The Death of Expertise

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

–Upton Sinclair

Whose Expertise Is Dead?

In The Death of Expertise, national security expert Tom Nichols warns that knowledge is under attack by an ill-informed public determined to replace it with popular ignorance. Though this is not entirely possible – no society could survive such a transition – the breakdown in trust between experts and laypeople underlying this misguided ambition is making the U.S. ungovernable. Experts are held in contempt, sometimes for their errors, but increasingly simply because they are experts and laypeople are not. Knowledge inequality is taken to be as contemptible as wealth inequality, on the assumption that those in possession of it consider themselves smarter and better than the less educated. Aspiring to acquire knowledge and use it to enlighten others, once a noble ambition, now signals elitist arrogance.

Furthermore, where once we were entitled to our own opinions but not our own facts, today proliferating digital tribes proudly circulate self-justifying”alternative facts” without the inconvenience of being challenged. The Internet, though not the cause of this phenomenon, does aggravate it, since the “information superhighway” has degenerated into a galaxy of glittering websites eagerly catering to popular delusions on a growing range of topics. What now passes for “research” refers to scanning a few algorithm-curated lines that confirm one’s prejudices, then clicking away satisfied one’s half-baked notions have been proven right.

Easy access to vast troves of information, the debasement of university education into a consumer experience in which “the customer is always right,” and the fusion of news and entertainment into a 24-hour cycle of mind-killing spectacle, all have helped produce this situation, writes Nichols, yielding a deeply ignorant public nevertheless convinced it holds infallible judgment on a nearly limitless range of topics.

Formal democratic governance based on expert advice and popular ratification has therefore become nearly impossible, because increasing numbers of laypeople not only lack basic knowledge, but reject rules of evidence, effectively eliminating any possibility of logical debate. Strength of conviction, not persuasiveness of logic, determines the “winner” of disagreements, with more and more people succumbing to narcissistic self-congratulation on the grounds that, “I’m passionately convinced I’m right; therefore, how could I be wrong?”

In this emerging Dis-United States of Self-Righteousness we risk discarding centuries of accumulated knowledge and eroding the disciplines that allow us to acquire new knowledge. No democracy, even the very partial democracy that has existed in the U.S. to date, can survive such a trend.

The problem actually goes considerably beyond mere ignorance, observes Nichols, because want of knowledge can be remedied by study, whereas today’s popular impulse is to reject study itself on the grounds that ignorance trumps established knowledge. This is “the outrage of an increasingly narcissistic culture” that cannot tolerate any inequality, even that of knowledge. Equal rights has become equal validity of all opinions, the more crackpot the better, a proposition whose self-contradictory nature is rarely noted.

Furthermore, latter day know-nothings want to kick away the intellectual ladder that has permitted us to ascend to an age of at least semi-reason: “The death of expertise is not just a rejection of existing knowledge,” says Nichols. “It is fundamentally a rejection of science and dispassionate rationality, which are the foundations of modern civilization.”

We need not look far to find evidence supporting Nichols’s thesis. In the Covid 19 era we have seen massive and painful verification of it, with credentialed grifters and scientifically illiterate trolls lecturing career virologists and immunologists about the complexities of viruses and vaccines, all the while insisting on quack treatments as Covid deaths soar. Nurses and doctors confirm that many Covid sufferers willed themselves to unnecessary deaths clinging to medical delusions.[1] Though this is merely one example among many, the fact that people will die rather than let go of their mistaken opinions hauntingly confirms the validity of the author’s main point.

Nichols’s solution for this dismal state of affairs is for laypeople to re-engage the effort to be responsible citizens in a democracy, follow a variety of reputable news sources, at least one of which takes an editorial line contrary to one’s own views, and recognize that the public has a need to collaborate with experts, not shout them down.

This all sounds eminently sensible, at least for the more literate half of the population, and one can hardly argue with the conclusion that the U.S. public needs to be much better informed. Unfortunately, however, Nichols nowhere takes note of the impact of elite ideology, which relentlessly pumps a false world view into the public mind, one that vastly exceeds in impact all the ravings of crackpot conspiracy theorists put together.[2]

Nevertheless, those who debunk the establishment’s self-justifying propaganda are given short shrift by Nichols. For example, he dismisses Ward Churchill without examination because the former ethnic studies professor was fired for plagiarism, a conclusion that is narrowly correct but disingenuous in the extreme. Churchill’s real offense was insulting the national self-image by comparing “good Americans” working within a murderous U.S. empire to “good Germans” working under the Nazis, amplifying the provocation by drawing a parallel with Adolf Eichmann. This produced a familiar tsunami of public hysteria that culminated in an “examination” of Churchill’s published works obviously designed to find cause to fire him. In the event, four footnotes among thousands in his published works were found to be objectionable. This horrifying “plagiarism” largely consisted of Churchill re-using content from his previously published books, written in activist settings, sometimes in conjunction with others, where no money or reputational issues were at stake. Ho hum. Such an offense, if it really qualifies as such, is far less serious than Dr. King’s lifting of whole passages without attribution in his doctoral dissertation, but if we retroactively treat King the way we did Ward Churchill we will have to make ourselves party to a second assassination. Nichols cares about none of this, convinced that Churchill deserved what he got.

Here we see – once again – cancel culture wreaking havoc, with Churchill’s large body of work detailing centuries of lawless U.S. governments breaking hundreds of treaties with American Indians (among other important topics) shoved down Orwell’s memory hole. Incidentally, the very fact that Churchill taught in an Ethnic Studies Department rather than an American History Department testifies to the fact that twenty-first century history experts still cannot face the fact that dozens of indigenous peoples did not fortuitously vanish or voluntarily disband to make way for the civilized master race, but were deliberately eradicated. The death of their expertise is long overdue.

Nichols also dismisses the work of anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, on the basis that her expertise is in medicine, not arms control and disarmament, and she substitutes a psychological examination of a presumed pathological arms race (“Missile Envy” is the title of one of her anti-nuclear books) for an examination of the topic by a relevant expert. She also once falsely claimed on a radio program that, “If Ronald Reagan is re-elected, nuclear war is a mathematical certainty.”

Only on the second point is Nichols on solid ground. Obviously, one cannot predict the future of anything on the basis of mathematical certainty, and Caldicott’s misuse of her social prestige as a doctor to try to influence how her audience would vote was dishonest and unprincipled. But that single instance hardly invalidates her entire anti-nuclear career.[3]

On Nichols’s preference for conventional arms control analysis instead of Caldicott’s psychological approach equating nuclear arms production to a form of madness (“Nuclear Madness” is the title of another one of her books), there is no need to choose one over the other. The two can fruitfully co-exist, if arms control experts engage her critique instead of dismissing it. Slaveholders could not ultimately avoid the abolitionist debate, and establishment arms control experts should not be able to avoid such a debate today.

Caldicott regards the proliferation of nuclear plants and weapons much like she does a cancer metastasizing in a human body, objecting to the radioactive contamination resulting from every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle: mining, milling, waste storage, re-processing, plant decommissioning, etc. She credits “psychic numbing” for our ability to complacently live alongside what the late Daniel Ellsberg (an expert!) called the “Doomsday Machine,” a world wired up to explode in terminal war at a moment’s notice. Caldicott’s abolitionist views regarding nuclear weapons largely overlap with Ellsberg’s, as she enthusiastically endorsed his book describing our descent to what Lewis Mumford called “the morals of extermination.”[4]

If it is quackery to see stockpiling thousands of nuclear weapons (many on hair-trigger alert) among eight different countries wracked with antagonistic tensions as a form of human madness, then this needs to be demonstrated. But Nichols shirks the entire debate – quite unconvincingly – on the basis of credentialism, which conflicts with his stated view that democracy requires cooperative discussion between laypeople and experts.

In other words, if Caldicott’s expertise is not relevant to the debate, her interest and concerns surely are, and these cannot be dismissed as the result of a few casual internet searches. In fact, they make far more sense than the self-justifying assertions of arms control experts like Kenneth Adelman (Nichols regards him favorably), who said at his Senate confirmation hearings to be Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (for Ronald Reagan) that he that he had never given any consideration to the possibility of disarmament – the very purpose of the agency he sought to direct. Whatever the deficiencies of Caldicott’s arguments may be, it remains a mystery why the death of such clueless expertise ought to be mourned rather than celebrated.

Finally, Nichols also dismisses the views of dissident intellectual Noam Chomsky, likewise on credentialist grounds, since Chomsky’s doctorate is in linguistics rather than foreign policy. The upshot is that Chomsky, lacking the specialized, technical national security expertise that Nichols obtained by skill and training, cannot be expected to adequately understand the deep knowledge of the field, and therefore his views are simply irrelevant.

But are national security affairs really a science, impenetrable to laypeople, or can they be understood and insightfully engaged using no more than common sense, skepticism, and ordinary analytical ability? Chomsky argues the latter, pointing out that, in the social sciences:

“the cult of the expert is both self-serving for those who propound it, and fraudulent. Obviously one must learn from social and behavioral science whatever one can . . . But it will be quite unfortunate, and highly dangerous, if they are not accepted and judged on their merits and according to their actual, not pretended accomplishments. In particular, if there is a body of theory, well-tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs . . .  it’s existence has been kept a well-guarded secret. To anyone who has any familiarity with the social and behavioral sciences . . . the claim that there are certain considerations and principles too deep for the outsider to comprehend is simply an absurdity, unworthy of comment.[5]

Indeed. Where is the repeatedly tested body of theoretical knowledge informing national security affairs that Nichols allegedly possesses but laypeople do not? Obviously, none exists, which means that Chomsky’s supposed lack of foreign policy expertise is simply another dodge. If Nichols’s is an expertise worth having, he needs to drop the priesthood guise and engage debate, not just with colleagues, but with all who are interested.

A good place for him to start would be to examine Chomsky’s review of a prominent part of the expert community that has long held that laypeople are intellectually deficient by nature, and not merely as a consequence of having fallen into a state of narcissism.

For example, the democratic rebellion in 17th century Britain, Chomsky observes, was quickly condemned by experts of the day as a monstrous affair of the “rascal multitude,” “beasts in men’s shapes,” inherently “depraved and corrupt.” These sentiments were handed down to succeeding generations of elite thinkers, so that by the twentieth-century we have Walter Lippmann advising that the public “must be put in its place,” so that the “responsible men” may live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.” The “function” of these “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders,” he believed, was to be “interested spectators of action,” not participants, ratifying the decisions made on their behalf by experts and policy-makers, then returning to their private concerns. This was said to be inevitable because of the “ignorance and superstition of the masses” (political scientist Harold Lasswell), the “stupidity of the average man” (Rienhold Niebuhr), and the fact that “the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality” (Walter Lippmann). The “specialized class” is drawn from the experts at articulating the needs of the powerful, what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci identified as “experts in legitimation.” These intellectual saviors were supposedly needed to protect “us” from the majority, which is “ignorant and mentally deficient,” (Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State) and has to be kept in its place via a constant diet of “necessary illusion” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications” (Rienhold Niebuhr).

Note that these are the sentiments of the liberal intelligentsia; conservative theorists are even harsher in their condemnation.[6]

Given the alleged intellectual backwardness of ordinary people, the expert policy prescription was to manipulate them, education being pointless with the lower breeds. Edward Bernays, the Father of Spin, openly declared this: “If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” Minority rule was therefore inevitable: “In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.” And this minority rule was not contradictory to democracy, as one might think, but an expression of it: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

So . . . . hallelujah?

Hardly. Given the obnoxiousness of these longstanding views, it is difficult to believe that the widespread rejection of experts by an ever increasing portion of the general public is wholly unrelated to the open contempt with which ordinary people have been treated by the “specialized class.” Recall that in recent decades these experts have engineered the transfer of tens of trillions of dollars from the bottom and middle of the economic pyramid to the very top, while blaming the victims for not being educated enough to reverse the trend.

To be fair, not all experts share this contempt for laypeople, and Nichols is at pains to emphasize that not all experts are policy-making experts. True enough, but in a class-divided world expertise of all kinds skews towards fulfilling the needs of the wealthy, not those who work for them. At the height of the Covid crisis, for example, CDC recommendations to “shelter-in-place” were meaningless to workers in meat-packing plants, but highly valuable to the wealthy, who retreated to second homes remote from areas of high contagion – with no loss of income. This is characteristic of social policy under capitalism, where social loss is private gain.

Which means that experts that have the wrong class loyalties, such as those who advise labor unions on how to resist the continual blows capital directs at workers, command little attention, respect, or resources. This is because the most prominent ideas do not arise by happenstance but are those that keep a certain class in power. To quote labor expert Karl Marx:

 “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of their dominance.”[7]

Since public opinion necessarily diverges from “the ruling ideas,” especially on issues of wealth and power, experts perceive it as a threat to be managed and controlled, not a democratic reality to be intelligently cultivated. Their expertise consists as much of rationalizing the needs of the powerful as it does of reasoning one’s way to a justified conclusion. And this, in turn, feeds popular mistrust of experts, for as the great Chinese sage Lao-Tse said, “Those who justify themselves do not convince.”

Finally, and most importantly, Nichols fails to address the stunted moral intelligence of so many experts, who, consumed by the intense demands of their specialized tasks, often end up morally blinded.

A classic example concerns J. Robert Oppenheimer. In the final stages of making the atomic bomb he was pressed by his Manhattan Project colleagues as to the moral implications of their work. Oppenheimer and his colleague Enrico Fermi replied that they were “without special competence on the moral question.”[8]

Without special competence on the moral question. In other words, the ethical implications of unleashing atomic bombs on an unsuspecting world fell outside Oppenheimer’s occupational specialty.

Is this not a perfect illustration of the dilemma we face in relying on expertise? What good is knowledge divorced from comprehension of its proper direction and use? Oppenheimer’s answer to the most important question humanity has ever faced suggests that the moral issue might best be engaged by a different class of experts than the bomb-makers, a Department of Extermination Affairs perhaps. He could conceive of no way our common humanity might be the source of a judgment about what to do.

Seventy-eight years later, with no solution to this problem in sight, can we really rest easy with just reading more and trusting experts’ hard work and good intentions? Such a modest prescription cannot hope to solve the grave problem of ideologically contaminated expertise.

For all that Nichols leaves unaddressed, however,  The Death of Expertise remains a lucid and compelling description of rising popular idiocy. Pity that the larger picture does not flatter the experts Nichols seeks to defend.

Thus we continue to entrench a social structure of highly specialized moral imbeciles governing narcissistic laypeople too mired in delusion to mount an intelligent rebellion.


[1] And now that the crisis has subsided, organized efforts are underway to ban any future pandemic response measures that might interfere with getting and spending.

[2] Every U.S. military intervention abroad, for example, is portrayed as necessary to stop “another Hitler.”

[3] However, her claim that in a brief meeting with President Reagan she was able to “clinically” assess his IQ to be 100, is also suspect.

[4] Ellsberg stresses that U.S. policy has always been a “first-strike” policy, that is, being ready and willing to initiate nuclear war to knock out Moscow’s retaliatory capacity, then threatening annihilation with an overwhelming second strike if they refuse to capitulate. See Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine – Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, (Bloomsbury, 2017)

[5] .” Chomsky quoted in Raphael Salkie, The Chomsky Update – Linguistics And Politics, (Unwin Hyman, 1990) p. 140]

[6] Comments taken from Chomsky’s “Year 501,” (South End Press, 1993) p. 18, and “Deterring Democracy,” (Hill and Wang, 1991) p. 253.

[7] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, 1845

[8] Oppenheimer quoted in Jonathan Kozol, The Night Is Dark and I Am Far From Home – A Political Indictment of the U.S. Public Schools, (Continuum, 1984) p. viii