because they require the simultaneous existence of such a large range of parameters that they have exponentially small predictive power, yet Bayesian inference can in turn be abused to justify ill-informed or conspiratorial views entering through twisted prior probabilities (though the philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of Bayesian & inductive inference are things I need to make sure I understand better).

On a slightly broader note with respect to the third chapter, the key point seems to be that colleges have abdicated their role in fostering appreciation for critical thinking & lifelong learning in having too often to fill the gaps of high school with remedial education. This could lead to the conclusion that more funding is needed for high schools to teach critical thinking, the scientific method, statistics, philosophy, and that sort of stuff in order to inculcate foundations of rational thinking when viewing the world, and similar arguments could be used in favor of better funding small/lesser reputed public colleges; however, either case would require taxing ordinary people more to fund the development of education & expertise, and if people are now actively hostile to those things, then this leads to a chicken-and-egg problem of where to start.

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