Released in 2017, The Death of Expertise is a book written by Tom Nichols, a professor at the U.S Naval War College and Harvard Extension School. The professor has an impressive resume that includes a PhD from Georgetown University and years of experience in the field of national security, particularly relating to Russian international affairs.
According to Professor Nichols, the book began in 2014 as an essay regarding the growing culture of anti-intellectualism and devaluation of expert knowledge. In his essay, The Death of Expertise, originally published by The Federalist, Nichols shared that he’s gotten a rude awakening: Apparently, years of studying a specific area of knowledge and specializing in the subject matter does not give his opinion more weight than that of a layman.
The professor recalled in an interview with Amanpour & Co. a particular instance when he was delivering a lecture. During said lecture, a student interrupted him to tell him that he was wrong about Russia despite the fact that Professor Nichols specializes in the topic.
While Professor Nichols admits that healthy skepticism about experts is good for intellectual discussion, there was this attitude that the student’s opinion was just as valid as his. He later got in touch with other experts who had similar experiences, too. No one was listening to them anymore.
But why the sudden change? As they say, what goes up must come down and our story begins with the rise of anti-intellectualism.
The Rise of Anti-Intellectualism
Merriam-Webster defines an anti-intellectual as someone who is “opposing or hostile to intellectuals or to an intellectual view or approach”. From there, we can work out a basic idea of anti-intellectualism. It’s a viewpoint held by people who don’t like ‘smart asses’ and ‘nerds’, the sort of Ph.D.-touting group that has spent years refining their knowledge in a field.
In its most basic form, anti-intellectualism entails a cavalier attitude toward knowledge; a kind of self-assured approach to topics that relies on common sense. This assumption that common sense is enough to make one sufficiently knowledgeable comes with another implication: that specialized knowledge, particularly the higher education that is required to gain it, adds nothing of value.
The idea that higher education isn’t valuable has always existed, but in a way that was once relatively self-contained. Historically speaking, this indifference to education was normally held by manual laborers, like pre-Industrialization farmers, and other demographics to whom higher education served no purpose, such as women who were expected to simply marry and manage domestic affairs. Even then, there used to be a sense of respect towards specialists who knew more than the laymen. A key example of this is the medical doctor who, due to their knowledge and the philanthropic light in which we see their work, is almost universally revered in a way that no other profession is.
Though the knowledge an expert has and the assistance they’re able to provide remains culturally and financially viable, what no one likes is an intellectual.
In my previous article on how academia is largely tied to class, I explained how higher education has, for the most part, been just as much a driver of inequality as it is of equality. Receiving higher education is dependent on financial factors: it assumes that you can afford to go and that you have the privilege of getting a solid foundation in academics.
To paraphrase historian Richard Hofstadter, writer of Anti-intellectualism in American Life, anti-intellectualism is a sense of resentment and suspicion toward intellectual life and its representatives; including an effort to minimize the value of intellectual pursuits.
Notice that Hofstadter includes resentment in his definition of anti-intellectualism. When stripped of the overt language around it, anti-intellectualism is, at its core, a hatred of the class discrepancies it represents. The less educated aren’t necessarily less intelligent and they know it. It just so happens that they haven’t had the opportunity to sharpen the finer points of their intelligence because they’re too busy trying to keep a roof over their heads.
The notion that society has grown to hate knowledge is actually a misconception. What appears to be a hatred of intellectual life is, in fact, just resentment toward the disparity of class that the intellectual represents. Just go to any comment section of an article or video that talks about how college graduates are increasingly unemployed and you’ll see people advocating for learning a trade instead. It’s not that we no longer value learning, it’s just that we value learning that we see as more down-to-earth, democratized, practical, and free from the class tensions that conventional intellectualism has.
It would be an understatement to say that class inequality is the only reason for anti-intellectualism and the mistrust of experts that comes with it. When we take a closer look at how experts have treated people who honestly wouldn’t know better, another problem arises. The expert becomes a preserver of the status quo in terms of class and race.
A History of Mistrust
It’s easy to point fingers at other people and call them ignorant for not wanting to hear expert advice. But for certain groups of people, listening to experts is what got them in danger in the first place. So, of course, experiences of being screwed over by the experts they were supposed to be able to trust have bred a culture of mistrust and aggressive rejection of expert advice.
For many of us, the face of the anti-vax movement is a Caucasian person holding bottles of essential oils while wearing a red ‘Make America Great Again’ cap. Despite the buzz the anti-vax movement has been making during the coronavirus pandemic, statistics show that it isn’t even white people who have the lowest vaccination rates.
That honor goes to African-American and Hispanic people. On a national level, these two demographics have been getting vaccinations at a lower rate relative despite experiencing disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infections.
Before the release of that data on July 21, 2021, an article from NBC News published in April already gave a glimpse of the future. Around December of last year, about 52 percent of African-Americans who were surveyed responded that they would “wait and see” how things turned out before getting a vaccine.
Wondering what could discourage someone from getting a life-saving vaccine? The threat of dying.
African-Americans have historically been the subject of expert experimentation. One of the most famous examples of this is the Tuskegee experiment.
Initiated in 1932, the Tuskegee experiment was an in-depth study of the progression of syphilis, a venereal disease that was known for being highly contagious. The study gathered 600 African American men from Alabama for the purpose of infecting them with syphilis and seeing what happens.
The study is one of the reasons we have ethics committees in universities today because, surprise, the Tuskegee experiment was riddled with ethical concerns. Not only were the participants misinformed, but they were also deliberately infected with a debilitating disease and left untreated.
Few of these farmers had ever received formal medical care and, lured by the promise of receiving it for free, they agreed to what they believed was just treatment for having ‘bad blood.’ As if the experts involved in the study couldn’t be crueler, they also continued to give the men placebos even after they began to suffer the more serious effects of the disease, like blindness and insanity.
There’s also the unfortunately named Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, who experimented on enslaved African women believing that they couldn’t feel pain, a racist notion rooted in the belief that people with more melanin were subhuman. The slave-owning medical expert operated on these women without anesthesia. To be fair, Sims wasn’t much of an expert: he only studied medicine for a little over a year. But it remains part of a pattern in which richer, more knowledgeable experts take advantage of less privileged and vulnerable people.
Given a history of cruel experimentation at the hands of experts who promise they’re here to help, why would anyone jump at the opportunity for a COVID-19 vaccine?
Halfway across the globe, in my corner of the world, underserved people aren’t keen on receiving vaccines either. Remote populations in rural areas have some of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy in the Philippines. This came in the wake of the disastrous Dengvaxia controversy.
Dengvaxia is the name of a dengue vaccine approved for use by the USFDA sometime in 2019. Before it made its debut in U.S territories like Puerto Rico, the vaccine first killed and severely impaired Filipino schoolchildren who received it through their local elementary and high schools. While Dr. Scott Halstead, an expert on dengue who worked with the U.S military, tried to spread the word that the vaccine kills, the World Health Organization ignored him and went on to recommend the vaccine for children ages 9-16.
It was fine, they said. Like the reasonable, non-intellectual-hating people my social circle is, each of them expressed interest in getting the dengue vaccine. I know I did, too. That was before the news was filled with headlines of children who wound up dead after receiving the Dengvaxia vaccine. After that, a friend called me in a nervous fit, saying her younger sister had received the vaccine earlier that week in her high school.
According to Dr. Lulu Bravo, another expert from the Pediatric Infectious and Tropical Diseases Department of the University of the Philippines’ College of Medicine, the incident caused a hostile suspicion towards medical experts and health workers in rural areas.
“Mothers were driving away health workers,” She said, “[they] were calling them ‘child killers’.”
Trust, Not Authority
I’m conscious of how this might come off so, to be clear, I’m not saying that The Death of Expertise is a ham-fisted take on how expert knowledge is being devalued. Quite the opposite, the book acknowledges a lot of the nuances around, well, the death of expertise.
But it would also be uncalled for to continue the narrative that people are now too dumb, too arrogant, or a combination of both to acknowledge that experts know better than them. For the most part, people are aware that experts know better and may have valuable knowledge to share with them. But they’re now cautious given that experts have shown themselves as willing to take advantage of laymen who don’t know better. It’s harder to take people at their word when you’re aware that people like them have put people like you at risk of serious harm or have helped perpetuate the oppression of a demographic you belong to.
As embarrassing as it is to say, even my own field of (relative) expertise, psychology, is guilty of this. Our current idea of psychologists are bespectacled feelings doctors that nod and listen politely while you spill your guts out in the therapy room. Before this though, psychologists like Sigmund Freud and later experts under the branch of psychoanalysis have been accused of unethical behavior.
Freud, the biggest misogynist to set foot in the field of psychology, held derogatory views of women, portraying them as passive subjects of sexual desire who envied the male endowment of a penis. Women were, to him, of an inferior nature to men and he later supported the narrative that women actually wanted to be raped.
He didn’t go uncontested. Psychologist Karen Horney would respond, almost sarcastically, that men had womb envy and that their intense need to dominate and attain status was rooted in envy of women’s ability to create life. Though both of them were, admittedly, not the most scientific, Horney made a fine point: it wasn’t that women envied men for having a penis, what they envied was the status and freedom afforded to men. Freud, who had a history of narcissistic rage towards anyone who opposed his views, dismissed Horney’s observations because (surprise surprise) she was a woman.
Early psychology’s hostile attitudes towards women weren’t the only ways the field has upheld an oppressive status quo. It was only in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual. But the damage has already been done. Psychology’s hand in pathologizing the sexual orientation of members of the LGBTQ+ community had sparked the notion that being queer can be cured. Until today, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of the pseudoscience that is gay conversion therapy.
As Nichols himself pointed out, the death of expertise would be disastrous for legislation, given our reliance on government representatives who we presume have our best interests in mind and know enough to advance those interests. But reviving the expert doesn’t have to be a matter of reinstating expert authority.
Perhaps the death of expertise means it’s time we all left our ivory towers and connected, on a meaningful level, with the communities that expert knowledge affects. The rise of anti-intellectualism may have heralded the death of the expert. But the death of the expert can be followed by a revival that is based on mutual trust and respect of community knowledge, not unquestionable and distant authority.
If you’d like to know more about the ugly parts of the pursuit of knowledge, you might be interested in reading It’s Not Just You, Academia Has Always Been Elitist, a spiritual predecessor to this piece.