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Education and outreach

A little learning is a dangerous thing

04 Dec 2017
Taken from the December 2017 issue of Physics World

Philip Moriarty reviews The Death of Expertise: the Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols

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You haven’t got time to read a long in-depth book review now have you? What you want is the core message served up in an easy-to-digest form; there’s so much other news and information out there, why the heck should you care about some long-winded analysis that doesn’t get to the point as quickly as possible? After all, as Einstein said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Never mind that there is no record of him saying that… let’s leave factual accuracy to one side for the sake of a compelling message.

One paragraph in and this reviewer still hasn’t condensed down the content of this book into a simple memorable soundbite or meme? Tsk. That’s no way to build an audience. If you’re still with me, then thank you for your immense patience, and let me finally cut to the chase. Here’s my three-word synopsis of this review: Buy this book. Need some slightly more detailed advice? Buy Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise. And read it. Regularly. Indeed, I would go as far as saying the book should be required reading for every physicist, at every level: from A-level student to assistant professor to Nobel laureate. It should also be on the reading list of every teacher and academic, regardless of their discipline.

Subtitled “The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters”, Nichols’ book was published earlier this year and is an exceptionally timely, carefully reasoned and impassioned analysis of just why, as he puts it in the introduction,

“…we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.”

Much as it would be convenient for those of us here on the other side of the pond to lay all the blame at the feet of our American cousins, the antipathy to expertise to which Nichols refers is a global, not national, phenomenon. Take a look, ever so briefly, at the comments section of just about any YouTube video or, more broadly, any online forum, and you’ll see that the special blend of ignorance and arrogance to which Nichols refers is not just commonplace online, it’s entirely the norm.

Nichols presents a sharp and thoroughly readable analysis of how we’ve ended up in a world where expertise and knowledge have been devalued (both online and offline) to the extent that “academic” is now a dirty word. The world has Google, after all. What more does anyone need? Remember that those boffins are just shills for corporate interests/the global elite/cultural Marxists/the Bilderberg group/the New World Order/the Illuminati (delete – or, indeed, extend – to taste). There are now countless pundits online, with millions of subscribers and followers, who can tell us exactly what we want to hear. Unlike those professors in their dreaming ivory towers, our YouTubers will tell us what we need to know in honest-to-goodness, plain-speaking everyday language; none of that highfalutin intellectual PC nonsense. And YouTube means that we don’t even have to read for ourselves.

In six tightly focused and absorbing chapters, book-ended by a brief introduction and conclusion, Nichols describes the key ingredients in the development of this embrace of ignorance, focusing in particular on the central role of social media. He covers conspiracy theories, the evolution of news programming to pure entertainment, the transformation of higher education into a market-driven, consumer-directed product, and the dumbing down that’s paradoxically been engendered by unlimited access to virtually unlimited information.

Not only does Nichols map out the landscape, he compellingly joins up the dots. He demonstrates how the ready availability of information has convinced the folks on the virtual Clapham omnibus that they are on a similar intellectual footing to experts of all stripes.

The academic solution to this (and every) problem is to burst into our age-old mantra of “education, education, education”. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The call for education as a universal panacea is a breathtakingly naïve position to adopt in the face of the wilful ignorance described in The Death of Expertise. First, it depends on just what we mean by education. Nichols explains how Google searching alone can “actually make people dumber than if they never engaged a subject at all. The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something, when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand”.

This behaviour is compounded and exacerbated by the much more difficult issue of ideological bias. A key example of this is the extent to which US citizens accept or deny the evidence for climate change – it critically depends not on their educational attainment (or social demographic indicators such as household income) but on their voting preferences. Vote Republican and there is a much stronger probability that you’re also going to be deeply sceptical about climate-change data. This is not something that can be fixed by more education, because these are often well-educated people to begin with. Ideology trumps education. So just how do we go about starting to fix this cult of ignorance (which is also almost invariably connected to a cult of personality)? You’ll get no easy answers in this review, I’m afraid; this is Physics World, not a TED talk, after all. Nichols provides some messages of hope (interspersed with those of despair) in his final chapters but you’ll have to buy the book to read what he has to say.

So, to conclude, with a suitably Tweetable and social-media-friendly summary of the review – buy this book. And read it. Regularly.

  • Tom Nichols The Death of Expertise: the Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters 2017 Oxford University Press 272pp £16.99hb
  • Enjoy the rest of the December 2017 issue of Physics World in our digital magazine or via the Physics World app for any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. Membership of the Institute of Physics required
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