Review: The Death of Expertise

“The Death Of Expertise” is an important book about an important topic – the death of expertise (no brownie points for guessing).

Tom Nichols, an academic specialist on international affairs and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School, takes to the page to lament about, criticise, analyse and lay out solutions to this behemoth issue that has plagued every society. Although Nichols talks exclusively of the American population, the issue he addresses is not unfamiliar to anybody in a different country.

If I had to use one word to describe the book, I’d choose “terrifying”. The Death of Expertise is indeed scary; its discussion of the future of humanity and the future of knowledge makes this piece of non-fiction nothing short of a horror story (based on true events). With accurate and detailed statistics and reports from writers before him, Nichols elaborately describes how vulnerable and gullible we are before the Internet.

Starting with the rift between experts and laypeople that has slowly widened, Nichols elucidates on the flaws of the commercialisation and capitalisation of the education system (especially at the undergraduate level), the bane of all kinds of information being available one click away, our inability to separate wheat from chaff and the demise of journalism.

The Death Of Expertise grossly generalises society, but then again, just like the information, how can one tell apart experts who have spent years specialising on a subject from someone who spent the wee hours the morning on a search engine? The generalisation makes sense when you realise that we’re at a point in time where everyone knows a little bit about everything, right?

Knowing things is not the same as understanding them. Comprehension is not the same thing as analysis. Expertise is not a parlour game played with factoids.

tom nichols, the death of expertise, 2017

Tom Nichols also talks at length about confirmation bias – a tendency to search for, interpret and favour information that confirms one’s already held belief – and how it robs us of our ability to have constructive and insightful conversations with people, which also includes experts who generally know more about a subject than laymen do. We conveniently handpick what we want to read on the internet and the algorithm then shows us the same thing, over and over again. This vanquishes any possibility of encountering anything that refutes our opinions.

The book gets rather depressing eventually and somewhat redundant. It feels as though there is hardly any solution to the problem and that all of humanity is pretty much doomed. It circles back to the same thing in the end – our inability to efficiently deal with the media at our disposal.

While reading the book, it is easy to constantly tell yourself “I’m not like that” and “I know how to find the right thing on the internet” – which is why, it is important to read the book from an external perspective, detached from your ego. The Death of Expertise is not about comparing yourself with the rest of the population, but understanding the depth of the situation and addressing it without spewing hate or anger.

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction – this may have only been my second or third – and it was truly an eye-opening read. It left me baffled and nonchalant all at once whilst also enlightening me. Nichols’ tone of concern throughout the book is very contagious; you’re suddenly worried about everything you’ve ever known.

I’d recommend this book to anyone wishing to discern how we arrived at this distressing state of affairs, but if you’re one of those people who are already flustered about the influx of information and its misuse, then I wouldn’t encourage reading it.

To be honest, it does give you one other massive thing to worry about, like there isn’t a lot on our minds already.

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