Tom Nichols on the Death of Expertise

Jul 6, 2017

Across the world today, there is active hostility towards experts, says Tom Nichols of the U.S. Naval War College, and this is a very dangerous trend. Donald Trump didn't create this, but he certainly weaponized it politically, just as Brexiteers did in the UK.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I'm speaking today with Tom Nichols. He is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, and he is author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.

Tom, thanks for coming.

TOM NICHOLS: Thanks for having me, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: So what is the death of expertise?

TOM NICHOLS: It's really the death of the idea of expertise. There are always going to be experts; there are always going to be people who know how to do very specialized tasks. But the respect for the idea of expertise, of these exclusive, highly specialized areas of knowledge where people should defer to that body of knowledge and to the people who have that body of knowledge, that's what is really falling under attack in modern society today.

DEVIN STEWART: How did you first come to observe this phenomenon?

TOM NICHOLS: I think every young professional when you first make that transition, whether you're a doctor, a diplomat, a teacher, or whatever your profession is, you'll always encounter somebody who wants to argue with you about it, who goes: "Oh, you're a lawyer, huh? Well, let me tell you about lawyers."

I think that's natural, and as I've said many times, I actually think that's a positive part of our culture. I think one of the things that has always made America a special place is that because of the way our country was founded we don't instantly defer to rank or to educational credentials or to class or achievement. We ask people to prove themselves.

DEVIN STEWART: Egalitarian.

TOM NICHOLS: Yes. De Tocqueville talks about it, that it's this kind of egalitarian streak in American culture, and it does lapse into anti-intellectualism.

But I think that something has changed in that, and I think that now people are not just suspicious of experts or feel the need to test them, they're actively hostile to experts, and they feel that they know as much or more than experts, which is really kind of an astounding claim.

DEVIN STEWART: How did that new hostility come into place? What's different now?

TOM NICHOLS: As I said, when I first started out, I was a Russia guy, Soviet Union. People would say, "Well, here’s what I think about arms control." That's normal. That's a political discussion that people have.

The best way I can put it is that 30 years later I started having the experience of instead of people saying, "Look, I'm very concerned about this, and here's what I want to tell you" or "Here's what I want to ask you," or "Here's what I want to challenge you about," people would simply say, "Tom, let me explain Russia to you," which is not even a conversation; that's a conversation stopper.

That was the big change. Rather than people even challenging me or arguing with me about important issues, people were simply saying, "No, no, let me explain your area of specialization back to you," and that, I think, is a new wrinkle.

DEVIN STEWART: Is it because they have access to more information on the Internet? Why do people suddenly believe that they are the experts?

TOM NICHOLS: The immediate default explanation is always the Internet, but I don't think that’s right. I think it predates the Internet, and I think it has to do with the growth of a strong streak of narcissism in American society. I used to think this was just a local phenomenon, but as it turns out, when the first article I wrote on this got published I started getting letters from all over the world, and I’m starting to think it's a developed-world phenomenon.

I think it has to do with a sense of personal empowerment, of universal education, of course the presence of the Internet, and the segmenting of the global media into niche publications. There were always publications around the world that catered to the conservative viewpoint or the liberal viewpoint, but now we really have developed international outlets that are almost like alternative reality viewpoints. So I think all of these things combined together have created this kind of unfounded and fragile arrogance in people where they claim to know as much as experts, but deep down know they're probably wrong about that.

DEVIN STEWART: That first article, was that the Foreign Affairs one, if people want to go back and look for it?

TOM NICHOLS: The very first piece was actually in a magazine called The Federalist online. It's important to note the date [January 2014]. A lot of folks have asked me if I wrote this about the election, and I really didn't; this goes back about three-and-a-half years, to early 2014. The Foreign Affairs piece from last March, if folks want to take a look at that, is a digested version of the book; that is kind of the book in microcosm.

DEVIN STEWART: What's the title of The Federalist one?

TOM NICHOLS: It was called "The Death of Expertise."

DEVIN STEWART: Okay, same title.

Same title. You can see I was kind of working out this idea in my head. And that had really just been a kind of—I don't have a blog anymore because I think blogs are part of the problem in the modern world. I closed my blog as a way of showing everybody that you don't have to express every thought that goes through your head. But the initial piece was a kind of a rant on my blog of "Why do people think they can explain Russia to me when they didn't know where Russia was three months ago?" It was the angry-old-man-yelling-at-clouds piece that I wrote, and that turned into the article that eventually—Oxford [University Press] actually came to me about the book because I wasn't sure that there was that broad an audience for it until the piece went viral.

Wow. Tell me about some of these letters that you're getting from all over the world. What are they saying?

TOM NICHOLS: They mostly are from professionals. I get hate mail; I get people saying, "Oh, you experts think you control the world, and Brexit finally showed you, and Trump finally showed you." But mostly—I would say overwhelmingly — the letters I've gotten are from professionals, from doctors. I get a lot of notes from doctors who say, "Thank you for finally saying that as an endocrinologist I know more about medicine than my patients."

I did get one—a story I always tell out here on the road—from a molecular biologist in France, saying "thank you," and I thought, Wow! Who argues with molecular biologists? That's kind of weird. I've gotten them from lawyers and a fair number from people in the teaching profession, so it's been very encouraging. There were a lot of professionals who reached out to me to basically say "Thank you for writing this."

It is a global phenomenon.

Before we get to the global, let's talk about the local. With the localized and the national effect of this scorn toward expertise you probably get this question all the time, but does this attitude that you're describing in your book partly or fully explain where we are today in American politics?

TOM NICHOLS: It does partly, and this is where I should also point out that I don't speak for the Navy or the War College. But let’s face it: President Trump ran on this. He said point-blank: "The experts are no good. Who needs experts? What if I didn't have experts?” He actually said, "Would it be so bad if I didn't have experts?" And I think we’re in a real-time experiment to find out if that's true, and I'm worried about that.

The thing I would say about the election is that Donald Trump didn't create this hostility to experts, but boy, he surfed it beautifully. He weaponized it politically in the same way that the Brexiteers did in England and the United Kingdom where they took a lot of folks who had generalized anger and anxiety about globalization and about the nature of the world, and they turned it into a vote that I think has already produced a hangover setting in Great Britain. But yes, 2016 was the year in which the anti-expertise or the death-of-expertise phenomenon became weaponized in politics.

DEVIN STEWART: Since a lot of people seem to sympathize with the hate toward experts and people who are—I remember Rush Limbaugh used to call them "pointy-headed intellectuals." So there is suspicion on both sides of the aisle. Do they have a point?


DEVIN STEWART: What is the point?

TOM NICHOLS: Look, we live in a world that moves pretty fast. A lot of things happen out of the view of the ordinary citizen that—even when Richard Hofstadter wrote his book on anti-intellectualism in American life back in the 1960s, he was already pointing out that the average citizen can't really comprehend the amount of stuff that goes on in a given day around them.

I would say the two charges you can really lay at the feet of experts is that they tend to lack empathy because to them they live in a world where everything is obvious; they deal in a world of data, or they deal in a world of ideas.

I always think of the worst math teacher—I never much cared for math, which was strange because I was a science major for a while—I ever had was terrible because she could not remember a time when mathematics was not obvious to her. And I think experts fall into that. "Well, of course, North Korea is like this," or "Of course, global climate change looks like that," or "Of course, macroeconomics, how can you be so stupid as to not understand that?" And they forget that for a lay person these are really complicated and difficult issues. So I think it's a lack of empathy, and that many of them are not particularly good teachers.

The second thing is that because lay people are so hostile to expertise, experts go into a kind of defensive crouch about ever admitting their mistakes. They need to be more transparent, and they need to be more confident.

I think a good example here is the airlines. People always freak out about plane crashes, and understandably so. But I think the American and global airline industry says: "Look, we deliver. We are the safest mode of transportation in human history. And when there's something that happens, there's an investigation, and here's what we're doing, and here's the public report, and here's why it went wrong, and everybody can calm down."

I think experts in other fields tend to want to do that out of the public eye because they’re so afraid—and I think this is where it goes back to lay people—that lay people will say: "Aha! You were wrong about this. Therefore, you're wrong about everything."

DEVIN STEWART: You talk about how this kind of plays out at dinner parties, where the least informed are the loudest. Can you explain that phenomenon? It turns out it's a true science thing; it actually happens.

TOM NICHOLS: Exactly. It's not your imagination.

The touchstone for this that I use in the book is the old TV series Cheers, which was, for people who are too young to remember it, about a bunch of Boston barflies, and one of them is a mailman who is a know-it-all. He sits at the end of the bar, and he begins every sentence with, "Well, it's a known fact" or "Studies have shown, Diane," and he starts lecturing on something completely stupid that he has no idea what he's talking about.

Cliff Clavin.

TOM NICHOLS: Everybody knows that guy. Well, that phenomenon actually has a scientific basis called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is that the people who are the least competent at something have the greatest tendency to overestimate their competence at it.

DEVIN STEWART: That's because they lack the intelligence to be self-aware?

TOM NICHOLS: They lack a particular skill called metacognition, which is the ability to step back and see that you're doing something poorly.

Another example I can give you is when I went to a golf coach once. I took a golf lesson, and he kept saying: "No, no. You're just supposed to unwind your swing like this."

And finally I turned to him, and I said, "Dude, if I could do that, if I could see why I'm doing this wrong, I wouldn't be paying you." I just didn’t have the metacognition to be able to step back from what I was doing with my ability to swing the golf club. And that pertains to anything, whether it's writing or acting or singing or any human endeavor.

DEVIN STEWART: But the metacognition is also the awareness that you don't have the expertise.

TOM NICHOLS: That's right.

DEVIN STEWART: So as long as you're self-aware enough to know that there is something lacking in your skill set or your knowledge base, that's the key.

That's where this problem of narcissism comes in, because metacognition is also a very humbling thing. I teach and I write for a living. I think one of the reasons I've been a successful teacher is that when I walk out of a classroom on any given day I can say, "You know, I really hit that one out of the park," or "Boy, I was really not on my game today."

Or as a writer; when you write something and you step back and you look at that paragraph and you say, "Hey, woo. That's a keeper." Or alternately, that crushing moment of saying, "Wow, I can't believe I'm this bad of a writer." And it's humbling.

I think most people don't want to do that second part. They just want to say, "I'm awesome," because that’s the feedback they get from an educational system that says that all the kids are awesome and because nobody ever wants to correct their friends and say—it's kind of like being at karaoke, and the guy goes up there and he massacres a song and then steps down and says, "I nailed it, right?"

DEVIN STEWART: "Nailed it."

TOM NICHOLS: "I nailed it."

And all the guys in the bar are going, "Yeah, you're awesome, dude."

DEVIN STEWART: But isn't it more fun to be less self-aware?

TOM NICHOLS: It's certainly less painful to be less self-aware. That's for sure. It's understandable that people overestimate—first of all, let me just say that all human beings, whether they have a good grip of metacognition or not, overestimate their abilities.

Interestingly enough, the most capable people and the most intelligent people are the most likely to underestimate their abilities, partly because they have a better sense of where the edges of performance are.

And the edges of knowledge.

TOM NICHOLS: And the edges of knowledge. And that's what the Dunning-Kruger study managed to finally prove, is that the people who are the least intelligent or least aware of, again, where the envelope is, are the most likely to walk off and say, "Nailed it."

DEVIN STEWART: So the ancient wisdom of "know thyself," [Ancient Greek aphorism] maybe the ancients were onto something back then?

TOM NICHOLS: There is a reason we should all still be reading Shakespeare, exactly.

Maybe they didn't have the word "metacognition," but they were onto—

It didn't rhyme with anything.

What are the risks here? Think about the American foreign policy establishment. It's lacking senior positions; it's lacking advice. What's the risk here, for example, in U.S. foreign policy?

The risk is significant, and it's massive.

It's interesting that as I've been writing this and as the Trump administration came in, there was a rumor that the president's assistant, Steve Bannon, has been walking about with a copy of The Best and the Brightest. It concerns me because I think people misunderstand those previous examples of the failure of expertise.

For example, in Vietnam, the "best and the brightest" were the people who were generically smart but not experts. The experts on things like Southeast Asia and insurgency, they were saying, "Look, this is a lot harder than it looks." It was the generically intelligent guys like McNamara saying: "I ran a car company. How hard can this be?"

That's really the lesson of that book. And if the Trump administration is saying, "Well, we're all a bunch of smart guys who made a million dollars in Goldman Sachs or real estate; how hard can running Syria policy be?" we're going to run right back into that same problem we ran into in the 1960s.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a very subtle and important nuance there.

TOM NICHOLS: Absolutely.

DEVIN STEWART: The cliché is "a little bit of knowledge is very dangerous."


But interestingly enough, I think, again, it's that problem of metacognition. I actually think—and I talk about this in the book—of the two types of decision-makers, the two types of experts; foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes have a very broad knowledge; hedgehogs have a very deep but narrow knowledge. Foxes tend to be the better decision-makers. They're foxes because they’re more willing to admit when they're wrong and they're more willing to integrate new information.

What I think we're getting with a lot of the folks in this administration—and I hope I'm wrong—are people who have kind of a generally smart record in some very narrow areas like finance or manipulation of money in New York City and saying, "Well, that makes me smart." That's kind of a hedgehog; that's somebody who knows something very deeply and very narrowly, and that does not mean that you're good at everything.

I wish there were more generalists and more people who had a little bit more humility about policy. Because again, I think that is a place where—you asked me earlier about mistakes that experts make, and I think—and I will include myself in this—we do say: "Well, you know, I'm pretty smart. I'm pretty good at what I do. So I must be pretty smart at most things." We're just not. There are places where we just don't know stuff.

DEVIN STEWART: I think you talked about how ridiculous the day trader is in the book as an example.

Yes. Right. There's an editor, I think it was at Business Insider, who said, "You know, almost all day traders go broke, and they would be better off working at Burger King because they are that bad at what they do."

DEVIN STEWART: And that's a fact.

TOM NICHOLS: That's empirically demonstrable; 99 percent of day traders go broke.

DEVIN STEWART: Going back to the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, play us through a scenario here. Looking at what we have in office and the whole spectrum, what could possibly go wrong?

TOM NICHOLS: Let's just stipulate that World War III is the worst thing that can go wrong.

Just the other day the president's national security advisor, who is a very intelligent guy—he's a three-star general; he's written a book; he's a thoughtful person—but when he says things like, "Well, you know, communicating our goals and issues to Russia is just like talking to any other country," as a Russia expert I can tell you that's just wrong. It's not even in the ballpark. [Editor's note: See H.R. McMaster's Carnegie Council talk in 2014, a few years before he became national security advisor in 2017.]

My question is, who are the Russia people? The president is talking about meeting with Putin very soon. Who are the experts who are laying out the possible snares and traps here to warn the president about "This is what it's like to talk to the Russians; these are the things"?

One of the things that has always concerned me about the president is that he seems unbriefable. People who have talked about talking to him just say it's impossible to brief him because he just doesn't have a very long attention span. And experts need time to talk to you, to say "These are the things you need to watch out for."

They don't have to tell you what to do. I think that's where experts also get into trouble; we can be overly directive. "Here, I'm smart, so do everything I say." I think this is a huge part of the climate change debate problem, is that you have a lot of very intelligent scientists who are saying: "Here are some things we've discovered that we think are true. Therefore, you must listen to us about everything."

I don't think anybody should be doing that with the president, but I do think if someone says: "You're about to meet Vladimir Putin. You need to spend at least an hour with me"—whoever the Russia expert is—"before you walk into that room." And all kinds of things could go wrong, all kinds of things.

Is there a danger that Russia might take advantage of perceived ignorance in the White House, like Khrushchev did with Kennedy?

TOM NICHOLS: I have that fear very strongly. I think that Russia's larger goal is to divorce the United States from NATO and to take NATO apart. I think the Russians will try to manipulate the White House into moving further and further away from NATO, perhaps without the White House even realizing that that's what is happening, because the Russians are way better at this game than anybody in Washington in power right now.

A couple more questions, Tom. I know you have a tight schedule here.

You've witnessed this around the world, as well, in Asia and Europe, this phenomenon of scorn toward the elite and toward expertise. Would you attribute this scorn to the rise of populism worldwide? What are some other spillover effects globally?

TOM NICHOLS: That's a good question, because I was surprised. There are two major flaws in the book. I suppose I'm not really supposed to sit here and say that. Let me just add, "And you should buy it anyway."

DEVIN STEWART: You should. It's right here. It's a great book, and it has a funny cover too.

TOM NICHOLS: I should tell you that the cover has all of these fake Twitter quotes on it. That was Oxford's art department. I did not design the cover.

DEVIN STEWART: Who knew that Oxford was hip and funny?

Let me give a shout-out to my publisher and say they were wonderful through the writing of this book. They kind of godfathered the concept, and they've supported the book to the hilt out there as it has been released, so I've been really grateful to them as well.

DEVIN STEWART: It's got an endorsement from our friend Ian Bremmer on the back. It's great.

It was very kind of Ian to add that as well.

The two flaws are that the book does have a heavy American focus; the chapter about universities really talks about American universities. The other is that at the end I didn’t really—we were talking earlier about The New York Times and how all their reviews always have a little of a backhand in them. But The New York Times review was somewhat fair to say that I don't really solve this as much as I kind of point at it and say we have to do something about it.

What did strike me is that I was taken by surprise at how global the reaction was. As of this moment in the early summer of 2017, the book is scheduled to be translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Finnish, and we don't think we’re done yet with translations, which I think is kind of remarkable.

People have actually raised this with me, saying: "Gee, in Asia is this a problem? There's much more of a hierarchical respect for expertise and education." But apparently the globalizing—I don't want to call it "populism"—effect of the Information Age, information overload, the broadening of education, and the segmenting of the media clearly has had a global impact on the relationship between experts and lay people.

DEVIN STEWART: Are you hinting at a follow-up book?

TOM NICHOLS: As the folks who follow me on Twitter point out, I could probably populate an entire annual volume just by collecting things out of my Twitter feed. I have not yet thought about a follow up or another edition.

There are things I suppose I would fix. I would take more of an international perspective on it now that I am more aware of how much of an international phenomenon this is. After living with this subject and writing about it for three or four years now, I almost don't want to work on it anymore because it's too depressing. I want to think more about how to make this better rather than to keep plumbing the depths to find out how bad it is.

As some final advice for us, what can we do about it? Is there any hope?

TOM NICHOLS: Yes. I think we can be optimistic about a couple of things. First, insofar as that populist fever seems to have overtaken people running down blind alleys. If we were sitting here a year ago, we’d be looking at Brexit; we’d be looking at the rise of Marine Le Pen; we’d be looking at these populist movements in Europe, all of which seem to have pretty much burned themselves out within a year.

Brexit, I guess, is going to happen, but you already see that they are stumbling toward it. A lot of people are saying: "Well, it's not what we thought it was. We thought it was something else. We didn't really understand it." The emergence of a strong center in France; all of this fear of an ignorant right-wing, anti-elitist, anti-expert takeover in France turned out to be in the exact opposite direction. So I think there are some hopeful signs.

But I think what people can do in the United States, or at least the people listening to us right now—this is going sound very Pollyanna-ish—but just be nicer to each other, just get past this divide. I think experts need to understand that the world is moving very fast, and that for the average lay person this is very anxiety-inducing that the world moves pretty quickly, and that we should take a little time to explain ourselves to our client, which is society.

But I also think lay people have to let go of the kind of poisonous talk radio tropes about how experts are the enemy and mean to do you harm and are just trying to line their pockets, and to recognize that we all do live in the same community and in the same society and that we really can take expertise and common sense and wed them together to return to something like the country we used to be, I hope.

DEVIN STEWART: So "be nice to one another" is ancient wisdom.

TOM NICHOLS: Know thyself.

DEVIN STEWART: Know thyself and be nice.

TOM NICHOLS: And the Golden Rule, yes.


Tom Nichols is author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Tom, thanks again.

Thanks for having me, Devin.

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