February 17, 2017

For populists on both sides of the Atlantic, “expert” is now an expletive, a synonym for out-of-touch elitists swindling the common man.

This was perhaps most obvious during the Brexit referendum campaign, when the UK Justice Secretary and “Leave” advocate Michael Gove told a stunned interviewer that “the people of this country have had enough of experts … from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best.”

Polling indicates that isn’t necessarily the case, but Gove’s public disdain of experts didn’t harm his cause, to say the least.

Tom Nichols is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an (unashamed) expert. In his new book, “The Death of Expertise,” he argues that low levels of foundational knowledge have mixed with an epidemic of narcissism to make Americans resentful of expertise. Systemic changes in the way colleges and media outlets operate have compounded the problem.

Related Training: Fact-Checking 101

Nichols doesn’t absolve experts of their own failings, but argues that rejecting expertise altogether can have very serious consequences. By way of example, he points to thousands of deaths that followed former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s rejection of mainstream science on HIV/AIDS. In the United States, he writes, “the death of expertise and its associated attacks on knowledge fundamentally undermine the republican system of government.”

Nichols nonetheless avoids resorting to faddish terminology (I’m looking at you, “post-truth”) or building his case off of the campaign of Donald Trump, who isn’t even mentioned before page 200.

If expertise really is moribund, then fact-checking must at least be down with a heavy flu. The journalistic endeavor of adjudicating the veracity of public claims on the basis of the best possible evidence cannot be sustained if no one trusts expert sources.

In an interview with Poynter, Nichols explains how he thinks we got to this stage and what it means for journalism in general and fact-checking in particular. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation; the views expressed below are his personal ones and not those of the Naval War College.

There seems to be a fundamental challenge in defending expertise through more expertise, as you sometimes do in the book by referring to studies supporting your thesis. Yet you also make clear that you think expertise is a value in and of itself. Why do you think that?

One of the problems here is that expertise itself has become something a pejorative, when in fact we used to call it the division of labor. Advanced societies rely on — and thrive on — a division of labor.

In an increasingly narcissistic society, people don’t like to use the term expert because it is an exclusive term. Once upon a time, people were comfortable with that. It wasn’t a denigration of anyone else’s capabilities. The fact that it has become that is due to a very extreme reinterpretation of what democracy means. Democracy does not denote a state of actual equality among all human beings, it is a state of political equality.

At some point we got it in our heads that every opinion is worth the same. I have been criticized for ridiculing that idea. But it is an idea worth ridiculing.

You write that people are more misinformed than uninformed. Recent work by Dan Kahan and others indicates that greater scientific knowledge — as opposed to scientific curiosity — makes people more likely to give partisan answers to factual questions. How much is the “death of expertise” the result of a tribal approach to facts?

It is tribalism wedded to a really sullen narcissism. An idea that only I and the people who think like me can possibly be right about anything. Every interview I do for the book, I get asked for the case of optimism and I keep failing to make a good case.

What will likely shake people out of this is something extremely negative: a war, an economic crash, a pandemic.

This, by the way, is a malady of affluence. People have the time and leisure and the multiple sources of information to pick and choose from to argue against experts. Most people will drop their rejection to medicine when their fever hits 103.

Switching gears to how this affects the media environment: You write that “at the root of all this is an inability among laypeople to understand that experts being wrong on occasion about certain issues is not the same thing as experts being wrong consistently on everything.” This has very much manifested itself with troll-y “fake news” accusations hurled at mainstream news outlets any time they publish a correction. How do we get out of this particular bind?

First, everyone needs to stop throwing around the term fake news. I am a Russia expert; I deal with propaganda all the time, and I know fake news when I see it. Fake news is propaganda made out of whole cloth. A lie that is known to be a lie, that is constructed as a lie. It’s not bias.

Misuse of the term “fake news” is another sign of towering narcissism: If I don’t agree with you and how you spun that story, I am within my rights to reject that as wholesale false. Hurling the charge of fake news is desensitizing people to the fact that there really is fake news in the world pushed by professional propagandists who are more than happy if Americans hurl it against mainstream media outlets.

The answer to this is a revolt among the experts. We are living a revolt against the experts. Experts need to shout back at the mob and simply refuse to be moved. A good example of this in cable news is someone like Jake Tapper, who will just state “this is not a true thing.”

I admire the doctors who refuse to accept patients who don’t vaccinate their kids. I’m tired of pretending that completely insane arguments are completely reasonable.

You believe that the excess of information, from non-stop talk radio to 24-hour cable news and the internet, is partly to blame for this state of affairs. Before the internet, “a sensible American woman would have had to exert a great deal of initiative to find out how a Hollywood actress parboils her plumbing.” Now they don’t. But isn’t the opposite true, too? Can’t a legitimately curious and well-meaning non expert access a much wider and broader range of experts and primary sources?

I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say that too much information is a bad thing.

I liken it to junk food. Americans have never been better fed in history, yet we’ve never been as obese. There may be a Whole Foods in every town but there are also a hundred fast food outlets. When presented with lots of choices, people choose what is shiny and fun. I mention in the book that there is a form of intellectual Gresham’s law, where bad information drives out the good.

Someone asked me whether Americans were better informed when there were just three nightly news shows, and I said yes. Pew Research findings that I quote in the book show that people were better informed before cable news. And in part it’s because they’re overwhelmed, they simply aren’t making good choices.

I remember that half-hour of local news and half-hour of national news in the evening was a sacred time in my house growing up. My parents watched that hour of news because it wasn’t going to be on all day in the background. They had one shot to be informed and they weren’t going to lose it because that was it until the next morning’s paper.

So what’s the solution?

I think we should approach news the same way we do food. Portion control and a balanced diet.

When I was a kid and they broke into “breaking news” or a “special report,” your heart sank because a president had been shot or there had been a terrorist attack. Now we have “BREAKING: It’s Wednesday.”

People have also become addicted to this constant flow of news because it feeds their notion of being important, it feeds into their narcissistic streak.

The media asks people to tweet and vote their thoughts and questions about the news. Just, no! Chris Wallace is a very informed man; I want to hear his questions, I don’t want to hear the question of some guy in Oregon who doesn’t know what he’s talking about! But this makes us follow, because that way suddenly we’re part of great events and by association we think we are great ourselves.

You argue that the internet offers “an apparent shortcut to erudition,” one that “allows people to mimic intellectual accomplishment by indulging in an illusion of expertise provided by a  limitless supply of facts. Facts, as experts know, are not the same as knowledge or ability.” Are fact checks part of the problem?

I think the main problem is that political fact-checking looks too much like partisan dogging of candidates. Political candidates are on television all day, and fact-checking every word they say devolves into a game of gotcha.

The media is definitely prone to groupthink about politics and does have a tendency to use fact-checking as a political weapon sometimes.

I also think fact-checkers should pick their battles. It’s kind of like that Will McAvoy moment where he fact-checks “America is the greatest country in the world.”

But fact-checking is also, let me make sure to add, indispensable.

There has to be someone out there to say that unemployment is not 42 percent, period. That that’s just not true, and to walk people through the statement.

Now, I don’t know how fact-checkers compete with talk radio and cable news. You can fact-check all day long, but if people aren’t listening, what’s the point? One of the saddest points in my book is when I refer to Caitlin Dewey giving up on her fact-checking endeavor at The Washington Post.

So what does this all mean for fact-checkers? The best of them spend hours researching a claim, refer to primary sources and interview experts in their analysis. Is it all for nothing?

The first thing I’d say to fact-checkers is: let Snopes be Snopes. And in fact Snopes should get out of the political fact-checking business. There needs to be a better division of labor among fact-checkers. Snopes — whom I describe positively in the book — should be looking at whether there are crocodiles in the sewers of New York, while political fact-checkers should explain the unemployment rate.

Fact-checkers should explain patiently and with resolute nonpartisanship why a claim is false. It shouldn’t be a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. The “Pinocchio system” does come out as a gotcha that partisans use to promote their own side.

I think they have to be resolutely nonpartisan and show that they are willing to show to fact-check all sides. There is something to the charges made by conservative media that fact-checkers were readier to assume that an inaccurate claim by Barack Obama was an innocent misstatement.

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Alexios Mantzarlis joined Poynter to lead the International Fact-Checking Network in September of 2015. In this capacity he writes about and advocates for fact-checking. He…
Alexios Mantzarlis

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